How to Break Your Own Rules

Courtesy of  Unsplash

Courtesy of Unsplash

When creating a new world, consistency and continuity are key. Once you know what the rules are, you may intentionally break them, but only if the audience understands why you’re doing it. A good example of purposeful rule breaking is in the movie Pleasantville, which is set in both the real world and a fictional black and white fifties-style sitcom world called Pleasantville.

The premise of the movie is that the main character David (Tobey Maguire) loves fictional Pleasantville so much that he wishes he could live there. One day he receives a magic TV remote that sucks him and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) into that world. Everything is perfect and undisturbed until Jennifer rocks the boat by not behaving “correctly”. The result is that some objects turn to colour. At first, just a flower or two, but eventually people as well. It’s not what’s supposed to happen and it freaks out the inhabitants of Pleasantville.

These changes are intrinsic to the main plot. The longer David and Jennifer inhabit the fictional Pleasantville, the more Pleasantville deviates from its fictional foundation. It’s not just that the black and white world turns colourful. It’s also that people no longer behave in predictable ways: wives no longer prepare dinner for their husbands, and a fast food worker decides to become an artist. Also, people learn about sex, something that is never discussed in old black and white sitcoms. Basically, we know what Pleasantville is supposed to look and feel like before the changes occur, which is what makes the changes so jarring.

Another example of deliberate rule breaking is found in the movie Hook, starring Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan. The movie turns the idea of magic versus reality upside down by taking magic away. When Robin Williams’ character returns to Neverland, he is an outcast. The boys of Neverland hate the now middle-aged lawyer who tries to impose his own order on them. Of particular note, he can no longer fly! By playing against expectations, the writers of Hook give a fresh take on the fictional Neverland.

Other times, changing or breaking the rules merely confuses the audience, like in the Star Wars universe and its depiction of the Force. In the original movie, A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi explains the Force to Luke Skywalker in a mystical way. In the first prequel, The Phantom Menace, however, we are introduced to the concept of midi-chlorians. A young Anakin Skywalker has more midi-chlorians than average and therefore, the story goes, he is better connected to the Force.

Things change again in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, when it becomes clear that everyone has access to the Force, undermining the idea of there being a genetic basis. I would argue that the introduction of midi-chlorians was a wholly unnecessary pseudo-scientific addition to the Star Wars universe, which did not align with the franchise’s otherwise spiritual dimension.

So, writers, you can break the rules of your universe to great effect, but make sure you know what the rules are in the first place, and why you’re breaking them.


Alex Dempster

After graduating from Ryerson University in 2009, Alex spent many years trying to figure out exactly what he wanted to do in life. Eventually he decided to focus on writing. He spends his free time following the latest political news and cheering on the Toronto Blue Jays.