There are shelves and shelves of books on how to write, hundreds of classes you can take, dozens of university programs you can enroll in. All of them are there to tell you the rules—even when they tell you there are “no rules”—and if they’re not telling you the rules they’re not actually telling you anything.
So what exactly are the rules?
Unless your plan is to have a desk full of stories no one ever sees, first and foremost, you need to be thinking about your audience. You need to think about their expectations and what they want to experience. All the rules come from the audience and they are most often about structure.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean that the audience has studied writing but it does mean that they’ve consumed a lot of stories—a whole lot in this day and age—and so they have certain expectations. When I see films with non-writer friends I notice them saying things like, ‘it was kind slow’ or ‘I didn’t like the characters’. Typically, those comments translate to not hitting the structural points (slow) and not laying out the stakes clearly (didn’t like). The rules weren’t followed and the audience wasn’t happy.
If you’re still not convinced, think of it this way. Think about the rules for your favorite genre. You might not want to follow all the rules of that genre but you do need to follow most of them, right? A mystery needs to have a mystery at its center. A horror flick should scare the audience. A romance should be about love. If you’re not doing those things then you’re not following the rules of those genres. You’re not writing those genres.
Should the rules be rigid?
Now, that’s not what I’m suggesting. At one time it was fashionable to have made clear what your story is about by page seventeen. More recently, I’ve seen it said this should happen by page twelve. I’ve also seen page ten. How do you figure out which rule to follow? First, stop worrying about page numbers and think about your audience—always go back to the audience. How long do you think they will wait before you tell them what your movie is about? There’s some variance depending on genre but in general, the rule is not very long. Don’t write twenty or twenty-five pages of setup before your story really starts. You’ll have lost your audience. And if you can make clear what your movie is about on page one, all the better.
Can you break rules?
Yes, of course. But—here’s a rule I suggest you never break. Don’t break too many rules at once. If you break every single rule you’re going to end up with a story that’s either boring or confusing to your audience and probably both. And, have reasons for the rules you break. Never break rules just to break rules.
Certain kinds of stories lend themselves to breaking certain rules. The popular TV series Fleabag breaks the fourth wall. Typically, you don’t break the fourth wall. Typically it’s a bad idea. It works in Fleabag because of the tone and because the main character is actually more comfortable talking to us than the people in her life.
Do rules stifle a writer’s imagination?
Absolutely not. You should be thinking about how to follow the rules imaginatively. As an example, in a mystery the inciting incident is very important: the PI is hired, the mystery writer stumbles over a body, old bones are found at a construction site. Your job is to take your inciting incident and not get rid of it but to turn it on its head. The person hiring the PI is a child, the writer actually stumbles over a mannequin dressed just like them, the bones are from a butcher…but the site manager is dead in his office. There are all sorts of ways to make the rules interesting.
The most important thing about the rules is not the rules themselves but, in fact, your reaction to them. Whenever someone tells you a rule about writing simply absorb the rule and think about it. If you connect with it, by all means, try it. If you like the rule make it your own. You can, and should, have a set of rules the work for you regardless of whether they work for anyone else. The rules can and should be personalized.
One of the best pieces of advice I received at UCLA’s film school was to “learn all the rules and then forget them.” Internalize the rules, make them second nature, that way you can focus on making your stories imaginative, exciting, and exactly what the audience is looking for.