Exceptions to the Rule

There are always exceptions to every rule. While it’s possible to tell a great story without consciously following any rules, chances are good that you’ll wind up following the basic structure of a story anyway. When watching any movie, look for both the exceptions and the norm.

Pick any movie and you’ll likely find some exceptions to the typical rules of any story structure. While exceptions abound, also take note that more stories do follow the basic structure of a story than those that do not. Also if a story fails to follow a basic guideline, then it often follows the other guidelines without fail.

In order words, it’s rare for a story to break every single rule. In most cases, a story may break one or two rules at the most, but follow the rest. So let’s take a look at some movies that seem to break or at least bend the typical story structure.

Think of the opening of “Star Wars.” Darth Vader is chasing Princess Leia and blowing her ship apart. That’s exciting while introducing us to the villain right away. From the start, the villain defines “Star Wars.”

Now take a look at “Die Hard.” The opening is relatively peaceful with Bruce Willis arriving on an airplane. No sign of the villain (although the villain has already planned the attack in the background), no hint of violence or action. For an action film, “Die Hard” is rare in that it doesn’t open with an action scene to grab our attention.

Typically in any story, the hero learns something new and changes. In “E.T.,” Elliot learns about friendship and has definitely changed from the beginning of the movie to the end. However, WALL-E in “WALL-E” never seems to change at all. From start to finish, WALL-E is a lovable robot that winds up changing others around him, but never really changes himself. He’s always the lovable, underdog who succeeds in the end.

(The creators of “WALL-E” actually modeled WALL-E after Charlie Chaplin, and watched silent movies to learn how to make silent actions tell a story with little dialogue.)

In most movies, the hero reaches a low point where all appears lost. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart feels isolated, alone, an despondent that he’s about to kill himself. What saves the hero at this low point is the mentor, and this is where Clarence, the guardian angel appears to throw himself into the raging river so Jimmy Stewart can save him.

However in “Ghostbusters,” the heroes reach a low point, but no mentor imparts any form of wisdom like Obiwan whispering in Luke’s ear to run or the black police officer telling Bruce Willis how he accidentally shot a kid with a toy gun.

Yet despite these exceptions, most movies still follow the bulk of basic story structure. Even though “Die Hard” starts off with a soft opening, the rest of the story remains tightly structured. Even though WALL-E never changes in “WALL-E,” his story also follows the basic structure of a story. Even though no mentor helps lift the heroes off their feet in “Ghostbusters,” the heroes still change at the end.

It’s possible to write a screenplay following every story structure rule and still write a bad story. It’s possible to write a screenplay that breaks one or two rules, but follows the bulk of a story structure. However, any story that breaks a rule generally follows the other rules.

The rules are guidelines for you to follow, but not get trapped by their limitations. If your story just feels better by breaking a rule, go ahead and break it. Just remember that if your story doesn’t seem to work, go back and examine its basic story structure and see if one of the story structure rules can help guide you back on track.

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