In Season One of The West Wing (one of the greatest shows ever, by the way), President Bartlet, while lecturing his youngest daughter about security detail, sprouts off a horrifying scenario to drive his point home. Since Aaron Sorkin is one of my favorite writers, I’m going to let you guys read this for yourselves.
ZOEY: We talked about this. I'm entitled to this part of my life.
BARTLET: You're getting this part of your life.
ZOEY: I'm entitled to a normal...
BARTLET: Oh please.
ZOEY: Don't 'oh please' me.
BARTLET: Look, the Secret Service...
ZOEY: The Secret Service should worry about you getting shot.
BARTLET: They are worried about me getting shot. I'm worried about me getting shot. But that is nothing compared to how terrified we are of you. You scare the hell out of the Secret Service Zoey, and you scare the hell out of me too. My getting killed would be bad enough, but that is not the nightmare scenario. The nightmare scenario, sweetheart, is YOU getting kidnapped. You go out to a bar or a party in some club, and you get up to go to the restroom, somebody comes up from behind, puts their hand across your mouth, and whisks you out the back door. You're so petrified, you don't even notice the bodies of two secret service agents lying on the ground with bullet holes in their heads. Then you're whisked away in a car.
It's a big party with lots of noise, and lots of people coming and going. And It's a half hour before someone says, 'Hey where's Zoey?' Another 15 minutes before the first phone call. Another hour and a half before anyone even THINKS to shut down all the airports. Now we're off to the races. You're tied to a chair in a cargo shack, somewhere in the middle of Uganda. And I'm told that I have 72 hours to get Israel to free 460 terrorist prisoners. So I'm on the phone pleading with Benjamin and he's saying, 'I'm sorry Mr. President, but Israel simply does not negotiate with terrorists, period. It's the only way we can survive.' So now we've got a new problem, because this country no longer has a commander in chief, it has a father who's out of his mind because his little girl is in a shack somewhere in Uganda with a gun to her head. DO YOU GET IT?!
For anyone watching (or reading) who then thinks, “Hey, this would be a pretty neat idea!” Well, you weren’t the only ones. Sorkin has admitted he wanted to write that very scenario immediately after the scene concluded. This isn’t surprising. Rules are almost always established to be broken, though I honestly don’t know if that’s just plot device or a combination of humans’ natural tendency to push to see just how far we can go. I certainly know I’ve written rules that I had no intention of breaking. It just happened that way. You start with a basic no-no and the devil in your mind asks, “Well, what WOULD happen? And how could you make it work?”
These clues can be subtle or obvious—it depends on which way you go. Anyone could tell you, even before watching Gremlins, that the rules of “Don’t get them near light, don’t get them wet, and don’t feed them after midnight” would be the focal point in the movie. Heck, Adam and Eve were told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and what did they do?
Now, with certain movies and shows, rules are established with the clear intention of doing the opposite. Yet the driving force behind visual media are the writers who craft the stories together. Rules are made to be broken, and writers are made to test themselves—tease themselves—feed themselves with plots for something on the horizon. Be it “don’t feed them after midnight” or giving oneself a killer plot arc without realizing it.
Plot-driven writers strive to break the rules and see how the world can be altered or challenged. Just make sure you have a plan on getting out. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a very strange place.