10 Lessons from Hollywood

Nov 04 2010

“The key to all story endings is to give the audience what they want, but not the way they expect.”  - William Goldman

“The only ‘ism’ Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.”  - Dorothy Parker

There is much for market researchers to learn from the secrets of the greatest hollywood movies, and Robert McKee reveals many of them in Story, which I recommend anyone interested in the art of storytelling to read.  Here are the ten most important lessons that I took out from this great guide to writing.

Who is the protagonist?

Every great story has to have a hero, villain or central character, around which all other story elements revolve.  When you develop a presentation, think about the protagonist (which would often be the brand, product or consumer in a market research presentation).  Decide on the central character in your presentation, and develop your story around this character.  View the world from your protagonist’s perspective, and develop the presentation as the story of their journey.

What is the inciting incident?

What is the spur to start your story?  Why was the research conducted, and why are your audience sat listening to you?  Be authentic to the inciting incident and make sure that this incident leads to a conclusion - an answer which satisfies the needs of everyone listening.

Where is the gap?

Every story has to contain some difference or opposition.  What spurs your protagonist to action, and where do they find conflict?  In Story, Robert McKee cites the Principle of Conflict, one of the driving forces of narrative in film.  Is there an enemy, a barrier, an alternative point of view?  Jean Cocteau once wrote that, “the spirit of creation is the spirit of contradiction - the breakthrough of appearances toward an unknown reality.”  Hollywood movies are written around the law of conflict, which is the key driving force in moving stories forward.  Think about who is challenging your protagonist - market barriers, key competitors, customer indifference - and build them into the story as opposing forces and antagonists to the stories central character and message.

What is the controlling idea?

Can you describe the overall story of your presentation in a single sentence?  Who is the protagonist and how and why does their life change?  What difference does the presentation make to the understanding of your client and their business?  What is different in the world after your presentation?  Thinking about the impact of your research will help develop a more impactful presentation.  You must ensure that the world is viewed differently afterwards than before. If the research makes no difference, what is the point?

What is the plot?

Plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design in time.  Or to put it another way, what is important and what is unimportant, and what is the relationship between these items?  In developing a great story, you must choose what to include and what to exclude, and develop a pattern of events and information which helps to demonstrate the relationships between individual data and their relevance to your client’s problem. Think about the key values that come out of the research and the causes of these values.  The Principle of Progression is critical here - the end of the story must reflect a different understanding than the beginning.  What has changed and how should the client think differently?  Often such change can develop from developing particular results or specific findings to draw more general and universal conclusions.

How should I feel?

When talking about your protagonist, always try and see the world from their point of view.  Try and place yourself in their shoes, and see how their character would react given the situation they meet.  It is also very useful when telling stories to understand how other characters would see the world - so so try and think about how the enemy (eg a competitor brand, the market, the consumer, barriers to consumption) would think about the protagonist’s actions and how they might react.  Ultimately, you need to convince your audience to see the world from the point of view of your main protagonist, feeling empathy for their situation and wanting to support whatever will help the protagonist to achieve their long term goal.  Empathy is the key to understanding and engagement.

Do you know the back story?

Backstory is a key principle of screenwriting, and crucially important for market researchers: using the history of the protagonist to help shape the story and reveal key moments and turning points of the story which depend on past events.  When developing your story you should always understand the history of your protagonist (brand, product, consumer) and what has brought them to their current situation.  Turning points and interesting plot points often come from seeing current data in the prism of past history.  It should be a given that you view the future strategy of any protagonist in the light of previous history, and bringing in the back story at key moments will help you make the story real, engaging, relevant and authentic.

Think about language last

Develop your story around key moments (or ‘insights’) as a series of ideas and relationships, before you introduce a voice, storyline or commentary.  For scriptwriters, language is a tool for self-expression, but is never an end on its own.  The story grows organically from its individual elements, the struggles and fortunes of the characters and how those characters react to events.  The best storytellers always add the dialogue as the final piece of the puzzle. In 2001: A Space Odyssey the first dialogue is more than 20 minutes into the film.

Provide unity and variety

Stories should have strong internal consistency, but at the same time need to demonstrate variety to maintain interest and hold attention. Where is the interest in your story and how are you building in some variety in the themes and scenes of your story?  Do you change the way that information is presented through your presentation while keeping to a consistent theme and main controlling idea?

What’s the payoff?

Key elements of a good story include a set up (starting scenario and initial knowledge) and a final payoff (ending with increased understanding and changed perspective or point of view), with a ‘middle’ section which explains the change and progress in understanding.  Ask yourself what has changed at the end of your presentation, and how will the client see their business problem differently than at the start of the project?  How have you managed to shape a change in their perceptions of the world?  Have you been able to generalise any specific findings to make them more universally relevant than their initial specific application and context?  Above all, what is different in the client’s world than before?  Aristotle said, more than 2,000 years ago, that the ending of a story should be “inevitable but unexpected” and William Goldman’s quote above echoes these sentiments.

Plot, protagonist, purpose, payoff

The purpose of any story is to change the sentiments of the audience and bring them to a different place than before you started.  Make sure that you have a clear controlling idea, with plenty of tension and antagonism, and use your plot to develop initial ideas into a narrative which moves your protagonist(s) forward to a different and better place in the world and you will be well on the way to a box office hit!


Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee (1999)

One response so far

  1. Great article Neil!

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