Breaking rules

Early in his acting career, Arnold Schwarzenegger established a reputation for being both ambitious and easy to get along with. But he once famously clashed with James Cameron on the set of The Terminator about what would become the most famous line in a groundbreaking movie.

Arnold suggested his killer android character would say “I will be back,” arguing that a machine would not use a contraction. Cameron, who was renowned for his meticulousness, held his ground, finally demanding that Arnold stick to the script. As Arnold recalled, Cameron told him, “I don’t correct your acting, so don’t correct my writing.” Arnold did as he was told, and in the above video, he confesses that Cameron made the right call.

Kudos to Arnold for admitting his mistake.

But the real point is how you can be technically right but artistically wrong. Submissions editors see manuscripts all the time that click on all the technical points, such as tension, characterization, and a good premise, but fail to engage the reader.

The showdown between Arnold and Cameron illustrates that sometimes the logical way isn’t always best. A story develops its own internal logic and dynamic, and it takes years of practice to recognize that fact. James Cameron knew what he was doing.

Another way to put it is that you have to master the rules before you’re good enough to break them. Then you can wield them flexibly and effectively.

16 thoughts on “Breaking rules”

  1. Hi Mike, love this! I’ve read many books that are technically good, but stiff–in fact I had to pass up one for my book club because of this issue (the author was pretty mad at me!). My husband’s cousin is a film photographer and has worked with James Cameron on several films, including Titanic, and he said the same thing to me–that Jim is meticulous and knows what he wants and that you learn so much from working with a person like that. Although Cameron seems far more American in temperament than Canadian!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome story. Schwarzenegger will always be Conan for me. That was the film of my childhood (along with The Princess Bride and Goonies). Similar to your post, I read an interesting bit about logical versus emotional framing in Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” He framed a scenario as looking at these two outcomes of a soccer game: Italy won; France lost. They are logically the same outcome, but they clearly indicate different meanings and incite different feelings. In that manner, “I will be back” probably wouldn’t have had the same connotation as “I’ll be back.” The suave of the Terminator’s character (no BS, black leather, shotgun) warrants something that’s clear and concise.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joshua,

    What’s great about that line is that it’s both threatening and comical — yeah, he came back, all right.

    And the Boom! Boom! Boom! delivery underscored the killer android’s power and relentlessness.

    Liked by 1 person

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