Steve Jobs, Jane Austen and Paddy Chayefsky don’t agree on much, but they all agree on how to get a point across

Hollywood heavy hitter Robert McKee says it best: “If your story’s about what it’s about, you’re in trouble.” Great storytellers of every stripe guide their stories with an underlying structure to make them meaningful and make them last.

When I was in junior high, the must-see for the sleepover set was “Clueless,” the tale of the benevolent queen of Beverly Hills High and how she ruled with a marabou-tipped scepter.

Clueless DVD Cover

I wore my VHS copy out, delighted by the bubbly pace, the unapologetically girly sensibility and the repeatable dialogue. (“I was surfing the crimson wave. I had to haul ass to the ladies’.”) It’s the ’90s-era spoiled teenage progeny of the ’30s-era screwball comedy, complete with amusing misunderstandings, crisp banter and extravagant costume changes. Today, “Clueless” has been anointed as a contemporary classic, so I must have been onto something.

I somehow doubt “Clueless” is one of septuagenarian screenwriter Robert McKee’s all-time favorite films, but he easily explained to me why I love it so much in his book “Story.” (This guy literally wrote the book on story.) A veteran of the Hollywood industry, when McKee settles in for a film screening, he doesn’t see a frothy comedy or a multi-generational drama. He sees the Deep Structure of story that’s embedded in each film.

At the very center of [a film’s] deep structure is what McKee calls the “controlling idea” that drives the whole story.

At the very center of that deep structure is what McKee calls the “controlling idea” that drives the whole story. In “Fight Club,” for instance, the controlling idea is “Meaning comes from life’s struggle, not its comforts.” Or in “Moby Dick,” the controlling idea is “Blind ambition always brings you down with it.” Basically, it’s whatever the writer wants to say about life through his script. Famed screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was said to write the story’s controlling idea on a piece of paper and tape it to his typewriter so that it was always in plain view as he worked.

Paddy and his instrument

Since ideas like “struggle,” “ambition” and “comfort” are hard to point a camera at, the writer creates what’s called a “frame” (aka a big, fat metaphor) so we can see these ideas on film. To quote McKee’s book, a film is “a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this!”
A film is “a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this!”

ahab-and-moby-dickIn “Moby Dick,” blind ambition is a white whale. In “Fight Club,” an authentic life is a fight club. 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 the fight club is a metaphor for what happens to people in the real world trying to live an authentic life.

A brand is the same way. A brand is simply the story a company lives by — its controlling idea. Like a good movie or novel, a brand says, “Life is like this.” And just like every great story, a great brand has a central frame.

Simplicity = sophistication.
The company that overthrows Apple won’t do it with a more beautiful computer … but a new belief, wrapped in an irresistible metaphor.

Apple’s central frame, for instance, was there when it ran its very first print ad. Over the next 35 years, that frame shaped everything Apple did, from its minimalist product designs to the handheld checkout at its retail stores. Every corner of the brand served as a metaphor that helps reinforce the company’s controlling idea of simplicity. Even Steve Jobs’ uniform of plain black turtlenecks, Levis and white New Balance 991s was a metaphor for what Apple believed.

Companies make choices just like filmmakers do, but instead of props and actors, they are choosing what products to make and which campaigns will sell them. Without a controlling idea or belief, they are 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.

People might say they buy Apple because it’s designed better, runs faster or is easier to use. That all might be true, but it doesn’t fully explain how it has become the largest publicly traded company in the world. In the end, Apple is easy to love not only because it makes great stuff, but because it believes in something. The company that knocks Apple off its pedestal isn’t the one that comes up with a more beautiful computer. It’s the company that introduces us to a new belief and then wraps that belief up in an irresistible metaphor.

As I sat down to write this post, I re-watched “Clueless” for what must be the 50th time, just to see if it had the same frothy effect it had on me in 1996. I am sad to report it did not. But I guess that’s the thing about humans: We tend to evolve, move on, seek out new frames. I suspect one day soon we’ll all tire of simplicity, too. All hail the belief that comes our way next.