Blog post

Hollywood’s “Secret” Story Formula Revealed

By Martin Kihn | November 13, 2014 | 2 Comments


Marketers are hearing a lot about “storytelling” these days. We’re told that the world is changing, engaging with customers and prospects is an always-on proposition, the brand isn’t a monologist or — even worse — a pitchwoman swooping in for the hard-sell but rather a kind of tribal shaman weaving stories, stories, stories . . . and it occurs to me it’s a good point to hit the pause button on the Roku and ask, “What is a story, anyway?”

Before 2010, Google didn’t even register meaningful traffic for searches on “marketing” combined with “storytelling” — but, as you see, that’s changed:

Google Searches for “Marketing” + “Storytelling”

So what’s a “story”? It’s an emotional journey that is primarily relational. “Relational” is a term sociologists and theologians use to mean “among people.” And it’s culturally conditioned. In the U.S., stories generally require a single protagonist with whom we identify; her changing relationships determine our emotional journey through the story. Other cultures feature group protagonists.

The biggest story business around is Hollywood, and it’s refined “storytelling” down to a science. For better or worse, there’s a formula. Herein, I reveal this secret formula — not so secret, actually, since it’s the subject of books, seminars, lectures, U.S.C. courses and Gartner blog posts. The following is my own version, developed during a misspent youth trying to break into the business.

Numbers are minutes — assuming a 120 minute movie (2 hrs):

0-10 — Hero’s ordinary life is shown

10 — Something happens to upset this life (“inciting incident”)

20 — Hero sets up his team

30 — Stakes rise to life and death; either Antagonist does a terrible thing or Hero does something stupid

40 — Hero and Antagonist spar and Hero seems to win; Antagonist vows revenge

40 & 80 — Change of scene; often literally a shot of the sun rising (new Act begins)

40-60 — A lull in the action when the Hero is given emotional depth

60 — Big physical event that causes a “reversal” — Antagonist hits out of the blue and an all-out war is declared

80 — Another confrontation where the Hero (this time) seems to lose

90 — Betrayal — the “Judas moment” — all the secrets are revealed at this point, with a person close to the Hero shown to be evil

100 — Hero has an actual or emotional near-death experience

110 — Final confrontation; Hero (of course) wins

That’s a story. You’re welcome.

Now, what can marketers learn from this? A few important elements come to mind:

  1. Protagonist — we the viewer (consumer) needs someone to identify with
  2. Relationships — stories are human; they can not contain only products, puppies, or pictures; they must involve people in relationship with other people
  3. Antagonist — if there is no conflict, there is no story; this is difficult to translate into brand terms, where marketers want to stay positive; but if there are no challenges in sight, what you’re doing may be marketing, but it’s not storytelling
  4. Scene Changes — Stories need signals to demarcate different sections; there needs to be a shift in emotional levels, or there is no journey
  5. Secrets — All good stories withhold information from the protagonist (us) and challenge our assumptions, firing up a natural sense of curiosity that engages us as we wonder “What are they hiding?”

Note: This is a repeat of a “greatest hits” blog driven by vast popular demand by @martykihn

Comments are closed


  • You said ” if there is no conflict, there is no story.”

    Perhaps this is why most vendor press releases fail the “authenticity test” — they typically portray some fictional scenario that tries to make a product announcement the center of attention. Moreover, during the editing and approval process the PR/Legal review will ensure that any meaningful or substantive opinion is removed so that the resulting content is “appropriate” — predictably trivial and bland.

  • Nina says:

    A good book that explains how film stories work to engage and entertain the audience is “Aristotelian-Inspired Screenwriting, A Simple Guide to Complex Storytelling”. Find it online at Barnes & Noble or Amazon. Really insightful read!