3 Screenwriting Rules that Are Made to Be Broken (Sometimes)

Know the rules before you break them.

How do you draw the audience into your film?

Have you ever found yourself watching a film in the theatre and thought, “Where is this going?”, while also thinking about where you yourself might go – for example, toward the exit sign?

I’ve done precisely that, while looking sideways at my husband wondering if he was hating the experience as much as I was. About halfway through the film, a mouse scurried past our feet. In response, I curled up into a ball and was on alert for the rest of the movie. When we left, my husband and I said the same thing at almost the same time: “At least the mouse brought a little excitement to the experience!”

Why are some movies “bad”? What sometimes makes us feel a lack of connection to what’s onscreen? In my experience, it’s often due to the fact that I haven’t been drawn into the journey. There are many factors that contribute to my ability to be drawn in, but three of the majors are: a well-structured plot, a singular protagonist through whose eyes I can see the film, and dialogue that feels natural and authentic.

In many discussions about the craft of screenwriting, we hear about the importance of “the rules” – basic screenwriting principles that must be heeded if you want to write a successful screenplay.

But as the saying goes, rules are made to broken – sometimes! Charting your own course can lead you somewhere original and inspiring, but it also runs the risk of getting you lost.

Here at Lights Film School, we believe in knowing the rules before you choose to break them. To that end, let’s take a closer look at a film’s plot, protagonist, and dialogue, exploring the rules associated with each and what might happen if we break them.

Rule I: Your script should follow a three-act structure.

What does this rule mean? At the most basic level, it holds that your story should have a beginning, middle, and end.

In the first act of your script (the first third or so of the film), we should meet your characters, learn the circumstances of the story, and learn what goal your main character is pursuing. In the second act – which will take up at least the next third of the film, usually more – we’ll watch the main character pursue that goal, or we’ll watch some journey unfold with relationship to that goal (maybe the protagonist changes their mind about what they thought they wanted, for example, and pivots to a different goal). At the end of the second act and beginning of the third, we learn whether or not the protagonist has reached their goal. In the third act, things wrap up.

An argument for following this rule:

Simply put, having a beginning, middle, and end is the most straightforward way to tell a story.

Even when we’re telling a story about something pretty mundane that happened to us in our everyday lives, we tend to structure it this way. We set up the circumstances and establish a goal: “I needed groceries, so I went to the store.” We talk about the journey: “I got there, and it was so strange – all of the shelves were empty! And I really needed food, so I drove to another store, which took forever, but at least I found food there.” And then we wrap it all up: “By the time I got home, I was tired, so I just took a rest. But at least I had my groceries.”

The above example may not make for a terribly interesting film, but it does highlight the fact that having a beginning, middle, and end is a natural place for a storyteller to find him or herself.

It’s worth noting that this storytelling structure predates Hollywood (by a lot!). Employing a dramatic structure that includes a beginning, middle, and end trajectory harkens back to Aristotle. Joseph Campbell explores the different shapes the hero’s journey takes throughout history in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which George Lucas has said inspired Star Wars. It’s worth checking out!

Arrival | Paramount Pictures, 2016

What films follow this rule?

Since this rule is well-established and proven by the box office, many films follow it, even those that play with more abstract concepts such as temporality and linearity. One recent example that comes to mind is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. In the first act, we meet Louise (Amy Adams), who is asked to communicate with aliens who have landed on earth. In the second act, we watch as Louise is brought to the ship where the aliens are contained and begins her work. She journeys toward her goal, which is learning to communicate with the aliens. At the conclusion of the second act and start of the third, Louise figures out what the aliens have been trying to tell her, thus reaching her goal.

There’s a twist in Arrival that plays with the temporality of Louise’s story, but ultimately, it doesn’t cause the film to deviate from traditional three act structure. Another example of a film that plays with temporality but ultimately sticks to tradition is Primer, which we broke down in detail for our students and readers.

An argument for not following this rule:

Depending on the filmmaker’s intention, linear storytelling techniques may or may not achieve the desired outcome. Many films that are considered more “experimental” are intended to make a viewer feel something specific, without necessarily telling a traditional story, per say.

What films don’t follow this rule?

There’s an argument to be made for many films that even if a story feels flat or out-of-the-box at first, if you take a really deep look, there is still some sort of beginning, middle, and end presented. As I said, it’s a natural instinct for a storyteller to set up a journey, let it play out, and then wrap it up.

One example of a film that (arguably) breaks with three act structure is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which presents a series of vignettes that – although they show three periods in the life of a family – don’t necessarily tell one linear narrative. The viewing experience is almost like a lifetime of memories being transplanted into the mind of the viewer.

The Tree of Life | Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011

When not following this rule gets dangerous:

As with any rule, if you’re discarding it, you should have a really good reason for doing so! It’s not an accident that many stories take a three-act shape: it’s effective, straightforward, and proven by both history and the bottom line.

Often, when writers attempt to tell a story outside of this structure, the result isn’t really a story so much as a meandering slice of life that introduces us to characters without really engaging us on a deep level. To put a non-story in front of an audience, you have to have something really compelling to offer in its place.

Rule #2 — Your story should have a single protagonist.

The reasoning behind this rule:

A single protagonist gives your audience a chance to experience the story through your protagonist’s eyes. It’s almost as if subconsciously, we become the protagonist, and we feel his or her joy, fear, or sadness as if it were our own.

An argument for following this rule:

The more you can make your audience feel something, the more engaged they’ll be in your story, and the greater the chances that your film will have an immediate and lasting impact on them. By anchoring the audience’s experience in that of a single protagonist, you meld their emotions to the story in a strong, undeniable way. The protagonist becomes a sort of proxy for the audience, building a bridge between your storytelling and their empathy.

What films follow this rule?

Many of them! Like three act structure, telling a story through one person’s perspective is natural territory for a storyteller. Some films that come to mind include Forrest Gump, Good Will Hunting, and, more recently, Manchester by the Sea.

An argument for not following this rule:

Sometimes writers choose to let the audience in on multiple characters’ experiences of the same events. For example, experiencing a couple falling in love from both characters’ perspectives, or telling the story of a whole family as they experience an event that happens to all of them.

Little Miss Sunshine | Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2006

What films don’t follow this rule?

One example that comes to mind is Contagion, which tracks the story of a pandemic through the individual experiences of multiple characters. Ensemble pieces, too, tend to draw us into multiple characters. Little Miss Sunshine comes to mind as a great example of a film that lets each of its ensemble characters shine as individual people with strong arcs related to the overall goal of getting Olive to her competition.

It’s worth noting that TV shows often feel like they don’t have a single protagonist. If you watch the first few episodes of a drama, it may be focused on one person, but if the ensemble is strong enough, each character eventually feels just as important as the rest.

Still, if you really sit down and analyze an episode of television, you’ll see that what we’re actually watching is simultaneous narratives, each with their own protagonists. So while the show itself might not have a single protagonist, each story being told within an episode does. A great recent example of this is Game of Thrones, in which each character has tremendous weight in the overall picture the show paints.

When does it get dangerous not to follow this rule?

When we don’t have a single person’s eyes through which to experience a narrative, it can be hard for us to feel connected to anyone. Not feeling connected to any character can damage the film’s ability to really have the impact it could if we were experiencing it on a more focused, personal level.

For example, let’s say we have a guy and a girl sitting at a table. The guy says he loves the girl. The girl gets up and walks away. The guy sits there, quietly. Sure, that’s sad, but I’m not sure it has the biggest impact it could have on us. Now, let’s take a few steps back. We’re in the kitchen alone with the guy. He’s cooking this big dinner – tons of ingredients, he’s laboring over a cookbook. Now he goes in the bathroom and practices saying “I love you” in a mirror. Then he sits and watches the clock until finally, the doorbell rings. Here, when we get into that dining room where the guy and the girl are sitting at the table, we know the guy. We know what’s gone into this. We feel his heart beating anxiously in our own chests as he says, “I love you.” We know how high the stakes are for him. When the girl doesn’t say “I love you” back, we feel crestfallen with the guy.

Drawing us into one person’s experience gives us a lens through which to experience the scene. It gives us emotional context, and it lets the scene affect us not just as an observer, but on a really deep, personal, human level. Everything has more impact when it’s happening to someone you know.

Rule #3 — Your dialogue should feel realistic and authentic.

The reasoning behind this rule:

By and large, the act of watching a film taps into the same part of our brain that gets curious about what the couple at the table next to us at a cafe are saying to one another. As people, we’re drawn to the stories of other people. In real life, the way we often get acquainted with those stories is through observation – and if you think about it, watching a film isn’t much different. As an audience, we often feel as though we have a front row seat in someone’s real life as it’s unfolding. And for that to really work, their world needs to feel authentic and internally consistent. Realistic dialogue supports the illusion.

An argument for following this rule:

Authentic-feeling dialogue is one of the most effective ways to get an audience invested in a make-believe world. As humans, we can’t disregard our own curiosity about other humans, and the more real the people who are put in front of us feel, the better the chance that we are going to forget we’re even watching a film and become totally engrossed in what’s in front of us.

Manchester by the Sea | Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions, 2016

What films follow this rule?

A recent example of a film with really solid dialogue is Manchester by the Sea, particularly the banter between Lee and Patrick. Then there’s Aaron Sorkin, often regarded as a master of dialogue, capable of creating quick, witty back-and-forths between characters without missing a beat. It’s worth noting that Sorkin’s characters tend to talk fast and they pack more words into a sentence than many others do, but he also tends to focus on worlds which intelligent, possibly fast-talking people populate.

An argument for not following this rule:

If successful dialogue is not native to our present world, it’s usually because the film takes place in another place or another time. For example, in a film that takes place in the 1700s, the filmmaker may choose to write characters who speak differently than you or I.

Another reason is style. Sometimes a filmmaker chooses to have characters speak in a way that feels different than what we experience in everyday life.

What films don’t follow this rule?

Notably, Quentin Tarantino’s body of work comes to mind. He is often recognized for his dialogue feeling elevated and out-of-our-world.

Inglourious Basterds | The Weinstein Company and Universal Pictures, 2009

When does it get dangerous not to follow this rule?

Dialogue can be a great connector between the audience and the film – but it also can be a divider. If dialogue feels like it’s supposed to be natural but doesn’t sound quite right, then most audiences have a lot of difficulty getting invested in what’s going on. So, like any rule, if this one is to be broken, it needs to be done with great care and intention! Though the words still may be written in English, it’s almost as if you have to come up with a new set of language rules for a film that’s using stylistic dialogue. It needs to be consistent throughout the film, and it needs to support the narrative.

Some films break the rules to great success, whereas others don’t – one reason why we sometimes watch the exit sign more than the movie screen!

What do you think? Have you seen a film that broke one rule or another in a way that you felt was successful? What about a film that discarded the rules – can you think of one that was successful and one that wasn’t? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

– By Lauren McGrail


Want to learn more about screenwriting rules and when to break them?

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