Rules in Storytelling and the Appeal of John Wick

 Photo credit: Lionsgate

Photo credit: Lionsgate

[author's note: MASSIVE spoilers ahead for John Wick Chapter 2.You’ve been warned!]

At first glance, the John Wick series is straight-ahead, no frills action. There are guns. There are bad guys with Russian accents. There are gratuitously violent scenes often to the point of absurdity. Going into the first film I only knew it was an action flick starring Neo from The Matrix. Imagine my surprise when I found not only masterful action sequences but also a rich comic book-like universe of assassins operating in a semi-supernatural underworld of New York City. John Wick Chapter 2 expands on the first in every conceivable way: bigger story, expanded lore, crazier action. As I watched John Wick Chapter 2, I knew there was something special beyond the expertly directed action sequences. Despite both films being built around the simple revenge film archetype, there's something special about them. Something that elevates the series beyond gun porn.

The world of John Wick is governed by rules--very clear rules that affect the plot and the characters. For example, no “business” can be conducted on Continental grounds. There’s no ambiguity here. Also, a Marker cannot be refused. Most of the assassins in John Wick’s world operate under these rules. Their strict code of professionalism reminds me of classic samurai cinema. Part of John Wick’s appeal is the presentation of a universe that has a surprising amount of order despite the frequent gun play and assassination. Yes, these people are killers, but they have an honesty and dignity that our world seems to lack at the moment.

Rules in a story can do much of the mechanical heavy lifting of the plot. Natural laws/rules can be used to establish an alien world. Want to create a sense of danger in your science fiction story? How about setting it on a planet where the rain falls so hard it can kill a human. This is an effective rule. John Wick uses rules in the sense of man-made laws. They're perverse mirrors of our own laws and that’s why they’re intuitive. No conducting "business" on Continental grounds speaks to the audience the same way as “no roughhousing in the classroom.” The assassin laws regarding Markers propels John Wick into action. It’s an inciting incident hidden as a cool piece of lore. As my old screenwriting professor would say, it’s how the writer feeds us the vegetables of the three-act structure by baking them into a delicious muffin.

We can look at the big picture. Think about your favorite fictional world, especially in science fiction or fantasy. Don’t they all have clearly-defined rules? One of the key foundations of The Lord of the Rings is that the only way to destroy the One Ring is to throw it into the fires of Mt. Doom. That’s a rule. And like any good rule it creates a tough journey for the protagonist. If, halfway through, Sam and Frodo figured out they could destroy the One Ring by stomping on it, you’d feel cheated. That’s what rules can do. They set up expectations, conflicts, and a general path of plot.

John Wick Chapter 2 uses the rule of no “business” on Continental grounds to set up its effectively shocking third act twist. John’s bloody fight with Cassian ends when they inadvertently break through a window and land on Continental property. The manager, Julius, kindly reminds them of the rule. John and Cassian honor this despite literally trying to kill each other two seconds before.

Knowing this rule as well, Santino D’Antonio retreats to the Continental in Manhattan after John Wick fights through his bodyguards. Santino greets John with the implication that he can stay within the safe grounds indefinitely. This would, in theory, stop John from exacting revenge. Instead, John shoots the smug Italian right in his dumb face. John is then excommunicated from the Continental and the world of assassins by extension. This character choice has grave consequences and completely redefines John and his relationship with the world of the films.

Setting up rules not only establishes a world but also offers the potential for characters to break them. Some (not all) rules are meant to be broken. The writer of John Wick decides to break the world’s central rule in both films. In the first film it results in a minor character being executed. In the second it results in John’s world turning upside down. Again, deciding to break your story’s rules should not be done lightly. As I said before, rules establish audience expectations and it’s easy to leave them feeling cheated instead of thrilled.

Breaking rules is most effective when motivated by character. John doesn’t break the cardinal rule of the Continental because he just feels like it. He breaks it because he’s so desperate for revenge he’s willing to risk excommunication. With deft writing, rule breaking can evolve from a lazy character beat to a character-defining moment. Additionally, the beat reveals much about John’s interior struggle. All you need to ask yourself is this: would the John we meet at the beginning of the film do such a thing? No. Therefore, he’s grown as a character over the course of the story.

I can’t stress the importance of rules in storytelling enough. Next time you consume a fantasy or science fiction story pay attention to the writer’s rules. What do they offer? How are they helping the machinery under the hood of the book or script? The best writers can weave these rules together with other aspects of plot and character into a tight, seamless experience. It’s why John Wick is more than just another action movie.