On Magic Beans and Screenwriting Rules

Rian, I love your stuff, but I can’t disagree with you more on this point. You can’t blame the guy for having such a strong opinion on this issue, of course. His film Looper has two “magic beans” by this definition, and it’s a popular point of contention among its detractors. Do I agree with those detractors? No. I really like Looper, and though I haven’t watched it in a while, I’m of the opinion that Johnson’s story is so strong that he gets away with breaking this rule.

Why is it a rule, though? Right off the bat I’ll say this: I think that having “rules of screenwriting” is dumb. It’s really, really dumb. It’s restrictive and anti-creative. Writers should feel free to create stories that no one’s ever experienced before. The creative stagnation that we sometimes feel in mainstream Hollywood cinema is because studios want scripts that stick to tried-and-true formulas. Writers hate this, and with good reason. The whole point of being a storyteller is having the flexibility to do whatever you want. And if you can do it well, nothing else should matter.

But if that’s the case, then why are people able to tell the difference between a good screenplay and a bad one? Isn’t the whole concept of “bad” screenwriting predicated on the notion that a screenwriter can do something “wrong?” That implies that there’s a distinction between the “wrong” way to do something and the “right” way. So people write stupid screenwriting how-to books in order to help people understand what makes a good screenplay “good.” Trouble is, those books usually are geared towards writing a screenplay that you can sell, one that studio heads who don’t know jack about good storytelling will read and want to make. When people mistake that for storytelling advice, we get generic and bland films. But there’s a fine line at play. Writers can do whatever they want with their stories, but if they don’t follow at least some very basic storytelling rules, the story won’t work. The concept of “magic beans” is one of them, or at least it should be. Johnson gave a quick definition of magic beans in those tweets, but I think it’s a little off-base. Here’s how I would put it:

Here are three (albeit not the only three, don’t jump down my throat) types of stories: Stories that can conceivably happen in our real world today,  stories that can’t because they contain elements that don’t exist, and stories that exist in a fictional world which is so different from the real world that anything can happen.

In the first category, you’ve got your basic dramas. There’s nothing in, say, Short Term 12 that removes it from reality. There’s no reason that the events of that story couldn’t literally play out in the real world.

In the second category, we move into genre fiction. Here we see films like Back to the Future, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and The Sixth Sense. All of these films start with one thing that doesn’t exist in reality, one magic bean, and tell a story based around that thing. The premise always boils down to, “If this thing existed, what might happen because of that?” This category is where the crux of my disagreement with Johnson lies.

The third category is what I call “wonderland” films. The magic bean argument is irrelevant to these, because they don’t take place in our real world, which allows a screenwriter to get away with pretty much anything. The Wizard of Oz goes here, as do Alice in WonderlandThe Lord of the Rings, and most other works of fantasy fiction. The most important thing here is that the possibilities must truly be limitless. The Harry Potter series works because there are so many different aspects of magic, different ways it can work. Not to mention a ton of magical creatures. Anything that’s needed to tell the story can easily be explained away with “magic did it, and here’s how.” Science-fiction films set in the far future also qualify. The magic bean in Star Trek is just “it’s the future.” Any time they needed a piece of technology, they had it. So they can have giant spaceships that travel to distant planets, with strange and unique alien populations. Every new conceit stemmed from the futuristic setting. It’s also important to note that, in a lot of these cases, every invented thing in the film ultimately comes from a single magic bean.

Understanding where things stem from is vital to understanding why magic beans can sink a story. If Back to the Future also had ghosts show up, that would be problematic. Now, if the screenwriter found a way to explain that the time machine somehow caused the ghosts to happen, there would only be one magic bean again. This is one of my problems with the Pixar film Up. That film starts with an old man tying a bunch of balloons to his house and floating away to South America. That’s a pretty clear magic bean, but it’s okay. The story being told revolves around the fact that this happens, so it’s pointless to object to it. It’s a movie, it can have things like this happen. However, later on in the movie we meet another old man who becomes the antagonist. He’s invented a dog collar that lets dogs talk. Now the film has a ton of talking dogs. These talking dogs are also hyper-intelligent and they can fly airplanes. Apart from those two things, there’s nothing else in the story that couldn’t happen in reality.

Do you see why this presents a problem? I think Johnson would argue that if we can accept one ridiculous thing, there shouldn’t be a problem accepting the other. But it’s awful, awful storytelling to have both of them for no good reason. The talking dogs are unnecessary to the story. The only reason they exist is to add a comic-relief character and some additional peril to the climax. Like I said, though, if the film took place in a completely invented world, this wouldn’t matter. If there were a lot of other separate magic beans, it would become less of a problem. But when you just have two, it weighs down the story. It dilutes the primary magic bean to have a secondary one, and since the primary bean is the premise of the movie, having a secondary one robs the premise of some of its power.

Imagine if, in the third act of Back to the Future, Doc Brown revealed that the whole town was infested with ghosts, and that they all wanted to stop Marty from accomplishing his goal. Thematically, sure, there might be a way to tie this into the film. But if you’re an audience member, you’re immediately put-off because it feels like the screenwriter is cheating. The fact that there’s a time machine is acceptable. Also having malevolent ghosts isn’t. Why is that? Why is the second one inherently harder to swallow than the first? Because when you’re watching Back to the Future and you ask yourself that question about the ghosts, you realize that the time machine is no more ridiculous. You’re willing to accept without question a fantastical element if it’s there for the purpose of telling a story, but if there’s more than one of those elements, it’s much easier to see the man pulling the strings.

Now, Johnson argues that you can have a dozen magic beans as long as you justify their place in the story. I don’t disagree in that specific case. That is, having twelve magic beans, all clearly integrated into the larger story, isn’t that objectionable. Having two magic beans is a much larger issue. The more magic beans you have past one, the less annoyed the audience will be. This runs parallel to the idea of “wonderland” stories. It’s very hard to sell a story where two impossible things exist. It’s very easy to sell a story where a dozen  impossible things exist. If there are only two, the whole thing feels like made-up bullshit and the story collapses. If there are a dozen, it becomes more like a “wonderland” story. That’s assuming that all twelve of them at least somewhat stem from a broader magic bean. A storyteller can’t have twelve distinct impossible things. Then they’re just making it up as they go along.

For people who would contest this point, I’d like you to stop thinking of this in terms of movies and start thinking in terms of television. Imagine if halfway through the second season of The Walking Dead, it was revealed that aliens had been secretly living among the humans the entire time. The show is the same up to this point, but now there are aliens. These aliens are totally unrelated to the established zombies. They didn’t cause the zombie outbreak or anything. They’re just there. And they can use alien technology to help the heroes get out of dangerous situations. People would be furious, and rightfully so. See, television has its own version of the “second magic bean.” They call it “jumping the shark.” It’s the point in a show where the ridiculousness goes just over the line for the first time, and viewers start to notice it. Now, shows can add fresh new elements to the plot every season, provided they’re connected to what’s already been established. But people will notice when show-runners appear to be making stuff up as they go along. Why is there a difference in how people approach these two mediums? I think it has something to do with time commitment. When you’re sitting in a theater for 100 minutes and you’re told a complete story, it might not even occur to you how stupid it is that there’s a flying house AND dogs piloting airplanes. But when you spend hours upon hours of your life watching a TV show, it feels like more of a betrayal when you start to see those strings. Why should this make a difference in terms of sheer storytelling, though? Why is it unfair to criticize this lazy screenwriting gimmick in film, but no one questions it on television? When you think about it, there’s no real difference.

So I see what Johnson is saying, I really do. No one wants to sacrifice artistic integrity for the sake of following “rules,” and no one should have to. But dismissing all of those rules as “dumb and made-up” throws out some ideas that are worth thinking about. If you’re making a work of genre fiction that needs an extra magic bean, then maybe that first magic bean needs to be strengthened so that it can support a story on its own. If there’s no reason to have more than one, there shouldn’t be more than one. This is true of screenwriting in general, as a matter of fact. If there’s no reason for something to be there, the movie will be better without it.

Johnson actually responded to a tweet I sent out earlier today disagreeing with his argument, and I sent back the 140-character version of this essay. He responded thusly:

Yup. Indeed it is. And I think having two magic beans is a great way to screw up the execution of your story. So, no, there shouldn’t be a “rule” about any aspect of screenwriting. But maybe it’s alright for there to be guidelines. Follow them or don’t follow them, whatever floats your boat. It’s worthwhile to consider them though, because while it’s possible to tell a good story without doing so, it’ll be a lot easier to tell a great story if you do.


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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

4 thoughts on “On Magic Beans and Screenwriting Rules”

  1. I agree there shouldn’t be any hard rules about writing in terms of plot and structure (within reason, of course). Having said that, I find it very funny that Johnson made this claim about screenwriting because it is that “second magical bean” that I took issue with in his film; he has a terrible habit of rule breaking and rule changing that really disrupts the believability of the Looper universe.

    This issue is that in science fiction, the expectations have to be set in the first (and maybe second) act of the film. Science fiction films, as you described in your second “category,” feature one “bean” and are otherwise grounded in its own version of our reality. This is why Looper misses the mark, as does Inception, while movies like Moon and The Matrix succeed.

    And yes, I am aware the “magic bean” in Moon shows up in the third act. But that’s a tough trick to pull off if you’re not Duncan Jones.

      1. Oh I agree, and that’s why it works. It’s just not always easy to reveal such a big conceit in the final act and not have it feel contrived.

        Of course, this is assuming every film follows a three act structure… And we know that’s not always true!

  2. I just encountered the “one magic bean” rule today, but it’s more or less the same as one of my own observations about writing fiction: “You get one free ‘what-if’. All others must be paid for.”

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