As you all probably know by now, I’m a card carrying rule follower. A Type A, play-it-by-the-book police officer. When I was a little kid, I was the one who refused to climb the fence that said “No Trespassing.” I was the one who got sweaty armpits when my friends suggested ditching class to go listen to Aerosmith by the airport and drink Schlitz Malt Liquor Talls.
My stickler attitude has crept into my approach to writing too. Some of the rules I’ve embraced wholeheartedly include…
–Only use flashbacks if they move the story forward
–Don’t go into detailed backstories that stop the narrative flow
–Show, don’t tell.
However, I saw a movie last year that reminded me how important it is to sometimes climb that fence, ditch that class and drink those Schlitz Malt Liquor Talls. To go rogue and create something that feels fresh and new.
20th Century Women, written and directed by Mike Mills, is an indie film about a 55-year-old woman, raising her teenaged son in Santa Barbara in 1979. These specifics are important, because the film takes place during a time when society’s ‘rules,’ especially those impacting the relationship between men and women, were changing. The basic plot of the film is that the single mother (Annette Bening) enlists the help of her son’s teenaged friend (Elle Fanning) and a 24-year-old lost artist soul (Greta Gerwig) to help guide her son into manhood.
In his script, Mills break all three of the “writing rules” above. He uses flashbacks that don’t move the story forward, and goes into detailed backstories that stop the narrative flow. In fact, when he gets to a character he wants to focus on, he completely stops the movie, give us a title card, then “explains” the backstory of that character through voiceover and flashback. He also “tells” us what’s going to happen to these characters in the future.
Mills breaks all the writing rules we normally see as inviolate. And yet, far from stopping the story, these transgressions deepen each character, create context for the current action, and make the style of the film feel fresh. He uses these rule breaks to create a “literary” vibe in his film. And it’s very effective.
Plus, he breaks the big daddy narrative rule of all. There’s very little plot. Hardly anything happens, the structure builds to a weak semi-climax, and yet… I was totally satisfied.
His approach, which consciously leans into classic mainstream story ‘weaknesses,’ creates a movie that feels deeper and more nuanced than a straight ahead chronological telling of the story.
So how can you break the rules?
Take action! Think about the book or screenplay you’re writing. Is there a way to creatively tweak your use of the rules to make your story feel fresh? Could you mess with an interesting way to download backstory into the narrative? Could you use flashbacks and time in an unusual manner? Is it possible to take a writing convention and turn it upside down to make your story stronger?
Classic story structure rules are there for a reason– to keep the narrative moving forward and the reader/viewer engaged.
BUT, messing with these rules and using them non conventionally, can lead to alternative forms that engage us in different ways.
If you’re stuck and feel like your pages are boring, could you go punk rock?
Climb that “No Trespassing” fence! See what happens…
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