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Monster with a Problem on a Journey

What we can learn from three film genres

I’m delighted to be part of the StoryBrand family, a network of marketing consultants and specialists who share a method devised by Donald Miller, an author and former screenwriter, devised a marketing method known as StoryBrand. I love his approach, based on a screenwriting formula, that positions the customer as the hero of his or her story and your company as the guide, helping them find what they desperately want.

With that as background, I decided to dig deeper into the discipline of screenwriting. I studied playwriting in grad school, so dramatic structure is no stranger to me. Still, I’ve never done a film script, and there are many conventions I’m not familiar with. So I picked up a book by veteran writer Blake Snyder, Save the Cat!

Snyder lists ten types of story plots that cover just about every movie ever made. I want to deal with three of them here.

Monster in the House involves a monster of some sort and, let’s see, a house. Or it could be a shark and a beach town. Or a homicidal maniac and an amusement park. It requires a huge, specific threat (the monster) and a place that people can’t just leave (a house).

Dude with a Problem focuses on an ordinary person who encounters an exceptional situation and must rise to the occasion. The “dude” is not a superhero, but the problem requires every bit of skills and smarts in his or her arsenal. Think Bruce Willis in Diehard.

Golden Fleece depicts someone on a journey to find something greatly desired. As Snyder puts it, “A hero goes ‘on the road’ in search of one thing and winds up discovering something else—himself.”

So can we have some fun with this? How can we apply these screen formulas to our marketing messages? Obviously it depends on what product or service you’re selling, but let’s consider some questions.

Can the customer’s problems attain “monster” status? TV commercials have long done this in the areas of personal hygiene or home cleaning. Bad breath, body odor, dandruff, or dustballs become monster-like opponents. The “house” is their body, or perhaps their house. They can’t just leave. They have to neutralize the threat.

You can go comic with this, exaggerating ordinary problems to monster proportions, but some issues are serious. What if you’re selling a treatment for pain? That’s an all-too-real monster that seems inescapable—but your treatment can help them fight back. (And that might be the language you want to use.)

Can you exalt the intelligence and abilities of your customer? This is the “dude” motif. Avoid the idea that “you are helpless without our product.” Instead, try “you are smart enough to use our product to meet the challenge.” Home Depot’s old slogan—“You can do it. We can help”—was exactly on this track.

You are not saving your customers. You are allying with them, providing the resources they need, along with their own smarts and skills, to overcome their problems.

What is your customer really searching for? This gets tricky, because if you’re selling hamburgers, that’s what your customers want. Right? Well, every Golden Fleece movie reminds us that we all want more than what we’re searching for. We want peace on earth, true love, a mojito on the beach.

This opens up your messaging, and perhaps your whole business strategy. Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee; they sell a place to exist. What human values can you offer, in addition to your hamburgers (or whatever), that tips the customer’s decision in your direction?


Randy Petersen, founder of Petersen Creative Enterprises, is a veteran author, playwright, teacher, speaker, and consultant.

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