Break a Rule!

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Here’s a homework assignment I have given to comedy-writing students from Nicaragua to Norway, and now I’m giving it to you. Whether you’re a comedy writer or not, I think you’ll find it useful, and fun. Here it comes. Ready?

Between now and tomorrow morning, go out and do something you’ve never done before. Anything. I don’t care what.

The great thing about this exercise is how it kicks you out of your comfort zone, or assaults the comfort zone of others, or both. When that happens, you’ll experience some powerful emotions. You’ll also find something funny. Almost guaranteed.

If you’re really gung ho, you’ll do the exercise twice: once, right now, before reading what others have done and what I think it all means; and then again, later, after we’ve had that discussion.

People predictably solve this problem either in terms of breaking personal rules of behavior or breaking social norms. One woman in Canada had a civil conversation with her ex-husband – something she had never done before. She used the excuse of “it’s homework” to unburn a certain bridge. She understood that the exercise gave her permission to do something she had long wanted to do: It changed the “rules” of her relationship with her ex-husband and provided a new way to engage him.

Here are some other things people have done.

An Irish Protestant visited his local Catholic church, a place he had always considered verboten.

A certain woman in Sydney lay down across the sidewalk to see if people would ignore her, and they did.

Occasionally there’s a wise-ass who says, “I didn’t do your homework, which is something I’ve never done before.” Which is bull, but whatever.

A lot of people kiss strangers or buy them drinks or meals. It’s liberating, it really is.

First prize, though, has to go to this kid in Rome who read a hard-core porno magazine on the bus as if it were a newspaper. I asked him how the experience made him feel, which is always the question I ask. He said at first he felt scared because his behavior was so off-the-charts unacceptable. But then he noticed that people around him were afraid of him, and gave him lots of space. This made him feel powerful, the specific power that comes from playing by rules that no one else understands. By the time he got off the bus, rolled-up magazine tucked under his arm like a triumphant umbrella, he was just high.

That’s the very best thing about this exercise. It almost always gets you high – high on the power of breaking the rules. But also it’s funny, and it feeds creativity. If you go out into the world with notebook in hand and do nothing but break rules, new ideas will liberally fall at your feet, and you can write them all down. What ten things could you do with a shopping cart in a parking lot that would drop jaws all around? How would those ten things make you feel? Which ones would be funny? Which would be stories? Check it out. Go do it. That or something like that. See how it feels to break rules. I just know it’ll feel great.

I’m not saying go get arrested. As far as I know, no one doing this homework ever has. The closest anyone came was a student who bootlegged some books out of a library. When he got caught, he glibly explained that he was on a class assignment and they let him go. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you call it homework, but that’s not the point. The point is that breaking the rules is just a sure fire way to create new things. Whenever you need a laugh, or a fresh perspective, or a new idea, and you don’t know where else to turn, try breaking a rule.

Whenever you need a laugh, or a fresh perspective, or a new idea, and you don’t know where else to turn, try breaking a rule.

This brings us into the territory of comic characters, because all they do is break rules. Or no, not exactly. It’s not that they break your rules, it’s just that they follow their own.

If you want an easy way to understand any comic character, just ask this question: What rule does he follow at the expense of all else? You’re going to find that this rule is a powerful predictor of two things:

    – What she will do.
    – How she will be funny.

Think about comic characters you love, and ask yourself what’s their controlling idea, their one big rule. Right now I’m thinking about Sean Penn as Spicoli in Cameron Crowe’s timeless classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, whose controlling idea is, “Always be stoned.” And now I’m thinking about Kate in William Shakespeare’s timeless classic, The Taming of the Shrew, whose controlling idea is, “Men are not the boss of me.” Who are you thinking about? What’s their controlling idea?

And by the way, if comedy isn’t your thing, you can still us the concept of controlling idea to get a grip on your characters. As has often been said, comedy is just drama plus exaggeration, so this tool for gaining insight into comic characters should work for non-comic ones as well.

On the other hand, if comedy is your thing and you’re trying to find your way into a comic situation, you can use this simple formula:

  1. Assign a character a strong controlling idea.
  2. Put him someplace where that idea doesn’t fit.

This is a porn fiend on a bus. It’s also an iconoclast in a monastery, a bubblehead in a boardroom, or any of a million renegade cops or private eyes in a hard, cold world that rejects their code.

Now let’s take it a step further. Just for the heck of it, let’s imagine that we’re out to create something like a situation comedy. Can we do that using nothing but this concept of controlling idea? I kind of think we can:

  1. Think of a character.
  2. Assign that character a rule.
  3. Think of the rule that’s opposite to that.
  4. Assign it to another character.
  5. Lash them together.
  6. Watch hilarity ensue.

I love that it’s so simple. “He’s a cop! She’s a crook! Together they’re the new situation comedy Law and Disorder!”

You say you’re not in the business of making situation comedies? I honor that. You could be an essayist or a novelist or a journalist or any kind of -ist at all. Writing sitcoms, or even thinking about sitcoms, may be something that you’ve never done before.

Which makes now the perfect time to try. It could be the thing you’ve never done before. It could be your homework. You might not create The Big Bang Theory, but I guarantee you’ll have some fun.

Breaking the rules is just one of the many tools I use when I need a little creative blockbusting. What tools do you use to shake up your sorting system? Won’t you share yours with me? I’ve got a million of ‘em, but I can always use one more.


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!


  1. says


    Timely! I’d done your homework before logging in. I’ve never danced before breakfast. This morning I did.

    My son eats his breakfast at the speed of a banana slug. It’s a problem because the school bus arrives promptly at 7:15, sometimes early, and does not wait.

    This morning I promised him that if he finished his oatmeal, rushed his teeth, picked his ‘fro and loaded his backpack with time to spare he’d get a surprise. What surprise, you ask? Exactly the question I was asking myself. And wouldn’t you know? He was ready ahead of time.

    So, I plugged my iPod into the speakers and cranked up a funk number I’d downloaded last night, “Stomp” by Quincy Jones. Never mind that the coffee has barely kicked in, that number *moves*. In seconds we were all dancing around and drumming on the toaster.

    My boy caught the bus and I caught a good morning.

    BTW, your homework is similar to an exercise I teach in workshops. You write down things your main character would never say, do, think or feel. Then you find the places in the manuscript where the character says, does, thinks and feels those things.

    Great minds break rules. Dance on.

  2. Denise Willson says

    Love it! Nothing I enjoy more than turning a character upside down. Actions surprise us, but it’s how the character reacts to those actions, how they feel about doing or saying something unusual that keeps us reading.

    Thanks for the homework!

    And keep dancing, Don!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  3. says

    I think this exercise has all kinds of benefits. Anytime I do something a little outside my norm (it doesn’t take much for this middle-aged broad), I get a little giddy with the experience and, most importantly, I find it really does heighten my creativity.

    Now this challenge is going to be on my mind and I’m going to try to find a way to incorporate it over the next week. My teenage kids, who are highly sensitive to their mom’s deviant and/or odd behavior, may be sending you a note asking you what the heck you were thinking encouraging this. Just a warning…

  4. says

    I love this post, John. (Also the new avatar.) Good prescriptions for life and for writing.

    The sharpest and most poignant memories of my childhood come from my parents doing not-parent things. Now you’ve got my mind a-buzzing…

  5. says

    Hi, John!
    This is a great idea for developing characters. I never thought about using it to develop characters before.

    I used to use the concept of breaking rules when teaching my sixth graders to get their attention. One day I walked into the classroom and started speaking gibberish. I didn’t even know what I was saying! I pointed at them and made commands and acted frustrated and angry when they didn’t respond. I kept it up for about ten minutes, and then I asked my students how it made them feel. We had a great discussion about what happens when communication breaks down.

    Another time I separated my fifth graders’ desks into two sections before they arrived to school one day—all the brown-eyed children were in one section, and the rest of the kids were in the second section. When they arrived, I told them I had decided to rearrange the room, and they needed to find their desks. Then I paid attention only to the brown-eyed children for about twenty minutes and told them they could draw or read or talk quietly with one another; the others had a complicated worksheet that had to be completed in twenty minutes with no talking and eyes on the paper—no looking up. The students could not figure out why one group was so privileged. We were studying the Civil War at the time, and I wanted to give them a very mild dose of what it felt like to be treated as “less than,” “privileged,” or “special.” At the end of the experiment, we had a very productive discussion about their feelings and the meanings of equal rights and tolerance. (When I asked them how they thought I separated them into groups, no one figured it out that day; several days later a group of students came up with the variable. At least I kept them thinking!)

    Now in our workshops we use this idea as part of our real life training for entrepreneurs who want to create new products and bring them to market. Thanks for writing such a great description of how you use it. You are working with some very creative people!

  6. says

    I love this idea! Much of the writing advice out there starts sounding the same, but this is a clever spin to prompt some courage and creativity and to allow us writers to get a new look at human behavior/interaction. I’m going to try it this weekend!

  7. says

    You mean it really IS okay if I go into department stores and lick the covers of magazines like I’ve always wanted? John, I’ll print out your helmeted avatar and tell people “He told me to do it” if they don’t understand.

    Hey, it’s fall too: pumpkin time! I’ve always wanted to put a small saddle on the biggest pumpkin in a grocery store, and ride it while whipping the nearby tomatoes with a lariat. Finally, permission granted. Thank you, oh thank you!

  8. Cal Rogers says

    I’m going to watch for the mail truck tomorrow (it just ran today, so too late), arrange to be on my driveway checking to see if I have anything when it pulls up, and finally speak to the attractive lady who delivers my mail. Will report back tomorrow on my progress.

  9. Cal Rogers says

    Follow-up: The lady who delivers my mail is married, by the looks of her ring finger. But now I know to stop wondering about her. More brain cells available for writing!