Everything Everywhere All At Once only *looks* like a rule-breaker


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, story analysis

It’s no secret that one of my favorite recent movies is Everything Everywhere All At Once. (I even chatted about it in this lovefest/podcast episode.)

And I think it will be a fun one to use as a case study today because it’s such a wild, outrageous movie. In something as inventive as EEAAO, do the standard screenwriting “rules” apply?

It’s also no secret that I will always put “rules” in quotes, because there really are very few hard-and-fast screenwriting “rules.” (Maybe none?)

And yet – or maybe because of that – I truly believe it’s a useful and educational exercise to study the films we love (and some we don’t) to see when they follow the “rules,” when they deviate, and what we can learn from it.

Consuming passively won’t teach you much

Analyzing movies is one of the most fun parts of your job. And it’s not just a handy procrastination tool.

Studying what works helps to make all the theory you’re learning more concrete. You broaden your understanding by seeing how the theory applies in a variety of scenarios. You can pick up tricks that’ll help you solve your own screenwriting challenges. And you can see what the “rules” are really about, so that you can follow or deviate deliberately and effectively.

Basically, studying stories strengthens your mental framework.

But if you really want to learn by watching, you have to watch to learn. Rather than viewing passively, make sure you’re truly engaging those analytical muscles.

Examine and process what you’re consuming. That means always asking yourself, “Does it work? If so, how? If not, why not?”

(Note: major spoilers below! Also, if you haven’t seen the movie, what you read here may seem pretty weird…)

The wilder the story, the stronger the foundation needs to be

In our excitement to start building the story and get to the actual writing-screenplay-pages part of the process, the story’s foundation can get overlooked or hurried past.

But when the foundation isn’t well defined, what you build on top of it tends to go a little wonky. It feels shakier than it should, or goes off in unproductive directions. And often you’ll spend more time than you want trying to figure out how to fix the foundation later on down the line.

Writers sometimes skip over the foundation work because thinking about a story in such simple terms can make it feel bland and boring. Which, in turn, can be discouraging when you’re in those early stages of nurturing an idea.

And that’s yet one more reason to study movies. Look at enough of them and you’ll see that simple and straightforward does not equal bland and boring, especially when we’re talking about the foundation of the whole thing.

You need a foundation to be sturdy, not fancy.

Story foundation elements in Everything Everywhere All At Once

For as unusual as the story is, it’s pretty easy to define the foundation pieces in EEAAO, which is a good test of how clear and straightforward the foundation is as a whole.

    • Protagonist: Evelyn Wang, laundromat owner and married mother of a grown daughter.
    • Goal: Save the multiverse.
    • Method: Verse-jumping to tap into the special skills of alternate versions of herself.
    • Antagonist: Jobu Tupaki aka Joy, Evelyn’s daughter.
    • Stakes: Life (the existence of everything in the multiverse). (Also, a chance for Evelyn to reclaim her self worth.)

Another way to gauge how clear the story is, is to write a logline for it. (Which is really just an exercise in putting the foundation elements together in a sentence.)

Here’s my take:

A middle-aged laundromat owner learns she’s the only person who may be able to save the multiverse from destruction by an evil entity, and she must jump between universes, tapping into the special skills of alternate versions of herself in order to fight the threat.

The Major Plot Points create the story spine

You may have noticed that EEAAO has some elements of a “chosen one” story, or what Blake Snyder called the “superhero” genre. And what’s great is that we can see that story mapped out in the Major Plot Points, exactly as we should be able to:

    1. Inciting Incident: The first real appearance of Alpha Waymond, who warns Evelyn of the grave danger to the multiverse. The Alpha fighters need Evelyn’s help.
    2. Break into Act 2: Two scenes work together to lock in the main conflict:

      First, Evelyn has just seen Alpha Waymond fight off a gang of attackers and then he gives Evelyn a choice: “Come with me and live up to your ultimate potential, or lie here and live with the consequences.” She’s reluctant but he carries her off… into the Act 2 Adventure.

      But the second part of locking in the main conflict comes in the scene immediately after, when we see that Jobu Tupaki — the one who threatens to destroy the multiverse — is a version of Evelyn’s own daughter, Joy. Jobu now knows where Evelyn is and she is coming for her. With that, we understand what Evelyn is going to try to do and what she’s up against.

    3. Midpoint: While Alpha Waymond deals with Jobu Tupaki in another ‘verse, Evelyn tries to explain to her family what’s happening. They laugh, not believing it. But then Alpha Gong Gong (a version of Evelyn’s dad) directs Evelyn to kill Joy so that Jobu has one less universe to access. Evelyn refuses.

      Now Evelyn doesn’t want to just defeat Jobu, she wants to save Joy — which raises the stakes. And it creates a new force of antagonism for Evelyn, as now Alpha Gong Gong and all the other Alpha jumpers are coming to stop her.

    4. Low Point: The constant verse-jumping takes its toll on Evelyn and each of her versions begins to suffer. The sequence culminates in Evelyn signing Waymond’s divorce papers just as the laundromat is seized by the IRS, and Evelyn realizes she’s become just like Jobu Tupaki.
    5. Break into Act 3: Evelyn and Joy meet as rock versions of themselves, and Joy reveals that she had secretly hoped that she wouldn’t persuade Evelyn to her own nihilistic thinking, but that Evelyn would see something Joy didn’t and show her there was another way.
    6. Climax: Evelyn and Joy face off in the real world as Joy asks Evelyn to just let her go. Evelyn refuses, telling Joy that no matter what else is possible, and regardless of any pain involved, Evelyn chooses to be here with Joy and to cherish the few specks of time they have together. This is the alternate point of view — and the acceptance — Joy had hoped for. When they hug, we know Evelyn has succeeded.

It’s useful to examine how we can see the connections between the Major Plot Points. A line can be drawn from one to the next that altogether creates the whole story. When any of the major plot points isn’t connected or aligned, the viewer senses something is off.

This is a test you can put your story through, too. Can you see the basic outline of your whole story in the MPPs?

Never underestimate the power of a good “What I’ve learned” speech

The best movies are about something, and we see the meaning through the protagonist’s transformative experience. Their journey ultimately leads us to the point of the story. Very often, that point is summed up in a “What I’ve learned speech” somewhere in or around the climax.

The “what I’ve learned” speech in EEAAO is one of the best I’ve seen:

Evelyn: Maybe it’s like you said, maybe there is something out there, some new discovery that’ll make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit. Something that explains why even after seeing everything, and giving up, you still went looking for me through all of this noise. And why no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always want to be here with you.

Joy: So… what? You’re just going to ignore everything else? You could be anything, anywhere. Why not go somewhere where your daughter is more than just… this. Here, all we’ll get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes sense.

Evelyn: Then I will cherish these few specks of time.

It gets me every time.

Beautifully written. But another thing that makes it so effective? It’s so very earned.

Evelyn has been through the wringer. She really has seen everything, all the possibilities in the multiverse. We know it because we have witnessed the journey she’s describing. And we’ve seen exactly how hard-won this lesson is.

For as wild and unique a ride as it is, Everything Everywhere All At Once really nails the fundamentals and delivers an emotional punch. Which is probably even more impactful because we don’t expect this quirky path to take us to such a truthful emotional place.

To be clear: It’s not good because it follows the rules. It’s good because of the effect it has on its audience. (It entertains us and moves our emotions.)

The “rules” we talk about are generally good guidelines for shaping a story that’ll have the effect on the audience that you want to achieve, but always think of any “rules” as a starting point — not a limitation.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.