Breaking the Rules: When. How. Why.

A good question worth sharing was posted by writer/member Louise F. over at SheWrites: Screenwriters & Story Editors. Louise asks:

Since I caught the screenwriting bug about a year ago, I have been more sensitive to structure and tropes. Is the three-act frame out of date or overdone? I read in a screenwriting web site (from a supposed pro) that plenty of successful films buck the trend and are better for doing so. I read earlier that a 90-min. script should have this and that by this or that page – like 3 acts. My own script tries to get the rising action underway by page 80, but in the first 2 drafts, anyway, it didn’t quite work out that way. Comments?
– Louise F.

This is a multi-pronged topic that pops up regularly enough that we’re going to address it here in hopes of encouraging some well-thought-out rule-breaking.

Certainly many successful films break “the rules” but don’t we have to ask ourselves what those rules are and where they come from before we get all excited about breaking them? Didn’t “the rules” come about because filmmakers and other storytellers experimented until they found particular frameworks that consistently resonated well with audiences? And, possibly, weren’t those frameworks similar to the rise and fall of action found in stories told around fires throughout human history?

Rhetorical questions aside, when it comes to storytelling, we humans are drawn to the simple structure of beginning, middle, end with rising action that surprises us along the way with reversals of fortune (For reasons why this is true, look to sociology and anthropology as stories mirror our fears, desires, and instincts). Campbell and Field didn’t invent this storytelling framework but they did observe and record its variations. From this basic structure, we get the three acts that form most feature films: setup, overcoming obstacles, conclusion. Successful repetition is what gives us the paradigm, or The Rules.

You can cut this ancient framework into 3 acts or 5 or 7 (for television and plays, for example), invert the timeline, compress or extend the length of the tale but your story will still, in the end, have a beginning, middle, and end. This sounds simplistic, true, but it really isn’t (read any slush pile for proof that it ain’t so easy to pull off.) Your act breaks fall where your character faces their greatest reversals of fortune (for additional reading on this, peruse the respected masters: Field, McKee, Snyder, et al). So no, shaping stories around three acts is not passé. Additional acts are generally subdivisions of the basic three.

As any good mentor will tell you, you must learn the rules before you break them. When you’ve internalized the ebb and flow that makes a gripping narrative you’ve learned The Rules. Once you’re confident that you can make your audience laugh, cry, root for and empathize with your protagonist (and your audience actually does) then feel free to play with your skill. Do this and you’ll only be breaking form, not your abilities to woo your audience.

One caveat (and it’s an unfortunate one): A studio darling often is afforded more leeway with unusual takes than does a new spec writer trying to break in. It’s about reputation and trust. Something to keep that in mind as you pitch your rule-broken screenplay, whatever level you’ve achieved in your work.


Louise also added, “P.S. I watch more European pix than U.S. and highly recommend anything from the Quebec film industry — but make sure you have subtitles even if you have a degree in French!” We second that support for films made “off the continent”. Get your hands on just about any film from around the globe from our good friends over at FilmFresh.

And a tiny url for your sharing pleasure: http://tinyurl.com/cl75jtt

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