By Brian Hennessy published March 8, 2016

Foul-Mouthed Screenwriting Coach Offers Lesson for Brands


My love for the movie, Adaptation, first led me to Robert McKee and his seminal book on screenwriting, Story.

Anyone who has seen Adaptation will remember the scene based on the experience of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) in the Story seminar with McKee (played by Brian Cox).

Kaufman asks: “What if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens?”

If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth giving over the next 90 seconds of your life to hearing McKee’s response (Caution: Swearing ensues).

In Story, McKee talks about how great screenwriters use a “controlling idea” to help guide everything that the audience sees on screen, from the costumes in the first act to the dialogue in the parting scene.

Great films wrestle with big ideas like “ambition,” “authenticity,” and “honor.” Since a camera can’t point to ideas like these, the writer creates what’s called a “frame” (also known as a big, fat metaphor) so the audience can see those ideas on film. To quote McKee’s book, a film is “a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this!”

In Moby Dick, blind ambition is a white whale. In Fight Club, an authentic life is a club you willingly join to get the crap beat out of you. Whatever happens to people who hunt the white whale is a metaphor for what happens to people who blindly pursue ambition in real life. What happens to people at fight club is a metaphor for what happens to people in the real world trying to live an authentic life. Every book, movie, or other story you love has a central frame.

A brand is the same way. A brand is simply the story a company lives by – its controlling idea. Like every movie you love, every brand you love says, “Life is like this.” And just like every great story, a great brand has a central frame.

Great brands, like great movies, say, “Life is like this.” @kabukulator via @CMIContent #storytelling Click To Tweet

Apple's -central-frame

For instance, Apple’s central frame appeared in its very first print ad in 1977. Over the next 39 years, that frame has shaped everything Apple has done, from its minimalist product designs to the handheld checkout at its retail stores. Every corner of the brand serves as a metaphor that helps reinforce the company’s controlling idea: Simplicity is power. Even Steve Jobs’ multi-decade uniform of plain black turtlenecks, Levis, and white New Balance 991s was a metaphor for what Apple believes.

Companies make choices just like filmmakers do, but instead of props and actors, they are choosing which employees to hire, what products to make, and what content and campaigns will sell them. Without a controlling idea, they’re flying blind. It would be like a director improvising a movie without a script, with the unlikely hope that whatever unfolds in the next scene will lead to a plot.

Chipotle’s controlling idea, as expressed in its beautifully crafted central frame: Even beans, cheese, rice, and flour can have a higher calling.


The reason why a central frame is so important to novelists, screenwriters, brands, and every other storyteller is that, as pioneering linguistics researcher George Lakoff says:

We think in terms of frames and metaphors. The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.

In other words, framing simply is crafting your message so that it’s “brain-ready” and fits the way people think.

Does your brand have a strong central frame like Chipotle or Apple? Can you sum up what your brand believes in a quick, concise metaphor? It’s a good test of whether you have a strong brand or just a lowly value proposition like, We offer all-fresh, traditional fire-grilled Mexican favorites.”

Having worked for both types of brands, I can tell you it’s far easier, less costly, and much more inspiring to create great content for brands with a strong central frame.

Be inspired to craft a great controlling idea for your brand – or take your central frame to the next level. Subscribe to CMI’s free daily or weekly blog.

Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via

Author: Brian Hennessy

Brian Hennessy is the founder of Thread, a small but mighty writing studio that helps brands like adidas, Adobe, Jawbone, SiriusXM, Sonos, and Sesame Street tell their story. Brian is also the cofounder and CEO of Talkoot, a collaborative, cloud-based writing tool for omni-channel product content creators. Previously, Brian was the global writing director at adidas. You can follow him on Twitter @kabukulator or on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Brian Hennessy

  • mine the gap!

    Hi Brian

    First, thanks for pointing me in the direction of Robert McKee’s book, Story.

    I’m a copywriter, but I write screenplays in my spare time and use the storytelling techniques in my work. And I’ve read a tonne of great books on screenwriting.

    My top picks (not in order of preference): Truby’s ‘The Anatomy of Story’; ‘The Screenwriter’s Bible’ by David Trottier; ‘Writing Screenplays that Sell’ by Michael Hauge; and ‘Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting: A Step-by-Step Guide from Concept to finished Script’ by the original guru himself, Syd Field.

    I actually attended a Screenwriters’ Summit in London a while back and heard Truby and Hauge speak – sadly, I was hoping to see Syd Field, but he’d passed on the eve of the conference.

    As I’d not come across McKee’s book before, I’ll pick up a copy.

    And thanks for showing that clip. Genuinely made me laugh out loud – and I knew what was coming.

    Focusing on a controlling idea is a very powerful way of creating a brand story. It’s like a seed from which everything else grows, branding, imagery, type, style of content and tone of voice.

    In a sense it helps frame what Truby calls ‘the story world’. As a screenwriter, if you get the details right – right cast, right setting, right costumes and words – the audience buy into your story, no matter how far-fetched the plot might be.

    Naturally, this is hard to do and if you get it wrong, you lose the audience and the world falls apart.

    Funnily enough, that happened to me last night. I was watching one of my favourite movies, The Hunt for Red October, and for the first time Connery’s Glaswegian accent jarred. Why didn’t he even try to sound like a Russian submarine commander – especially when everyone else around him – even Australian Sam Neill – gave it a shot?

    He’s Sean Connery, so he probably thought he didn’t need to fit in. But it didn’t work. It felt wrong and inauthentic and led me – for the first time – to pick holes in the plot and notice how dated the effects were. Eventually, I switched channels and watched the news instead. And I hate the news.

    Of course, I’m not mentioning this because the lesson for brands that want to tell a great story and keep people (customers and employees) on the edge of their seats is not to hire people who think they’re bigger than the brand (although having working in HR, that’s not bad advice).

    I’m just saying that the controlling idea (and the story world that idea creates) need to be closely guarded to ensure the story has a happy ending.

    Which is hard, because if one thing looks out of place or sounds unnatural, you’ve lost control.

    • Brian Hennessy

      Thanks for comment and the screenwriting book recommendations. I wasn’t familiar with a few of those titles.

      You make a good point. We do a lot of consulting with large brands and one of the toughest challenges is making sure everyone is working off the same script. It’s great when the C-Suite has figured out the company’s “controlling idea,” but knowing it is nearly worthless if that idea isn’t finding its way down to the product copy on your website or the topics you choose to talk about in social media. Getting it right everywhere all the time is no small task. It takes incredible organizational discipline. It is getting easier though, as better and better software becomes available to help brands keep all their stories, across all their channels, pointing in the same direction.

  • Violeta Balhas

    Well… I’d say the jury is still out on what exactly that great white whale symbolised – there are as many interpretations as readers, which is what makes Moby Dick so great – but you are spot on here, Brian. Your article is particularly timely for me because one way or another this past month my work has taken me to companies and small businesses that are struggling with the concept of the controlling idea, or what I call the underlying message, or theme. (They are also struggling with embracing the authority that such an idea needs, but that’s a topic for another time.) Ask them to produce it, and they come up with a finely-crafted, well-rehearsed piece that’s obviously seen some workshopping and says everything… and nothing. Take away the pretty verbiage, and at the centre is yet another value proposition. Ho, hum. Anyway – thanks for a great piece. Anyone who mentions McKee is a friend of mine.

    • Brian Hennessy

      Thanks Violeta. My daily struggle with the exact scenario you described is how I came upon the idea of a ‘controlling idea.’ Trying over and over again to explain to clients that they need a purpose higher than their bottom line and even higher than their consumer’s self interest. I went looking for the argumentation I needed in books and it led to a whole new way of looking at brands and branding. To help clients start thinking in the right direction, the question I ask now is, “how will the world be a better place once you become the market leader?”

      In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt talks about how–when it comes to politics–we don’t actually vote for our own self interest. We vote for the world view we believe in. The same is true when people vote with their dollars. We often don’t vote for what is best for us (I, for one, should have voted for a cheaper smartphone). We vote for the worldview that smartphone represents.

  • Philippe Ingels

    Brian, this is certainly one of the most meaningful blogs I’ve read in a long time. Thanks

    • Brian Hennessy

      Wow, thanks Philippe. Thanks so much for the feedback. Creating meaning, or more accurately, putting meaningless out of it’s misery, is why I do what I do. I’m glad you appreciated it.