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The Incredible Power of Incompleteness

Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik was a Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist who discovered the Zeigarnik effect after a study she completed in the 1920s in which she compared memory in relation to incomplete and complete tasks. Incomplete tasks, she found, are easier to remember than successful ones.

What has this got to do with marketing?

Almost everything.

It also has quite a bit to do with writing stories.

What are you doing when you create an effective character in fiction? Are you designing a complete, well-rounded figure whose life is under control and who then sets off on an adventure?

No. Or at least, not if you want your reader to be attracted to your character. Quite the opposite, in fact. You want that character’s life to be full of holes, gaps, threats, missing people or things - in effect, you want your character to be incomplete.

This has the result, per the Zeigarnik effect above, of gluing your readers’ attention to him or her.

There’s a lot more about this in my book How Stories Really Work. The Zeigarnik Effect lies behind much of what distinguishes a bad story from a good, and it’s not just to do with character.

But, as we have been learning, marketing and writing have much in common. And it turns out that the Zeigarnik Effect has a great deal to do with successful marketing too. To some degree, it is what is making you read this sentence, in fact - because until you find out exactly what the Zeigarnik Effect has to do with how you can sell more of your books, you will probably read on.

As we have seen, the purpose of fiction is to create motion towards fulfilment. Another way of expressing this might be to say that the purpose of fiction is to attract attention with incompleteness and guide it towards completeness.

The purpose of marketing, as we learned earlier, is to create motion towards acquisition. Marketing can do this in the same way: by creating a sense of incompleteness and pointing the way toward completeness.

How does this work? Incompleteness creates an open loop in your mind. It’s an unfinished task, a gap, a hole, an interruption to a cohesive thought. The incompleteness adds tension, heightens focus, and creates a desire to close the loop, finish the task or complete the thought.

Desire creates emptiness; emptiness moves us.

Incompleteness creates tension in your life. It heightens your focus. It improves your memory. Bluma Zeigarnik, who wrote her PhD thesis on the subject in 1927 allegedly had a professor at the University of Berlin who noticed that a waiter in a restaurant that he had been to could remember complicated orders all the way up until the point that they were delivered - at which point he forgot all the details. Bluma did a series of experiments and proved that there was something real happening there in the mind: attention was fixated on things until they were done.

You will see for yourself thousands of examples of this used in marketing, in the media, in Life. This effect is so common that it is part of the way we operate on a daily basis. This is what lies behind the type of clickbait with which we have become familiar in social media, the ‘You’ll never believe what she said when he said he didn’t love her anymore…’ type of news story. Politicians use it to get elected; newspaper editors use it to sell editions; marketers use it all the time to attract customers to a vast range of products.

You can use it to sell your books.

Firstly, you need to reduce your story or novel down to one sentence.

Here are some examples from famous books and films:

‘Two lovers are separated by the sinking of the Titanic.’

‘Luke Skywalker must decide between the Light and Dark sides of the universal Force.’

‘Atticus Finch decides to take on the hopeless case of defending a black man in the racist 1930s South, little knowing the danger into which that decision will throw his precious children.’

‘Frodo Baggins, hobbit from the Shire, chooses to take on the futile quest to destroy the all-powerful One Ring.’

Already, in the examples above, you can see the shadow of the Zeigarnik Effect: in all of them, there is the suggestion of incompleteness - love and unity, safety and security, are all under threat of never being completed.

Devise something similar for your book.

Use the same principles when writing a headline for your book, any ad copy, in the metadata for your web pages, in any place you can think of.

You’ll be amazed at the power of this one principle.

Stay tuned for more…or if you simply can't wait, get my book, Become a Professional Author.


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