How The Film MOONLIGHT Breaks The Rules

The film MOONLIGHT claimed top prizes by winning the Academy Awards for best picture and best screenplay last month. This film is brilliant. And in my opinion, much of that brilliance comes from the fact that it broke so MANY conventional writing “rules” that we’ve been told again and again. It broke those rules – AND still produced a magnificent story and cinematic experience.

How did MOONLIGHT break the “rules”? Here are a few examples of supposed “no-no’s” you may have heard from a writing instructor:

  • It doesn’t have a strong inciting incident.
  • It doesn’t have strong action.
  • It’s not plot oriented.
  • The opening is “slow” and doesn’t telegraph the film’s direction.
  • Many scenes seem to exist purely for character development, as a portrait, rather than adding to the plot.
  • It takes the film a long time to articulate its central question.
  • It uses subtle forms of stakes, conflict, and tension.
  • It shows that everyday life CAN make a story.
  • It puts character development before plot.

How did MOONLIGHT manage to get away with all of this and still win top honors? How did it break so many “rules” and still manage to create an emotionally gripping, heartfelt, honest story? That’s the topic for this week’s video.

Friends, let’s talk about MOONLIGHT! There is so much for us to learn from this film as storytellers.

Don’t worry … there are NO SPOILERS in this video.

It’s important to remember that writing is a series of choices. Every choice we make creates priorities in our manuscripts. A choice for character development can sometimes make plot second fiddle. A choice to focus on mood might take away tension. A focus on action might undermine depth. There’s no RIGHT way to do it. There’s always a compromise. We can’t make everything important, because that dilutes the entire package. So we, as writers, must choose what we want our audience to focus on. We get to create the sign posts and the guidelines and the experience. We choose what we think is important and why. We make those choices with intent.

Of course, our storytelling choices don’t always work for everyone. Every book, film, short story, picture book, essay … every single one, will have a critic. Every piece of art will have someone who believes that something else should have been more important. Sometimes those critics point out important things that we didn’t consider. Other times those critics don’t realize what the story would loose if something else was more important. It’s our job to know why we put character over plot, or downplayed a big revelation, or didn’t develop a secondary character. In my opinion, as long as the authors knows why a specific choice was made, then they’ve acted with conviction.

Have you seen MOONLIGHT? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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