The Quentin Tarantino Guide to
Creating Killer Content

image from the film Reservoir Dogs

In a recent Copyblogger post discussing how the king of content is being slowly usurped by the Crown Prince of Context, author Larry Brooks referenced the remarkable opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Inglourious Basterds.

There are few writers like Tarantino, and though his verbal carpet bombs and kinetic escalation of violence aren’t for everyone, there is no doubt that the dude follows his muse. Those who love him will eagerly wait in lines wrapped around the block to show their support.

In short, Tarantino sells it every time. And by it, I mean an ironclad belief in the worlds he’s created.

On Larry’s post, a great conversation continued downstairs in the comments, where a second Tarantino clip was referenced, the “Sicilian Scene” from True Romance. Though I love both movies, I was inspired to write this post by a scene from Tarantino’s earliest feature, Reservoir Dogs.

Selling it

In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino assembles a marvelous scene, on the surface about gaining the confidence of the men the protagonist plans to double cross. Closer inspection reveals the scene for what it really is, a seven-and-a-half-minute love letter to the art of storytelling.

The film itself is about a bank robbery gone bad, though Tarantino manages to turn the adage, “show not tell” upside down by showing only a few seconds of the robbery, while his characters sit around for the rest of the film swapping one slice of story at a time.

Spoiler alert: The hero of the tale is Mr. Orange, an undercover cop, played by the superb Tim Roth, masquerading as a fellow bank-robbing miscreant. The success of his cover hinges on convincing the other criminals of his authenticity. He does this, in part, by reciting “The Commode Story,” a fictitious anecdote that is not only amusing, but also easy to sell to the other delinquents because it deals with a dicey encounter with the law.

It is in the Commode Story where Tarantino becomes the teacher.

It’s all in the details

“An undercover cop’s gotta be Marlon Brando . . . . you gotta be naturalistic as hell — ’cause if you ain’t a good actor — you a bad actor, and bad actors is bullshit in this job.”

It’s the details that sell your story, according to Officer Holdaway, played by Randy Brooks, delivering lines obviously written for a Sam Jackson Tarantino could not yet afford.

Holdaway instructs Mr. Orange on the finer details of selling the story.

“You’ve got to memorize what’s important so you can make the rest your own.”

He then continues to expand his point with something Copyblogger has frequently preached:

“Remember, this story’s about you and how you perceive the events that went down.”

He wraps up with a version of the same sage writing advice Brian’s been posting for years:

“The only way to do that is to keep saying it and saying it and saying it and saying it.”

As the scene unfolds, we watch as Mr. Orange rehearses the story in his room with slowly mounting confidence until he owns the narrative enough to deliver it without flinching in a smoky bar populated by criminals, any one of whom could end him in an instant.

Eventually, we find ourselves breathlessly watching as the Commode Story unfolds via flashback and Mr. Orange’s voiceover.

We watch as a man packing massive amounts of marijuana finds himself entering a bathroom containing not one, not two, but four police officers and a K-9 unit. As the camera pans the officer’s narrowed eyes, the dog’s fervent attention, and follows Mr. Orange as he tries to casually go about his business without getting busted, the narration adds to the palpable sense of danger.

We feel the tension even though we know Mr. Orange has manufactured every word and was never actually in danger of being busted.

Why?

Because Mr. Orange owns the story.

Own your story

The more you write about a particular topic or in a specific genre, the tighter your work will naturally become. Your expertise will grow. Better words will come to you, and they’ll show up more quickly.

If you write about widgets, write the hell out of your widget copy.

Loving your widget is a great start, but you also have to know your widget inside out and upside down. You must know every surface, every detail. Knowledge and passion will shine through the copy and accentuate the differences between you and everyone else writing about widgets.

If you want to be a great writer, you’ve got to own the story. Fiction or sales copy, know your story like nobody else and you will write words that no one else can touch.

About the Author: Sean Platt is a direct response copywriter and independent publisher. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Fantastic.

  2. Hey Sean:

    Another great reminder and a living example how passion for something drives great results. If you really dedicate and stay consistent with something, eventually you will see results.

    It might take a while, but you just have to keep at, keep going because your mind will be able to find the gold mine in between all of the clutter in your mind.

    I have just started writing recently, and I already see myself improving and getting better. The more I write, the more I want to write. I get ideas every where I look or go.

    If you put your mind to something, it will become like a machine looking for opportunities in areas you never expected. You just have to make that choice and let your mind do the rest of the work.

    It’ a self feeding, self reinforcing positive spiral.

    Thank you for a great article.

    Best,
    Tomas

  3. Sean,

    Funny how art follows life follows art and what’s true for great storytelling in one form is true in others.

    Now I have to Watch Reservoir Dogs, one of the few films of Tarrantino’s I haven’t seen.

    Part of owning the story is choosing which story is the important story to tell, wouldn’t you say?

  4. Wonderful advice. You can definitely tell when the author has a passion for what they’re doing and when they’re just sleepwalking.

    Passion – and owning your story – makes all the difference in the world. It’s what separates the great from the common. It’s what makes me such a fan of your work, too. I can tell that you really love the words, and the ideas behind them, that you lay down.

  5. I am feeling curiously pumped up as if I were in some sort of Eminem video. Thank you my dear Mr. Platt! Hehehe.

    Even though I was a horrible ham, I think participating in drama classes and various theater activities in high school was much better training for this writing gig than any English class I ever took. That’s where I learned to put aside inhibitions and dive right into character and own the story.

  6. Shane: Thanks man. : > )

    Tomas: Tarantino had written a million movies in his head before he ever got behind the camera. It’s true whatever you water, that’s what’s gonna grow. I’ve only been writing now for two years myself, but I do it for six or seven hours a day. It isn’t just that the more I write, the better I get – the more I write the more I WANT to write. I want to stretch my ability and take language further than I could the day before. Keep with it Tomas, and the article was my pleasure.

    Janice: Absolutely. Reservoir Dogs is a gem, Janice. I’m sure you’ll love it. I was dead sick last week – I mean neighbors calling to complain about the smell and all my bones replaced by pain with an inferno corkscrewing down my throat sick. But at least it gave me the time to revisit bothTrue Romance and Reservoir Dogs. I don’t want to say too much about Dogs, but feel free to send me an email when you’re done. I’d love to know what you think.

    Blogger Dad: It makes a difference. As much as I love to read and watch movies, as I get older fewer and fewer things make the cut. I only have time to read those words which resonate the most and watch those films with meaningful delivery. It’s all in the ownership.

    Thanks for the compliment Dave. I’m a fan of yours as well. : > )

  7. I was mentioning on Twitter, I’d love to see a series on amazing screenwriters and what they can teach. Charlie Kaufman, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet. (Studying storytelling for screenwriters is also hugely helpful.) I love great scripts!

  8. Hey Tracy, sorry I missed you there.

    Ooh, I need to get permission to write an Eminem post! That would rock the house. That dude spits like he’s got gunpowder on his tongue!

    True that about drama class. My English classes were BOGUS. Lame, lame with an exponent or two LAME. But passionate speaking, authentic dialogue and situations or emotions that genuinely move me – that’s all the stuff that prompted pen to paper for me. An inhibited writer, perhaps, has not yet really found their voice.

  9. Another drama geek in recovery here. :)

  10. Sigh. And now I’ve missed Sonia. : > )

    I agree, I think that would be awesome! I’d love to hit Kaufman. That dude makes me unbelievably happy. Mamet too, but I like the giant bag of E=MC2 CRAZY that Kaufman brings to the game. I’d even love to tackle Shyamalan – when good writers go bad, you know? Compare the pitch perfect notes of the Sixth Sense to the cacophonous disaster of The Happening.

    Could be cool.

  11. Very useful post! Many companies that are seeking to be active in new and social media can not begin to get involved in ways that some consider “conventional”. All they have for fuel is their own corp. story to tell. This will resonate with, and excite these..[bookmarked!]

  12. You have mastered the art of catchy titles and how beautifully you explained the concept that scene in the movie was flashing before my eyes great job!

  13. I am so encouraging all of my kids to get involved in theater/speech in high school. It’s helped me with everything from being comfortable with public speaking to learning that I can be viciously torn apart in public by some middle aged jerk that gets off on making high school girls cry and survive and thrive and not be bitter about it at all 20 years later. AT ALL.

    Sean, if you get to write a post about Eminem, I am going to write one about Air Supply.

  14. “a seven-and-a-half-minute love letter to the art of storytelling.” Bet you loved writing that money quote!

    My twist…

    Copyblogger: “a four-and-a-half-year love letter to the art of copywriting.

  15. James: If they are able to tell their story well, or smart enough to hire those who can, then really, they shouldn’t need much more. Thanks for the compliment, James.

    Kalyan: Thanks! I appreciate it!

    Tracy: If you write a post about Air Supply, I will write a post about Ace of Base.

  16. Ahhh, what a breath of fresh air. Not only do I love the movie, but you are absolutely right that the art of storytelling is a skill that can do a tremendous amount of damage (in a good way).

    I’ve tried to do a bit more of that when I post or write new content, but it’s something that takes practice to perfect. Your post is certainly an example of how to do it well.

  17. Sean, this is super cool. When passion is there, the words sort of vibrate with positive energy and life because of the utter conviction of the blogger/writer. But interest has to be slightly obsessive for you to pick up the details…agreed?

  18. That was one heck of a blog post… I am not much into tarantino movies.. due to reasons you mentioned. I did see Pulp Fiction though..

  19. This is a truly amazing post. I agree with the others about drama and speech class helping to broaden your view on life. Tarantino is one of the true artists that still exists. There are times now that I have put books to the side without finishing them. The same with movies. Some people are so caught up in making a buck that there is no finesse in the story.There’s no real attempt at making the audience or reader care about the characters or the story. It’s simply cheap, deranged entertainment.

  20. Sean,
    Okay, first, sincerely sorry to hear you were sick. :(
    Second, that is such a “man sick” description. (ducks and runs) :)
    Will get back to you on the film, my friend. :)))

  21. @Sean, Shyamalan, yes! He’ll always be a genius to me for Sixth Sense, no matter how horrendous the rest of them are.

  22. Shane: True that.

    Nathan: I did it well in the beginning, then got lost in the back alleys of BlogoLand, but it’s a great lesson to be reminded of and I’ve no plans of forgetting it any time soon. Thanks, Nathan.

    David: Oh yeah, Tarantino’s as obsessed as they get, which is absolutely why his material resonates. He takes his fetishes and turns ‘em into popcorn.

    Priyanka: You know, my wife’s the same but still finds something compelling and entirely watchable about Tarantino’s work. Maybe it’s the awesome dialogue, or the consistent themes of female empowerment, or the palpable passion, but seriously give ‘em a chance. Kill Bill 2 is especially good for the ladies. : > )

    Michele: One of my favorite quotes I ever read where Tarantino was talking about his craft was something like, “I just like to get the characters in a room and see what they’re gonna say.” That line has stayed with me the entire time I’ve been writing. Like Hemingway, I imagine Quentin writes 200 pages for every three he keeps, but that’s why ever line is gold.

    Janice: Mr. Pink will own you. : > )

    Sonia: I even defended the dude with the Village, but there was no excuse for the last two. None. You know who else would be awesome to write about – the Coen Brothers.

  23. Okay, the next movie I want to see under the copyblogger umbrella is “Swingers.” See what you can do Sean.

  24. Shane, Ohhh, all the beautiful babies would love that too. :)

  25. Shane and Janice: Hot damn, that would be awesome. I was just having dinner with a childhood friend last week and we were talking about how awesome Swingers was – it’s the kind of movie that even though it’s probably been four or five years since I’ve seen it, it’s still fresh in my mind.

    Wait… how old’s my daughter. Hmm…. make that eight.

  26. Sean/Janice:

    The Swingers Guide to Making Money When You Don’t Know How Money You Are :)

  27. Hey Sean,

    The most convincing story is one you own. And you can effectively do that by being an amplified version of yourself.

    Analyze your traits and quirks and take them to an extreme. Like Officer Holdaway in Reservoir Dogs said, memorize the important and make the rest your own. If you’re telling the story through an amplified version of yourself, you’ll naturally let your uniqueness shine through. And that is how you make the story completely convincing, completely your own, and unmistakable for anyone else’s.

    Nice reminder to own our stories, and we can do that by amplifying ourselves and letting extreme versions of our traits and quirks shine through.

    Tarantino rocks,
    Oleg

  28. Shane: That title is SO money.

  29. This reverberates to the axiom of passion in life. Nothing beats out passion funneled to produce concrete action! So if we’re writing out of passion, and nurture that fire with the fuel of discipline and persistence, fruits will naturally sprung.

  30. Tarantino’s content is defintly a unque one. He is not hitting duplicated content :)

  31. Not a huge Tarantino fan this is a great post. When in doubt, take out someone’s ear for fun.

  32. Caleb: Yup, I agree. The best art or biggest triumphs are often born from passion, but they need diligence and dedication before the benefit is there.

    פסיכולוגית: Tarantino’s never been guilty of duplicate content,
    just re-imagined and soaked in genius.

    Gabe: Thanks, Gabe. And yes, all while listening to Steelers Wheels.

  33. it’s Inglourious Basterds, not Inglorious Basterds…

  34. Re: “If you want to be a great writer, you’ve got to own the story. Fiction or sales copy, know your story like nobody else and you will write words that no one else can touch.”

    Love this!

    Granted, I don’t consider myself the best sales copy-writer but when it comes to presenting, I do practice time and time again (yes even by myself) until I feel like I own it. If you don’t or can’t own it, then that’s just bad form (and bad for business all around).

  35. Sebastian, I just saw the flick two days ago… I should have caught that. Thanks!

  36. Sebastian: (hanging my head in shame) At least I spelled Basterds right!

    Ricardo: You don’t have to technically be the best as long as you can walk like you are. That’s why I love that scene with him practicing and practicing over and over. Until he just OWNS it as much as if actually did happen.

    Brian: Hi Brian! How did you think Basterds compared the the rest of the catalogue?

  37. Ah the fine art of sales finding a home in social media…it’s true, this is a great example of how to engage your audience. Storytelling, caring, working your tail off…telling your story and telling it again. And then telling it again tomorrow. That’s how you build a business. At least it’s the only way I’ve ever had success doing it.

  38. And be expert really need hard work that why many blogger do not intend to expert in their niche.

  39. Haven’t seen the Reservoir Dogs yet but I’ve seen some of Tarantino’s other movies. He has a good way of handling his stories. :)

    Narratives and stories, once owned, could really get people hooked.

    great post. :D

  40. I just wanted to give you a shoutout Copyblogger. You are a remarkable blogger and a role model to me! Thanks so much!

  41. Mighty – it’s a great way to look at it…stories hook you. It’s the way it’s been done for ages!

  42. Fantastic article. I love Tarantino’s writing, he loves the details of life and you can see that in his movies. You make a great point using Mr. Orange regarding the fact that if you own your story through practice then it becomes you. I teach this to all of my clients that the best way to gain certainty about anything in life is to practice and do it over and over. It maybe cheesy and awkward at first but everything new in life begins like that, sticking with it will make you a confident expert. Thanks for the article, I love to read great ideas like this and always enjoy a good Reservoir Dogs anecdote.

  43. Christian: Building a business, building a following, building loyalty. It’s all one and the same. I also see it as finishing a piece of furniture, each time smoother than the one before. My great grandfather was a craftsman and my dad did it for grins, but I always respected the time and attention to detail spent making each layer finer than the last.

    Dana: Yes, it is hard work, but always worth it in the end.

    Mighty: Exactly. Because he’s invested so are we.

    Ben: Yes, Copyblogger is the best.

    James: Most things are cheesy and awkward at first, but it is amazing how if we just stick with something, even if just a little bit, it soon becomes easy as breathing. That thought was illustrated so beautifully in that sequence, it really is one I could watch over and over.

  44. Great advice Sean using another great example of the story telling master. Unfortunately I haven’t seen this film all the way to the end…shocking I know but can appreciate the art of the narrative. What you write in your post has struck home with many of us, and writing has such an impact if you do it right.

  45. Following on from your last sentence “If you want to be a great writer, you’ve got to own the story” I would suggest the best way to write copy for the Internet is (especially for small businesses) to write the content yourself, whether you have good writers in your team or not. You can then get help to edit the copy.

    I believe, as a web copywriter, that I could never understand someone’s business better than they do. So I don’t try. Instead I encourage them to write their own content (ensuring they own their own story) and then I take it from there. I wonder whether you agree…

    I think linking a blog topic to a film works really well and I enjoyed both the film and this post!

  46. Right on Sean. Great analogy. I agree ;)

  47. Jon – I know you weren’t asking me ;) but i agree 100%. No one better than yourself to produce. Outsourcing edits and proofing, etc are totally reasonable.

    problem is, many business owners still don’t understand how valuable interaction is…why would anyone want to do something else? because they think whatever else they’re doing is more important. It’s not likely to actually be more important though. Getting past this misconception is one of the things I see sites like Copyblogger and others working to accomplish. Rock on :)

  48. Christian – I think the question of value proposition can be expanded to SMEs in general regarding online marketing. Many business owners are reluctant to take that leap of faith.

    By the way – I took a look at your website. Some interesting posts!

  49. Jenny: WHAT?!?! You saw the film, but not to the end. Sigh. Please login to your Netflix account right now and remedy the wrong! : > ) Thanks, Jenny.

    Jon: I couldn’t agree more. I always find it difficult to mimic another’s passion, yet I have no difficulty whatsoever in bringing someone else’s passion to life, or at the least giving it more vivid color. I always prefer bullet points or rough copy, no matter how awkward it sounds. It comes from them and that’s what’s most important. It’s an excellent point and one I’m glad you brought up. Thanks, Jon!

  50. Great post, the bit with Christopher Walkin is superb. Certainly makes me think, hope I can apply it.

  51. Good post, Sean. Of course anything that mentions my favorite movie will always grab my attention. :)

  52. Marcelis Wallace :

    couldnt agree with u more tarantino is an amazing writer (quick point reservoir dogs is a jewelry hiest not bank robbery, i guess its an easy misconseption) ive seen and own all his movies loved each and everyone the action drops my jaw but the dialog catchs me so quickely and keeps me interested cant wait for inglorious bastard to come out on dvd at the end of this month

  53. I agree, it’s the details that sell your story. Nice article – thanks.

  54. Wouldn’t the Tarantino guide actually just be about being crass and vicious with every opportunity? Shock those readers!

    Ramsay

  55. Gareth: That speech starts with, “You got me in a Vendetta kinda mood,” and goes on for 11 minutes of cinematic perfection. Good luck with the application, Gareth.

    Shawn: Glad to be of service. : > )

    Marcelis Wallace: Ah, you are so right. Thanks for pointing that out. Easy misconception sure, but big difference nonetheless. Thanks, and please give Ms. Wallace my best.

    Joel: Pleasure.

    Ramsay: Thing about Tarantino is that he’s never crass or vicious just to be crass or vicious, it’s always in service of the story or development of character. Shock is good, but Tarantino knows that shock without purpose is empty and wouldn’t be in any way rewarding for his viewers or for him as an artist.

  56. Absolutely. Great article.

  57. Love it!

    “The only way to do that is to keep saying it and saying it and saying it and saying it.”

  58. I guess at this point it’s fair to ask:

    What does Marcellus Wallace look like?

    Don’t say what.

  59. Sean: Pleasure!

    Elliott: Thanks, it is an awesome line.

    Brian: LOL, I was going to answer your question with that exact link, but then I clicked on it and realized where it went. If you haven’t seen this one yet, it’s awesome: