Storytelling Rules - Break Them or Not?

If you belong to a writer’s group or research fiction writing online, you know there are some basic rules to writing fiction. Characters need to be believable, stay true to their thoughts/actions, etc.

My favorite storytelling rule is if you’re going to have a gun set on a mantel in Act 1 and Act 2, it had better go off in Act 3. By the same token, if a gun on the mantel goes off in Act 3, it had better be in sight during the first 2 acts. Don’t give the reader (or viewer) all the clues, but don’t withhold key items they need to be engaged in your story.

Movies and books occasionally break the storytelling rules. On occasion, it works. Other times, the writer isn’t true to his/her characters – and then it leaves the audience feeling cheated.

After getting several pages of my second manuscript edited this morning, I went to see the movie “War.” (Okay, I confess – it was mainly because I’ve seen almost everything else playing and I wanted to stare at Jason Statham for awhile!)

I won’t give away the ending for those of you who wish to see it, but I found some interesting aspects to this movie which reinforce how to write better fiction.

  • A novel needs conflict and hardships all the way through, not in the last chapter only. I found the first hour or so of “War” quite basic: Triads killing each other. Nothing new in terms of action/adventure plot. But I was on the edge of my seat in the last 30 minutes of the movie, when it finally had some things at stake. This isn’t the way books work. Editors and agents only give a manuscript so much time before deciding whether they wish to read on.
  • While surprise plot twists intrigue me (and I must admit I didn’t see a few of them coming in the movie)–it’s also possible to go overboard. Too much twist becomes unbelievable.
  • Characters shouldn’t act differently in the last chapter (or 15 minutes of the movie) than they have for the preceding 1-1.5 hours. Not believable, which was my issue with “War.”

What are your thoughts? How do you feel when storytellers break the rules?

Elaine

  • landy

    Pulp Fiction is a great example of a film that successfully breaks story telling rules. Six plots all told in a completely non-linear fashion that circle back at the end to finally wrap of the story line.

    It includes long monologues against the rules in most story telling.

    This movie also contained a mysterious briefcase that was used as a MacGuffin throughout the film i.e. something the characters were very interested in that had no effect on the overall audienceā€˜s understanding and appreciation of the story.

    I think the film is successful because of the way it breaks conventional story telling rules.

    The monologues provide character development which really enables you to get inside their heads and figure out who they are.

    The nonlinear plot line caught my attention early and made me want to know what was going to happen next in the film. Of course it only worked because each of the stories was interesting on its own and they all intersected well at the points in time when the plots met.

    I also liked the way the film paid homage to the pop culture and pulp fiction in film and literature.