Elements of Storytelling

The purpose of this post is to analyze three of the greatest-of-all-time movies from the vantage of storytelling. This perspective has positive implications for marketers in reaching their audience with a compelling brand story. A good story helps audience members move from a point of objection towards loyalty by sending them on an emotional journey and making them the central character. The following analyses are not concerned with details of the plot. Instead, they aim to cover critical elements of the story. Not what’s in the movie so much as what it’s about, and based on the following questions:
1) What is at stake?
2) Who is the central character? What is that character’s personal journey?
3) How is the character transformed?
4) What complex and dynamic aspect of the character transfers its energy to the story?
5) What good reason does the character have not to act (but does anyway)?

Casablanca (1942, directed by Michael Curtiz)

This story is about a broken-hearted and cynical man who abandons his ideals and keeps relationships at a distance. When forced to deal with his pain, he makes peace with the past and his heart is softened. Ultimately he learns to love sacrificially, to the point of losing everything for a cause greater than his own.

The central character, Rick, is at risk of living the rest of his life emotionally isolated and void of significant meaning. His personal journey begins with mourning a lost love and exile in his Casablanca nightclub, Rick’s Café Americain. He was a man who “sticks his neck out for nobody.” An unlikely encounter with Ilsa, his ex-lover, provides insight about the past and his heart begins to soften. His journey ends with the final letting go of Ilsa and finding his self-worth as well as true friendship. He was transformed from a selfish cynic to a sentimental hero and friend.

Rick has several characteristics that transfer well to the story. He is charismatic and well respected by others, despite his self-guardedness. He can be brutally direct at times, but remains fair and respectful. He never speaks cross to those who don’t deserve it and gives people an opportunity to maintain their dignity. Even at his worst, you’d like to be his friend. He had two strong reasons not to carry out his plan to give Ilsa and Victor their freedom. First, he could have Ilsa to himself, again. And second, he could lose his own freedom or even his life. Fortunately, he recognizes that he would never be free to enjoy Ilsa if he took her away from Victor and the cause for which they fight.

North by Northwest (1959, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
This story is about a man who is unjustly persecuted and forced to fight for his life, but along the way he finds a love for which he is willing to lose it. Roger Thornhill, the central character, is at risk of spending the rest of his life without a real commitment to anything but himself.

He begins his journey as man in control of all his circumstances. Mistaken for a secret agent, he loses control and finds himself in the same place he has left the women in his past—alone and used. Guilty about compromising the safety of a female secret agent (Eve), he agrees to play along with the intelligence department’s charade. Involvement with Eve opens his eyes to the destructive effects of his own behavior. And when faced with the opportunity to get his life back to normal, he chooses to risk everything for a relationship with her. Eve calls out Roger on his inability to commit, but in the end he is so committed that he will lay down his life for her.

Roger’s confidence and curiosity brings energy to the story. His unfortunate circumstances and naive boldness make him likable. He has a way with words. As he stands toe-to-toe with bad guys, it reveals either raw self-confidence or ignorance to the real danger he is facing. Either way it gets the audience behind him. If he wasn’t so curious, his journey may have ended long before his transformation. It led him into more trouble, but also to an understanding that he wouldn’t have achieved otherwise. He could have walked away several times and returned to his old life. Even his mother tried to quench his curiosity, but it didn’t stop him. The possibility of losing his life couldn’t keep Roger from pursuing his destiny.

American Beauty (1999, directed by Sam Mendes)
This story is about a guy who has become emotionally sedated by life. Then is awakened by the notion he has nothing to lose and begins to pursue what really matters. Just as he realizes his happiness and becomes grateful for every moment of his life, he loses it.

Lester Burnham is the central character. He’s a forty-two year old man that feels like he has lost something and wants to get it back. Joy and authenticity are at risk as well as the things in life that are most important. In the beginning he is simply hanging on to a miserable existence: defeated, disrespected, and unsatisfied. His marriage is only kept up for appearances and his daughter hates him. Motivated by a sexual fantasy involving his daughter’s friend (Angela) and the fearless attitude of an 18-year old neighbor, he takes off his mask and becomes real. Failed attempts to get closer to his wife and daughter further fuel the pursuit of his immoral fantasy. Ultimately he abstains; however, it is Angela that points him to a happiness he already has—completing his transformation from being dead-to-life to being happy-in-life, just moments before he was murdered.

Lester’s character fuels the story with a desire to be real and seek what really matters.  With all his faults he’s a breath of fresh air in the midst of others who are inauthentic and materialistic. He is vulnerable and transparent, giving the audience an opportunity to put themselves in his shoes. He could choose to maintain appearances for his marriage and accept whatever his boss offers. In many ways it would be safer than making changes and facing uncertainty. Plus, there are serious legal and moral reasons he shouldn’t pursue Angela. However, once awakened from his emotional coma, Lester was not going to deny himself the opportunity to live and feel.


Curtiz, M. (Director), & Wallis, H. (Producer). (1942). Casablanca. United States: MGM Home Entertainment.
Hitchcock, A. (Director), & Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, inc. (1959). North by northwest. Hollywood California: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Mendes, S. (Director), & Cohen, B., Jinks, D. (Producers). (1942). American Beauty. United States: DreamWorks Pictures.

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