Story Rules By Susan Brand

Should Filmmakers Ignore Story Rules?


Early on in my career in film, I decided I wanted to learn about great film storytelling. I admired American movies and how they told film stories so well. Even the bad ones were good, from an audience perspective. I moved to New York and worked as an editor. This was my first introduction to story rules. What I found was that story rules were gold dust and used to great effect by American filmmakers. So when I returned to Europe, I was surprised to find many European documentary professionals reject story rules. I have heard directors, producers and editors say they do not believe in using story rules.


When people talk about story rules, they are talking about Three Act Structure which describes an optimum shape for a film. It suggests you use three acts, which comprise beginning, middle and end, it describes how each act should have rising drama with change and development, conflict and obstacles. You can read more about the story components in Three Act Structure in my article below. When you use story rules, you are using techniques used by screenwriters that work just as well in documentary as drama.


So why are they often avoided by documentary makers? Story rules are seen as a stifling formula that will destroy the individuality of a documentary film. In my experience however, when filmmakers dive into cutting scenes without blocking out a structure, rather than finding freedom, they find themselves running naked and confused through the world of story, with no idea how to put their film together. Actually, I don’t think these veterans eschew story rules themselves. Far from it, I watched their successful films shaped to perfection by story rules. I believe the veteran filmmakers who espouse these views have absorbed and used these rules to great advantage for their own purposes, but they have moved into a state where they forget they ever learnt them. Story rules are not discussed during the making of a film in Europe as they are in the US and so they have become invisible helpers.


The film professionals who are ‘anti rules’ particularly dislike the idea of three acts with a prescribed length. That is Act one 25%, Act two 50-60% and Act three 15-20%. My response is, how long would you like your beginning, middle and end to be? These lengths have been worked out by observation of successful stories.


I use story rules in every film where I edit or story consult. I explain story rules on film courses I give all over the country. I get hired by filmmakers in the UK and internationally to help them improve their films and apply story rules to their footage. Seems story rules are very much in demand. Story rules are in fact very ancient.


Why do film professionals tell us to avoid story rules? I have noticed, in Europe, we don’t like being told what to do, this is the first reason. We don’t like any rules, period. There also seems to be a fear that story rules will make all stories the same. However, though story rules stay the same year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, the stories we tell are all unique. Story rules are merely tools to give shape to our ideas and make them into a recognisable, effective and compelling film. I compare story rules to the fat dog and the skinny dog. The fat dog and the skinny dog both have an identical skeleton or structure. The difference is, with the skinny dog, the skeleton or structure is visible. If your story is thin and has minimal content, the skeleton or structure will show through. With a well-developed story on the other hand, one which is thought provoking, well researched and layered, the structure will not show through and people are left to enjoy your well crafted film story.