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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 Share on X

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.

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Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via