6 Storytelling Strategies from a Screenwriter

James Grosch

Written by James Grosch

Storytelling has become a trend. With books like Storynomics, Stories That Stick, and Building A Story Brand topping best sellers lists, story is one of the biggest buzzwords in advertising and marketing. And, to me, it’s a little baffling.


Not that I don’t think storytelling is important. Quite the opposite. As someone who grew up writing screenplays on spec in grade school before I even knew what “on spec” meant, storytelling has been a vital part of my life. In high school, I would routinely convince my teachers to let me make a short film in lieu of an essay. I spent my days at the University of Southern California studying different kinds of storytelling throughout theatre and film. Storytelling has been an obsession and a calling.


As a screenwriter, seeing story as a marketing trend baffles me just because it’s something so ingrained in how humans behave. In the days of hunters and gatherers, storytelling was integral to our survival. It’s in our DNA. People retain information much better if it’s conveyed in a story. That’s why you might struggle to remember what you ate for lunch last Thursday, but you can vividly recall a scene from a movie you haven’t seen in years. 


Calling story a trend is like calling breathing or eating the next big thing. Storytelling has always been a trend, and story has always been important to advertising. The trendy part of the trend is that the advertising world is recognizing how tools that screenwriters and storytellers use to make their works engaging can be applied to brands. 


Today, I’m sharing a few quick strategies that can help you use a screenwriter’s approach to defining your brand’s story.


Recognize What A Story Is


“Drama is intention and obstacles.” That’s how Aaron Sorkin distills storytelling. Somebody wants something, but there’s an obstacle in their way. Some of these intentions are very literal: Destroy the Death Star. Find the Ark of the Covenant. Escape to the Green Place. And they are met with very literal obstacles: tie fighters, snakes, and a bunch of shiny and chrome War Boys. Intention and obstacle can work on a psychological level. Willy Loman wants significance and success, but he’s blocked by self-delusion and insecurity. 


As you define your brand’s story, don’t give a book report. “XYZ Corp was founded in 2015 and makes a competitively priced product” is not a story.


Whether the struggle is external or internal, dynamic stories all feature a hero confronting their obstacles.


You Are Not The Hero of Your Story


Which brings us to who your story is about. Paradoxically, it’s not about you. You are not the hero. 


Your customer is. 


In Building a Storybrand, Donald Miller lays out exactly why this shift in protagonist is so important. "When we position our customer as the hero and ourselves as their guide, we will be recognized as a sought-after character to help them along their journey... It’s a small but powerful shift. This honors the journey and struggles of our audience, and it allows us to provide the product or service they need to succeed."


Your customer wants something (intention), but something is in their way of achieving it (obstacle). Your product or service is the missing piece of the puzzle that helps them achieve their goal. You are not the hero. You are the mentor archetype: Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, Morpheus, or Chubbs from Happy Gilmore. You provide the hero with the wisdom and the tools to win the day.


When you tell that story, you are inherently telling the story of the value you bring your customers. 


People Care About People


You might be thinking: great, our product has a best-in-class feature that is our competitive edge. Let’s make our story about that.


Not so fast. Your story needs to be about people. Because all stories are about people. Even the stories that are about animals, robots, or feelings are about anthropomorphized animals, anthropomorphized robots, and anthropomorphized feelings. Stories are about people, not things, and certainly not best-in-class features.


So your story about that game changing feature: think of it in terms of what it does for a person. Maybe an overworked father is missing time with his young son (cue “Cats in the Cradle”), but your feature allows him to do his job 20% faster. Now dad can get home in time to play and bond with his family. Think in terms of people. 


Practice Authenticity

Audiences are sophisticated. They can innately tell the difference between a scene that feels natural and a scene that feels forced. Stories that come from an authentic place are the ones that resonate with us because they can more effectively say something about the human condition. Even if the story is about someone completely different than us, authenticity creates empathy within the viewer.

When it comes to telling your brand story, authenticity is just as critical. Authenticity simply means being genuine and honest in your stories. Make sure that the story you're telling includes themes that are part of your core mission and beliefs.  Authenticity helps your story resonate and stick with your target audience, and through that they will understand what your company is about. This will create genuine engagement that will be magnitudes more effective than a story that you think will be "popular," but does not come from an authentic place.

Even if it's a tough story, people appreciate an honest approach rather than skirting around a topic. This captures the hearts and minds of those you're trying to reach.

Know Your “Genre”


Tone is everything when it comes to writing a script, and it’s often set up in the first ten pages of a screenplay. This lets the audience know what they can expect. Will the movie will be romantic? Irreverent? A blend of mysterious and action-packed? Do any characters break the fourth wall? The tone and storytelling conventions of the movie needs to be established early. This might sound limiting, as if you need your story to fit inside a predefined box. But the best movies use their genre in new and exciting ways, or establish and then subvert conventions.  Audiences will know they’re in good hands if a movie strikes a tone early on that establishes the world, the characters, and the genre. They’ll lose interest if the movie isn’t clear about what kind of story it is telling. And they’ll completely check out if an axe murderer inexplicably shows up halfway through a romcom.


Tone is also everything to a brand. This can also be called your voice or your personality. A toy company is going to fit in a different genre than a sports apparel brand. Just as a writer starts to inherently understand what types of scenes fit in a movie, you will start to recognize what marketing materials fit your brand’s story, and which ones don’t quite work.


We’ve all seen the brands that get in trouble for a tone-deaf tweet or odd Instagram post. This is because they did not have a clear idea of what genre of story they’re telling. 


Tell Your Story Everywhere


For brands, storytelling isn’t limited to a :60 narrative spot or an integration in a show or film. Once you do the work of defining your story and its genre, your mission and your voice can come through everywhere. Ads, social, website, visual identity, packaging… even your email signature.


Look at everything you do as an opportunity to tell your story. I've heard it's the next big trend in marketing.


Read more topics on visual storytelling here.


Topics: visual storytelling