≡ Menu

Breaking the rule of rules


A lot of people argue about rules in culture. The cliché is you need to know the rules in order to break them. The tagline for Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop stated, “in a world with no rules, one man broke them all”. Students don’t know whether to follow the rules or not.

I think the terminology is wrong. We shouldn’t be talking about rules, we should be talking about cause and effect. Ifthen.

Take storytelling. A fundamental rule of storytelling is that the protagonist should desperately want something at the beginning that they then either get (comedy) or are forced to give up trying to get (tragedy) at the end. Should you follow this rule or not? It depends. If you use that device then you have a powerful tool to maintain the audience’s interest. If you don’t then you’ll need another equally powerful tool to make up for its absence. There’s no right or wrong, just cause and effect.

Or music. A fundamental rule of composition is that you should finish a melody on the tonic. Should you follow this rule or not? If you finish on the tonic then the melody will sound comparatively resolved, if you don’t then it’ll sound comparatively unresolved. Whether you choose to follow the rule or not depends on what effect you want. Choose the right cause to achieve the desired effect.

Or photography. In photography you have the rule of thirds: the idea that you should place significant objects a third of the way into the frame. But Stanley Kubrick often framed his shots symmetrically, placing significant objects on the halfway point. He wanted a different effect, and so chose a different cause.

If we stop talking about rules then we’ll stop feeling constricted by them. If instead we talk about cause and effect then we’ll see cause and effect as the powerful tool that it is.

This has applications in real life too. Because the rule is never a compelling reason to do something. Ifthen is much more convincing. Compare:

Why can’t I play with matches?
Because the rule.


If you play with matches then we’ll lock you in the box again.

Much more convincing.

If you stop talking about rules then you’ll be liberated from them.