Great Storytelling Violates Expectations


October 20, 2016

by Robert Rose

There’s a scene in the movie Adaptation when Nicholas Cage – playing a screenwriter struggling with telling his story – is in Robert McKee’s renowned story structure class.

He asks McKee about stories where “nothing happens”.  He wonders if telling these stories are actually more like “real life”.

It’s a wonderful setup because it’s a question so commonly asked.  What about those movies, or books or stories where “nothing happens”.   The sitcom Seinfeld was even self-aware enough to express this explicitly.  Jerry would commonly say that the show (and the fictional show he created with George) was “about nothing.  But of course that wasn’t true – because Jerry violated our expectations every time.

But back to McKee and the movie Adaptation – basically McKee flips out and says – if you’re going to tell me a story where NOTHING happens – why are you wasting my 2 hours.

Having taken McKee’s class twice (which I can’t recommend highly enough) – I can tell you that the scene is largely based on fact.  Inevitably in the class there is always a student that asks about creating stories where “nothing happens”.  The reaction you see in the scene above – is basically the same hell that he brings on any student unlucky enough to ask that question.

What’s Happening In Your Story?

What McKee is really talking about in storytelling is that you must violate expectations in order to keep an audience involved, engaged and interested in hanging around.  You must make interesting things happen.

For example – let’s look at the outline of the beginning of two stories.

Story 1 – Guy wakes up, he brushes his teeth, he gets in his car and drives to work – walks through the parking lot, drops his keys, picks them up – and walks into his office building.

Story 2 – Guy wakes up, he brushes his teeth, he gets in his car and drives to work – walks through the parking lot, drops his keys, and as he bends down to pick them up he notices his boss stuffing a bag with a human arm hanging out into his trunk.

Which story are you more likely to continue reading?

This holds true in everything we’re doing in marketing.  Let’s take B2B marketing for a moment.   If you frequently give or receive overview/sales PowerPoint presentations for  customers – let me predict how most sales presentations are ordered:

Slide 1 – Who we are – why we’re a great company.  We’re awesome.  We’ve been in business for X amount of years.  We’ve won awards.

Slide 2 – Here’s our products – and the awards they’ve won.  Did I mention that we’re awesome?

Slide 3 – Logo Slide – here’s all the customers that have bought from us – and wow aren’t we impressive that we’ve closed all these big deals.

Slide 4 – Case Study – here’s one of those customers and a quote telling you why we’re so awesome.

And so on…..

What if instead…. This company’s overview deck went a little like this…

Slide 1 – Picture of a man.  Let me tell you a story about this man.  Normally you might think I’m going to tell you a case study.  But this guy didn’t buy from us and he is NOT a customer.

Okay… I’ve already violated the audience’s expectations.   I could go on from there and tell the audience how we pitched this guy – and even though he wanted to – he wasn’t able to buy from us.  He was forced to buy a competing product from a “safe” vendor.  They had a horrible time with it.   In fact, he now works as our Director of Marketing – because he was so taken with our solution that he wanted to work for our company.

Now when we show that logo slide and we tie it into how our solution has changed the direction of all these companies –  it starts to mean something very different than simply “we’re awesome”.

Start Watching For It Everywhere

Every single movie that you love – every single scene you think is great – and every single book that you can’t put down uses the violation of expectation to keep you engaged.

A few examples:

The classic scene in Good Will Hunting when Ben Affleck is trying to woo Minnie Driver in the bar.  The arrogant Harvard student goes to embarrass Affleck’s character by talking about “the economy of pre-revolutionary America” and your expectation is that they’re going to fight.  Instead, Will (Matt Damon) comes over and mentally obliterates the arrogant student with more knowledge than he could ever know.

Or… this classic scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade where Indiana and his father have managed to get into Berlin to retrieve the diary – a book that the whole German army is looking for.  As they’re trying to escape they manage to bump into Adolph Hitler… And… he signs the book like it’s an autograph.

Or maybe the best example of all – there’s this amazing scene from Casablanca; where almost every single line of dialogue violates your expectations; starting with the lines  “what’s your nationality?”  Rick says  “I’m a drunkard”.  It’s just amazing writing.

As a side note – if you take the McKee class – I guarantee you that after you experience his day-long analysis of Casablanca if it doesn’t become your absolute favorite film – it will be top five.

So…. if you’re a marketer – and you’re going to start to use content to help power your strategy – start to exercise this muscle… Watch a movie, read a book – and watch for the turns, the violations of expectations…

You may even surprise yourself where it will take you….

Oh… by the way… how many of you noticed that the picture for this post is the earth “upside down”…. Remember – there’s no rule that says North is up….

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About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.