Universals, norms, and “rules”

Since my previous post, in which I responded to Richard Brody’s idea that codified story development processes were turning movies into formulaic gruel, I’ve been mulling over different ways to describe story structure. I think it’s helpful to divide these descriptions into three types.


In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall refers to a “universal grammar” of storytelling.

As the linguist Noam Chomsky showed, all human languages share some basic structural similarities — a universal grammar. So too, I argue, with story. No matter how far we travel back into literary history, and no matter how deep we plunge into the jungles and badlands of world folklore, we always find the same astonishing things: their stories are just like ours. There is a universal grammar in world fiction, a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome. (p. 55)

This grammar is versatile. Gottschall compares it to the human face: the same deep structural pattern the world over, but enabling great variety. It is composed of the structural feature of conflict — the pattern of “complication, crisis, and resolution” — as well as a handful of universal themes about sex and love, death, the desire for power, etc.

The argument recalls Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth,” in which the hero finds a conflict that requires separation from his home, initiation into an unknown world, and a return with special knowledge or powers. He gets much more specific than Gottschall, but the claim to universality is the same, and Gottschall, consciously or not, even draws on the title of Campbell’s most famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces when he describes the universal grammar using the metaphor of the human face.

The Hero's Journey
Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”

Often when you hear about Campbell today, it’s in the context of advice from a screenwriting “guru” about how to structure your script. But in those instances, the monomyth has been turned into something more like one of the two categories below.


I’m borrowing the term “norm” from the film scholar David Bordwell. Norms aren’t instructions; they are standardized sets of options.

In Hollywood film style, for instance, there are several ways to make spatial arrangement stress an important point: instead of a cut-in to a close-up, we can get a track-in, or a shift in lighting, or a character’s movement into the foreground. A norm is usefully considered as what semiologists call a paradigm—a bounded set of alternatives which at some level serve equivalent functions. (Narration in the Fiction Film, p. 151)

That example is a norm of style, but there are also norms of story construction, and this strikes me as a concept that can be applied to any medium.

Here are some story, plot, and narration norms Bordwell identifies for classical cinema:

  • stories present psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem
  • plots end with a decisive victory or defeat
  • causality is the prime unifying principle, and space and time are arranged to emphasize cause and effect
  • narration tends to be omniscient, highly communicative, and only moderately self-conscious (i.e., the film is free to move around in the fictional world and tell us more than any single character knows, and a film rarely makes a show of the fact that it is a film)

These norms are not universal. Different norms take hold in different parts of the world and in different times. Bordwell identifies other storytelling traditions that are more episodic and elliptical, in which the goal is vague and the end inconclusive.


I reserved the word “rules” for this third type because, unlike the two categories above, these are meant to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. They are most often used by writing instructors, whereas the other two seem to be the province of academics.

Rules are instructions for fulfilling norms. They tend to range from specific to crazily specific. I’m reading a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, in which he says

…the trick is to create heroes who:

  • Offer the most conflict in that situation
  • Have the longest way to go emotionally and…
  • Are the most demographically pleasing!

Those first two rules are ways to fulfill the classical norms of a psychologically defined character with a clear goal. (The third rule is unabashed commercialism.)

He goes on from there to identify which pages certain plot points should happen on: the catalyst on page 12, act break on page 25, b-story starting at 30…

It’s easy to sniff at this stuff from an academic perch, but I’m writing a screenplay right now and it’s been useful.

I’m tempted to always put the word “rules” in quotation marks because I don’t think there are inviolable storytelling rules, but I’ll resist because I think that’s generally understood among writers, as evidenced by the popular saying that you should ‘know the rules so you can know when to break them.’

The Goldilocks approach

I’m feeling somewhat Goldilocks about my list: “rules” feel restrictive and prescriptive. Universals are also problematic: too broad for practical use, and yet there will always be outlying examples that will cause trouble for academics: Gottschall is forced to write off Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein’s experiments in writing stories in which “nothing much happens” as failures.

Norms, though, feel just right. I see them being more useful more often to scholars, but I also think practitioners of story (writers, filmmakers, game designers, etc.) would get something out of knowing where the “rules” come from — that they are tried and true ways of fulfilling certain cultural norms, and perhaps sometimes universals, and not the invention of self-appointed experts.

Norms’ usefulness to storytellers might increase in the future as the boundaries between media dissolve: knowing to put the inciting incident on page 12 of a screenplay doesn’t do much good when you’re trying to craft a transmedia experience, but staying focused on presenting a story space with clear cause and effect and highly communicative narration would be essential.

Rules of storytelling and cinematic fast food

Well this is handy: the same week I start a blog about storytelling, Richard Brody of The New Yorker complains about a focus on “storytelling” (he puts it in quotation marks) ruining movies.

Brody refers to “a crisis that is endemic to the modern cinema, that is, in fact, one of the strange, unintended consequences of cinematic modernity: the very notion of “storytelling” and the obsession with characters and whether they’re admirable or likable.”

The problem, he says, is not so much with classical cinema’s relying on narrative, but that story should be “a basis, not a goal […] merely a starting point for a significant work, not a result.” This is worse than simply a missed opportunity: the focus on story not only precludes invention in other aspects of cinema, but saps the energy of story itself. The rules around storytelling have become so stringently normalized that the movies become “a delivery system for a uniform set of emotional juicings, and the result, whether for C.G.I. or for live-action films, is a sort of cyborg cinema, a prefabricated simulacrum of experience and emotion that feels like the nexus of pornography and propaganda.”

That’s my best try at summarizing an argument that I find unconvincing. (I have skipped some speculation about how this state of affairs came to be and what the popularity of such content means for society.) So we have two related problems: an allegedly restrictive list of storytelling “rules” resulting in the cinematic equivalent of fast food; and the focus on those rules precluding invention in other aspects of cinema. And neither of them are real problems.

The rules he cites as examples (which the author of the list, Emma Coats, calls “story basics” rather than rules) are not at all restrictive. Things like making sure the stakes for the main character are high, and giving us a reason to side with him or her. If these rules are ruinously restrictive, then we are writing off all of classical cinema.

There may be an argument to be made that these broad rules are being followed in narrow, unimaginative ways, that a good portion of films being released are formulaic. But I don’t see how this is a problem specific to “modern cinema” unless by modern Brody means since the 1910s. Really inventive films have always been rare.

As to the idea that formulaic films evoke a mere simulacrum of emotion in the audience, the equivalent of audio-visual fast food, Brody expands on that point later in the piece to say that the emotion he primarily refers to is the false relief of the collective feeling of isolation we moderns carry around with us. It’s an interesting and somewhat baffling hypothesis I would like to see supported.

The main problem here is that Brody confuses a focus on story and character with a myopic focus on script. He hints at this when he complains “[W]hen the script has been built with such solidity and has become an object of obsession for a year or more, it becomes not the springboard for filmmaking but its objective, and constrains the filmmaker to be its illustrator.” No argument here. If a director does nothing but cover the script, the movie will probably limp along. But script and story are not the same thing.

Brody thinks that a strong filmmaker approaches a script with an attitude of “creative destruction.” But a director’s inventiveness must be organized around something — a principle or skeleton that ensures a cohesive whole. The theorist Roman Jakobson called this thing “the dominant.” In classical cinema, the dominant is the narrative. (There are filmmaking traditions outside Hollywood — and mostly outside the West entirely — for which the story is not the dominant. But I don’t think Brody’s aim is to get us to write off all of Western cinema.)

Think of a formally daring filmmaker like Welles. His unusual camera positions don’t just look cool — they make a character big or small at certain points in the plot. His lighting evokes moods that echo characterization. His decisions serve the story. A focus on story does not preclude inventiveness; it enables its success by providing both a grounding and an opportunity for embellishment. The key is not to deviate from the script but to go above and beyond it.