Once Upon a Time: Does Storytelling Have Rules?

Once upon a time…

Who doesn’t hate that line? It’s the most used first four words in almost every book we were all forced to read as a child. Every time somebody begins a story with it somehow we just know we’re not gonna get anywhere that’s satisfying to us as grown adults who pretend to know better in life. Probably a story about a fox or something, we scoff.

But have you ever noticed how in spite of how much you loathe these words you never close the book at the sight of them?

You always finish the sentence, if not the whole story. You just have to. Imagine not knowing what happened, or lived, or someone did, once upon a time. The story can be titled “Santa Claus is Real” or even “The Turtle and the Hare have Another Race” and yet shutting the book before you finish that first sentence is impossible.

Why are these words so powerful?

I have no idea but the way I see it, it gets you to the end of that sentence. And if that first sentence is intriguing enough, or sometimes even not that intriguing, the reader has gotten far enough to give the second sentence a try. Before he knows it, he’s already reading the third. By then, his eyes are already moving in a pattern he needs to forcibly stop to not go ahead. And that means – suddenly the reader needs to use more energy to stop reading than to keep reading. What do you think he’ll choose?

There goes the proof that somebody out there made a rule centuries ago that has stuck around forever in the art of stroytelling, and also actually works pretty well. It dominated stories for years, before they condemned that line for being too childish or whatever.

When you think about it, fairy tales are really the best examples of great stories. Like, really think about it.

They’ve all been written with a specific set of rules, be it the too good to be true protagonist, the evil ugly villain who nobody likes, the accomplice who’s such an idiot that it hurts, all the other characters in between who each play a role that is cliche af as it can be, and even the plot that always leads to a happy ending that isn’t so happy as it is cheesy.

But it worked. They still captivate everybody from children to adults, even everyone in between who claim they don’t read. They stuck around for centuries. And they’ll probably stick around longer than the stories we write today. Shouldn’t that mean something?

All these theories might make some sense, but no artist wants to pay attention to something that they believe will only make them less unique.

That brings us to the ultimate question – Does storytelling really need rules?

Shouldn’t stories come right from the heart, you ask. Shouldn’t they only be told by people who are born good at it? Wouldn’t writing with rules confine their creativity? Wouldn’t that hurt their art?

Well, it’s pretty easy to assume that. Every time we read or listen or watch a good story there’s something so perfect about it, we just know, we just do, that it’s straight from the heart. No editing, no final touches, just pure from the heart. At least that’s how it should feel like. That’s why all bad stories have one thing in common – they feel forced. We see too clearly that they’ve been through a lot of editing before they reached us. That’s what makes a bad story. Not a bad plot, or even bad characters. Just that feeling that it’s not from someplace pure and heavenly like the heart.

Now, in order to get a story to feel like it’s not forced do we really need to know all the rules? Or could we just literally tell a story straight from the heart and hope that it feels that way to a reader too? I did a lot of research on the topic – and by that I mean, I watched a lot of YouTube videos – and strenuously looked for that one writer/filmmaker to tell me that rules were bullshit. ‘Cause duh, who wants to spend years reading the rules if they’re not going to help you or your art form.

Unfortunately, I found none. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find any who didn’t think these rules were bullshit.

Let me explain.

There are definitely a lot of rules. A lot of them. But there are so many that sometimes they even contradict each other. And that’s okay. They do so for a reason. So that you know what has been done and what hasn’t, and how you can make the most out of it. Learning the rules to storytelling is like reading history. We don’t read about the past to change it, but to know that it was done a certain way back then, and that so and so were the consequences. It teaches you that you can now go ahead and do what you please knowing where the boundaries have been set, so that you know you’re jumping over one when you’re actually doing it. Makes you less ignorant and more grateful and a lot more cautious.

Rules don’t have to be confining here in the field of art. In fact they are not. Not one. They might seem like they are. But look closer, they push you farther out of the boundaries than you thought they did.

It’s one thing to break the rules without knowing you did but it’s another to break them when you know you’re doing so. The latter takes a lot of courage. And hence, in the end you’re surely always rewarded with lessons that stay with you forever in your soul for being brave enough to jump over that wall. These lessons are what that builds the base for your art to take shape in. It molds you into the artist only you could’ve been.

Break a rule you spent a lifetime learning, and following, and living under, and you know you’re finally leaving that cocoon.

Break a rule without knowing that you did, and the process might be easier, the result just as unpredictable – you either plummet to the ground or you’re caught by a branch on your way down – but you’re still at square one at the end of it. You’re still wandering just as aimlessly. Which means in order to get ahead, you will have to sit down and check out the rules sometime. There’s no skipping that step if you’re here for the long run. And art just like any other profession starts to take a toll on you when you do it long enough. It’s at those times that these lessons you learnt while you broke a rule or compromised to following one, will get you going. It’ll be the struggles that you managed to survive as you became a butterfly from a caterpillar that will keep you breathing. Too afraid to be a caterpillar? Don’t ever dream of becoming a butterfly.

My point is – Yes, there are rules to stroytelling. And yes, they’re meant to be learnt. But no, they’re not meant to be blindly followed. Sometimes, they’re meant to be broken. And it’s as simple as that.

Peace out.

Me trying to be interactive –

What’s your one unbreakable rule for storytelling? Do you think there should be rules? Comment below.

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