Here, guest writer Maggie Serota shares storytelling tips inspired by one of America’s most famous film directors.
Quentin Tarantino. Problematic auteur. Controversial filmmaker. Copywriting visionary.
Okay, that last one is a stretch.
Tarantino may never have ghostwritten an executive’s speech or penned a white paper, but he certainly knows how to create dialogue that’s…memorable. Although meandering conversations about European fast-food naming conventions and menacing recitations of fictional Bible quotes likely won’t end up in your brand copy, Tarantino has much to teach about storytelling.
Let’s take a look.
Think Like an Auteur
Between the crackling extended dialogue scenes, trunk shots, buckets of blood, and close-ups of bare women’s feet, there’s no mistaking whose movie you’re watching. Whether he’s making a stylish crime film, a World War II alt-history epic, or an homage to B-movie revenge flicks, Tarantino is a filmmaker whose work is often imitated, but never duplicated.
This kind of pioneering spirit is helpful when writing copy. Ask yourself: Do you want to be imitated, or do you want to do the imitating? Are you sharing a brand story only you can tell? Does your copy sparkle with its own unique voice, or is it an uninspired collection of jargon, SEO keywords, and buzzwords? In short: Does your copy sound like everyone else’s? If so, it isn’t serving your brand.
Being a trailblazer means taking risks and stepping outside of your comfort zone. When Tarantino cast John Travolta for the role of two-bit mobster Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, the actor was in a career slump. Casting an actor who, at the time, was considered a has-been in a lead role was a huge gamble—and one that paid off in both an electrifying performance from Travolta and a career resurgence for Tarantino.
Tarantino didn’t play it safe by plugging the hottest, bankable stars of the moment into his film. How are you playing it safe in your brand’s story and execution?
The Tarantino Multiverse
It’s useful to think of Tarantino’s films not as standalone works, but as stories told within a shared universe.
After watching a few of his movies, you may start seeing the threads that connect each film. For starters, the same fictional brands pop up in several movies (e.g. Red Apple cigarettes, Big Kahuna Burger, Jack Rabbit Slim’s fifties-themed diner).
You might also notice that last names start sounding familiar. In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Blonde is one of the few characters whose given name is revealed: Vic Vega. Why? To telegraph that he’s the brother of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, of course. Similarly, Sgt. Donnie “The Bear Jew” Donowitz from Inglourious Basterds is the grandfather of Lee Donowitz, a minor character from True Romance.
Perhaps the most obvious example of Tarantino’s shared universe is Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction telling Vincent Vega about a TV pilot she starred in consisting of five female assassins. That fictional failed pilot is the premise for Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.
When Tarantino makes movies, he’s not just telling stories—he’s worldbuilding. Who are the characters in this world? How are they connected? What are their backstories? What is the look and feel of this world?
Marketers should channel that same thoughtfulness and sense of purpose, asking: What is our brand story? Who are the key players? How are they connected? What drives them? Why should we care about them? Even if these details don’t all make it into your copy, a rich and multi-layered world provides a strong foundation for future brand messaging.
Tarantino loves a well-placed rhyme. He uses them sparsely—but when he does decide to drop a couplet, it’s effective. Sometimes, the rhymes add a bit of levity to a tense situation, like when the bartender at Marcellus Wallace’s strip club tells Vincent Vega “My name’s Paul, and this [is] between y’all” in order to gracefully exit Vega’s tirade about having to entertain his boss’s wife.
In other instances, the rhyme adds dread to an already harrowing situation, like when Bud from Kill Bill sing-songs, “Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey” to Beatrix Kiddo before burying her alive in a coffin.
Tarantino even opted for a rhyme when he named the Kill Bill series—and you know what? It works. Punchy and succinct, the title clues you in on all the ass-whooping that awaits.
The trick is learning when to invoke a rhyme. At best, it’s clever, funny, or memorable. At worst, it feels obvious and corny.
The Usual Suspects
Although Tarantino’s vision is uniquely his own, filmmaking isn’t a solitary endeavor. Movies are made by committee, and Tarantino notably works with many of the same people both in front of and behind the camera. His films frequently make use of the same actors: Uma Thurman, Michael Madsen, and Samuel L. Jackson to name a few. Editor Sally Menke collaborated with Tarantino on all of his films until her passing in 2010, and Tarantino has worked with the same cinematographer since Kill Bill Vol. 1.
There’s a reason he continues collaborating with the same people, time and again: They’re great at their respective crafts, he knows exactly how to use them, and they’re able to provide useful criticism.
When you’re stuck writing a tagline or snappy social copy, it helps to have your own deep bench of talent to tap. Copywriting doesn’t have to be a solitary endeavor. The next time you hit that creative wall, give MarketSmiths a call.