We've all heard the phrase "rules are made to be broken." After all, it's practically become the mating call of fictional rebels and cheaters the world over. In the world of storytelling, however, that adage doesn't describe a rebel's motto so much as a fundamental truth:
If a rule is introduced into the story, it only exists to be broken...or, at the very least, bumped up against.
The above is another expression of the same principle that guides tropes like Chekhov's Gun and The Law of Conservation of Detail: everything mentioned in a story must have some kind of purpose. The existence of an important rule in a story necessitates that someone will eventually break it, or come close to doing so. If no one ever breaks this rule or has to worry about breaking it, then the rule has no payoff, and therefore no purpose. A story element with no payoff, unless it's deliberately being used to distract or redirect the audience, is a waste of time for both author and audience.
In keeping with this principle, the Inevitably Broken Rule trope describes any narratively significant rule that exists only for a character to eventually break it, and whose breaking affects the progress of the story or a character's arc in some meaningful fashion.
The Inevitably Broken Rule is an extremely versatile trope, as it doesn't place very many limits on how it can be presented in the story. The rule itself can be all-important, such as "if the balance is tampered with, thousands may die"; it can be mundane, as in "you'll be expelled if you get caught fighting again"; or it can be downright silly, such as "always dance a jig through the Jiggly Jungle or you'll be sorry!" The rule may be broken by any character: the protagonists, the antagonists, or even an incidental character. It may be broken deliberately or accidentally, with good intent or ill, through action or failure to act. For the purposes of this trope, the specifics of the rule or its breaking aren't terribly important. The important part is that the rule is broken, and its breaking carries consequences that meaningfully affect the plot or the characters in some way.
Depending on what the rule is and when it's broken, the Inevitably Broken Rule can play many different parts in a story. If broken at the start of the story, it may kick off the main plot where the characters attempt to deal with the consequences of their actions. If broken later in the story, it may play a part in resolving the main plot. Yet it doesn't have to be a central part of the plot; it can also be used to signal a change in a character's mindset or serve as a Secret Test of Character for a protagonist. The options are limited only by the writer's imagination.
- Forbidden Chekhov's Gun, in which a character is forced to use an item they were specifically warned against using.
- Forbidden Fruit, in which a character can't resist doing something solely because they were told not to.
- Forbidden Zone, in which the characters are forced to go to a place that is off-limits or extremely dangerous.
- Frequently-Broken Unbreakable Vow, in which a character makes a promise only to be forced to break it later.
- Horror Hates A Rule Breaker, when a rule must inevitably be broken to allow a horror story to begin.
See also Tempting Fate and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, both tropes in which talking about something causes it (or its opposite) to happen. For In-Universe cases where the characters believe rules are made to be broken, see Not Cheating Unless You Get Caught.
- Dragon Ball: Goku really has a hard time following rules:
- Dragon Ball Z:
- "Don't overexert on Kaioken." He does so during his fight with Vegeta and nearly incapacitates himself in the process.
- "Don't fight Frieza." Naturally, he does so in order to save his son and friends, but also because he wanted to.
- "Make sure to take this cure for a heart disease you'll have before you go off to fight the androids." This one's actually justified. As a result of Trunks meddling with the timeline, Goku didn't get sick when Trunks predicted he would. He was supposed to get sick a year from when they met. Instead, Goku didn't come down with his heart disease until three years later... Unfortunately, right when he's in the middle of battle with the Androids.
- "Don't fight Majin-Vegeta because the energy from the fight will awaken Buu." Wild guess what happens there.
- Dragon Ball Super:
- King Kai tells him not to fight Beerus. He does anyway and gets his ass kicked.
- He's told not to do anything dumb while visiting Universe 10, so he requests a sparring match with Gowasu's ward, Zamasu and inadvertently creates the villain of the Goku Black arc.
- He's told not to remind the Zenos of their promise to make their own tournament. He does so anyway because he's bored and ends up putting a number of universes on the chopping block. Yeah, his suggestion does allow the universes a fair shot to save themselves, but he didn't know that at the time and his actions were purely out of self-interest.
- Dragon Ball Z:
- One of the core rules about Devil Fruit powers in One Piece is that a single person cannot have more than one Devil Fruit power. If a Devil Fruit user tries to eat another Devil Fruit, they will die. It's said that the powers come from a demon possessing your body. Eating another fruit and inviting a second demon into your body causes the two demons to fight over you, destroying you in the process. Marshall D. Teach, "Blackbeard" became one of the most dangerous men in all the world by taking the powers of a second Devil Fruit on top of his own Dark Dark Fruit powers. The devastating power of his former captain Whitebeard. Marco, a member of Blackbeard's former crew, remarks that Teach has a very unique body compared to other people, which is why he was able to break this rule.
- The people of Underworld in Sword Art Online: Alicization are bound by a code of laws known as the Taboo Index. The Index is not merely rigidly enforced by the Integrity Knights, it is physically impossible for most to defy: Eugeo is left temporarily paralyzed when he attempts to defy the Index in order to rescue Alice from the Integrity Knights, and Raios dies by glitching out when he is forced into a situation where he has no choice but to violate the Taboo Index, either by allowing his own death or by asking his accomplice Humbert to give his life for him. However, the entire point of Underworld's existence is to create artificial intelligences capable of voluntarily defying said rules, and Alice herself turns out to be the first successful case.
- When Aladdin is permitted to enter the Cave of Wonders, he is given one rule. "Touch nothing but the lamp." Since the Cave of Wonders is filled to the brim with riches, the temptation hounds Abu until, just as Aladdin gets the lamp, Abu grabs a massive ruby. The Cave of Wonders is outraged that they have touched the forbidden treasure and tries to kill them in a wave of fire and magma. Had they not used the lamp to free the Genie, they would have been stuck there forever.
- In Happy Feet there is one golden truth above all others: never drop your egg. Memphis, distracted by thoughts of his wife, drops his egg in the arctic snow. He retrieves it fast enough to save his unborn son's life, but Mumble is born completely tone-deaf because of it.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- In Ant-Man, Hank Pym tells Scott to never mess with the regulator in his suit that prevents him from shrinking under one inch in size, as shrinking beyond that becomes irreversible and/or could cause him to shrink forever. In fact, this is how Hank lost his beloved wife Janet. At the climax, Scott breaks his regulator to save his daughter and shrinks to sub-atomic size before managing to save himself with another gadget, returning to normal size and provoking Hank's suspicions that Janet could be saved from her fate.
- In Avengers: Endgame, the characters are told to adhere to specific rules when dealing with time travel and the Infinity Stones:
- An important rule of time travel using Pym Particles as fuel should always save one particle for the trip back home, which Tony and Steve break by using their last particle to jump to another time where they'll be able to get more.
- Infinity Stones should only be wielded by someone capable of handling the massive bodily strain of all that cosmic power. Therefore, only inhumanly strong heavyweights like the Hulk or Thanos should attempt to use them. However, at the climax Tony Stark wields all six Infinity Stones, using their power to kill off Thanos and his army at the cost of his own life.
- In Ghostbusters, Egon strongly cautions to never "cross the streams" while firing their power-packs, as it could potentially kill them all and cause massive destruction. However, at the end of the movie, they do it anyway in order to defeat the Big Bad. They survive.
- The three rules of keeping a Mogwai in Gremlins: never expose them to light, never get them wet, and never ever feed them after midnight. The breaking of the second and third rules causes the Gremlin infestation, while the breaking of the first rule ends it.
- Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, in the titular deathmatch, There Are No Rules except for one: "two men enter, one man leaves". A rule that Max breaks when he refuses to keep fighting Blaster after finding out that Blaster is a man with Down Syndrome. This breaks the deal he had with Auntie, which leads to all of the problems he endures for the rest of the film.
- In The Cat in the Hat, the Cat gives Conrad only one rule — "no opening the crate". It takes Conrad all of about five minutes to break the rule, and his doing so kicks off the second half of the plot. At the end of the film, it's revealed that the Cat actually invoked this trope and gave Conrad the rule because he knew Conrad would break it. It was all part of his plan for the day.
- Frank Martin from The Transporter has three personal rules in his role as a Getaway Driver: don't change the deal, no names, and never open the package. While he's transporting a package for his latest client, he gets curious and opens the package. It turns out to be a young woman who's the "cargo" in a human trafficking ring, whom he then has to protect from his employers and the ring in general.
- Invoked with the famed "first rule of Fight Club: you do not talk about Fight Club!" The rule is deliberate (and ultimately successful) Schmuck Bait on Tyler's part, as he actually wants the members of the titular Club to tell as many people as possible to get as many as he can involved in Project Mayhem..
- In The Dark Knight, The Joker becomes utterly obsessed with getting Batman to break his one rule. However, he fails. The sequel has Catwoman break said rule on Batman's behalf at one part, while casually remarking how she's not a fan of that rule.
- The Rule of Two in Star Wars indicates that there may only be two Sith at a time: a master and an apprentice, and the apprentice's job is to strengthen the Sith as a whole by killing their master and becoming the next one (or by failing and getting weeded out). Actually, masters routinely take multiple apprentices, and apprentices frequently take their own apprentices, to the point where the Sith don't really expect the Rule to be obeyed literally. However, the rule still has value in channeling the Sith's Chronic Backstabbing Disorder; illicit apprentices become pawns in the endless game between master and apprentice, and there's no chance of collusion between multiple apprentices of the same master (which weakens the Sith by allowing a weaker apprentice to supplant a stronger master).
- Isaac Asimov's Robot Series: The series mostly explores the ramification of his Laws of Robotics in specific circumstances rather than having them broken. However, a few examples occur where the robots do break the First Law.
- "First Law": Mike Donovan tells a pub about a robot, MA-2, that broke the First Law because it was a mother, who was protecting her offspring.
- "Little Lost Robot": This story is about a robot whose First Law had been modified, and because of that, it attempted to kill Dr Calvin.
- "Lenny": The titular LNE model ended up with a ruined positronic brain, unable to properly process even the most basic parts of the Three Laws. It ends up accidentally breaking someone's arm.
- While the breaking of divine commands and the ensuing consequences is a recurring theme throughout The Bible, the most well-known example is the Fall of Man from the Book of Genesis. Adam and Eve break God's one commandment to never eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus introducing sin into the world and banishing mankind from Eden forever.
- Right from the start, we're told that a group called the Guild enforce and create rules for people to follow. These aren't laws, but the punishment for breaking them is still catastrophic, as doing so brands one as being Flawed. One of these rules is to not help a Flawed person — a rule Celestine ends up violating, as she decides to stand up for a sick Flawed man on the bus to get him some medical attention. This act is what drives the rest of the plot.
- There are several rules that the Flawed are forced to comply with, lest they be subject to disciplinary action and even worse restrictions. They are, specifically: "Never hide your brands, unless on the foot or tongue", "Always wear your red armband in public", "Be home by 11:00", "Don't stand next to two other Flawed, and don't gather without at least one non-Flawed present", and "Don't have kids with another Flawed person". Celestine struggles with most of these rules, and several of them are, or are almost, broken — she gets kidnapped one night and almost doesn't make it home for curfew, her sister is mistaken for her, and lacks the red armband, and her standing next to two other Flawed people at a store is met with police violence and Celestine being attacked.
- In The Dresden Files the White Council has the Laws of Magic, which they tend to enforce with extreme prejudice. Jim Butcher has stated that Harry Dresden will end up breaking every last one of them before the series is over.
- Harry Potter:
- If a Hogwarts rule ever gets brought up in any book, expect it to be broken by the last page. Notable examples include wandering the halls late at night, trespassing into the corridor being guarded by Fluffy, horseplay on broomsticks while Madame Hooch is bringing an injured student to the hospital wing, etc.
- Taken even further when Dolores Umbridge seizes power over Hogwarts in Order of the Phoenix, and Harry and his friends end up having to violate quite a few of her mandates just to oust her, such as openly speaking out against her ineffective teaching methods and curriculum in Defense of the Dark Arts class, and printing/distributing The Quibbler.
- Played with in The Hunger Games, as immediately after the "two victor" rule is revoked, Katniss and Peeta still manage to get around the rule by threatening a Tag Team Suicide. Katniss, as the instigator, spends a majority of the next two books dealing with the consequences of her actions, as President Snow is angry that she broke the rules and showed the Capitol up, and also the fact that her actions helped to spark the rebellion.
- In Little House on the Prairie, Pa tells a story about his childhood and how he was told never to "play by the way". Guess what he was doing when he met wild animals?
- Central to the plot of The Summer Tree. The land of Fionavar is dying because the High King will not fulfill his duty and hang on the Summer Tree, which is supposed to be inevitably fatal, nor allow his son to take his place. Then Paul, a visitor from our world chooses to hang upon the Summer Tree for the required three days, and apparently God Himself is in a good mood and decides to let Paul live while still saving Fionavar.
- Teardrop by Lauren Kate: As a small child, Eureka is told by her mother to never ever cry. Most of the plot of the first book is other characters either trying to make her cry or trying to stop her - and when she finally does, it's The End of the World as We Know It.
- The Warrior Code in Warrior Cats is a collection of rules that all clan cats must follow. Yet almost all of these rules have been broken at least once:
- The rule forbidding mating outside of one's clan is one of the most commonly broken, as many of the main characters over the course of the series have done it. Perhaps the most dramatic case is the mating of Leafpool (the ThunderClan Medicine Cat) and Crowfeather (a WindClan warrior). Leafpool's transgression actually breaks two rules, as medicine cats aren't allowed to mate at all.
- The rule requiring unquestionable obedience to the clan leader is broken by good characters such as Firestar when their leader was being unjust, and they were usually portrayed as being in the right. In contrast, evil characters usually follow this rule, if only as a means to earn their leader's trust.
- Brokenstar broke the rule forbidding training kits under six moons old in the first book, so ShadowClan could be the strongest in the forest. However, he subjected kits to such harsh training that some of them actually died. This was, of course, a serious crime, and it was one reason his clan drove him out.
- In Wyrd Sisters, it is a rule for witches not to meddle with politics. But Duke Felmet presses Granny Weatherwax's Berserk Button, she decides they have to break the rule and stop him. When Magrat gets confused about this, the following dialogue occurs:
Magrat: I said, what about this rule about not meddling?
Nanny Ogg: Ah, the thing is, as you progress in the Craft, you'll learn there is another rule. Esme obeyed it all her life.
Magrat: And what's that?
Nanny Ogg: When you break rules, break 'em good and hard.
- In Reaper Man, Death knows it's against "the rules" to save a mortal that's about to die, which doesn't endear him to Miss Flitworth when he refuses to help save a girl from a fire. Death eventually realizes, now that he's retired and thus mortal, such rules don't apply to him: "To Bill Door, it was so much horse elbows."
- In Wyrd Sisters, it is a rule for witches not to meddle with politics. But Duke Felmet presses Granny Weatherwax's Berserk Button, she decides they have to break the rule and stop him. When Magrat gets confused about this, the following dialogue occurs:
- While the titular institution from The Ferryman Institute has many rules and regulations its employees have to work under, three big ones — rules that, if broken, can lead to the Ferryman's immediate transition to Purgatory — are as follows: do not interfere with a death, do not let go of your ferryman key (the thing that makes them invisible to the living) and keep the Ferryman Institute a secret from mankind. The presidential mission Charles was given gave him the option to prevent Alice from committing suicide (which he did), he puts down his key to console with a car-crash victim to make her death a peaceful one and he tells Alice a lot of Institute secrets after they both become fugitives.
- Roys Bedoys: In Dont Feed Wildlife, Roys Bedoys!, Mrs. Bedoys tells Roys, Loys, and Royss friends not to feed the wild animals. Later, they do, and end up getting in trouble.
- On Big Time Rush, when the band is mansion-sitting for Gustavo, he gives them five rules to follow — Don't go in his media room, don't open his fridge, don't sit on his couch, don't touch his cat, and don't break anything. Cue the guys breaking every single rule — in order — and causing all kinds of mess. Cue Mrs. Knight, who was upset earlier over her son's decreasing reliance on her, sweeping in to save the day.
- House of Anubis: When Nina first arrives, Victor lays down the two main House rules for her — no staying up past the 10:00 curfew, and no going into his office, the attic, or the cellar. When the plot gets rolling, these rules get immediately broken; Sibuna has to habitually sneak out at night for a shot at getting anything done, the keys to the cellar and attic are in Victor's office, and the attic and cellar is where a good chunk of the Season 1 clues are found. The rules were only in place because of the big mystery anyway, as Victor needed the kids to not snoop around and discover his secret plans.
- If anyone brings up the Prime Directive in an episode of any Star Trek series, it will either be broken or cause a lot of conflict over whether or not to break it.
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Patterns of Force". a Federation historian shattered the Prime Directive when he used a developing alien culture to create what was essentially a fascist dictatorship with a more benign ideology. He failed in the most disastrous way imaginable, as his experimental society eventually became just as racist and genocidal as the real Nazi Germany.
- Also comes up in "The Omega Glory" when Kirk discovers a fellow starship captain has broken the Directive by siding with one faction in a war and providing them with phasers. At the end, Spock asks if their own interference violates the Directive (by showing the other faction what their "holy relics" actually mean), only for Kirk to dismiss Spock's thought as simply reminding them what they were fighting for.
- In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Pen Pals", the Enterprise violates the Directive to save a planet that is breaking down. However, it was already broken by Data prior to this, as he had been communicating with a young girl on the planet, which is how they found out about the problem in the first place.
- In Star Trek: Voyager, the episode "Thirty Days" involves Tom Paris breaking the Prime Directive by protecting the huge ocean the aliens live in despite their refusing that protection. He is subsequently demoted and thrown in the brig for the titular 30 days for that decision.
- In the Star Trek: Discovery episode "New Eden", the Discovery finds a planet settled by displaced humans who were removed from Earth during World War III. A big issue is whether or not the Prime Directive even applies, as they are humans (albeit ones who pre-date faster-than-light travel). Captain Pike finally decides that human or not they are a pre-warp civilization so it applies, and then he secretly breaks it later to get some needed information in trade for higher technology.
- The time-traveling teams in Travelers have a set of Protocols they're supposed to follow in order to protect the timeline and the Grand Plan. If there's an episode in which a Protocol isn't broken, then it's probably dealing with the consequences of an earlier violation. As one Traveler puts it: "No plan survives contact with the past".
- In The Mandalorian, Mando's #1 rule is that no living thing can ever see his face, and if they do he's never allowed to wear the helmet again. Unsurprisingly him removing his helmet becomes a Once Per Season thing, though Rules Lawyered each time: the first time he's seen helmetless by a robot, so no living thing has seen his face, and the second time everyone who saw him without the helmet either ended up dead or "dead", so again no living thing has seen his face. He finally breaks it for real, without making excuses or trying to justify it, in the series finale so Grogu can see his face when they say goodbye.
- Wonder Woman (1975): In "The New, Original Wonder Woman", Queen Hippolyta forbids her daughter from competing in the tournament to determine who will carry the mantle of Wonder Woman and return Major Trevor to America. Princess Diana, of course, breaks the rule, wins the tournament, and becomes Wonder Woman.
- Chantelise: This is how the elder of the Sibling Team protagonists get cursed, as said in the Opening Scroll:
My memories of that night are foggy... sometimes I think to myself that it must have been a dream. But...
"Don't go out at night when the moon is red, or the witch will curse you forevermore!"
They told us that old fairy tale so often...
And on the night of the red moon, five years ago, we went outside. It felt like we were being called.
- Mega Man Battle Network: The sixth game introduces a new rule for managing the "Navi Customizer" programs: the "squares" of the given enhancer program has to be put inside the available space, or Mega Man will suffer bugs. This is because there's a new feature where you can put the enhancer programs partly outside of the space, which allows for potentially more programs to be put in, but Mega Man will get bugged if you do so. This is basically asking for the "Bug Stop" program (a rare program you can get from a certain lotto number) so that you can break this rule (and other rules that can make Mega Man bugged) with impunity (as long as you still put the Bug Stop program properly). With Bug Stop, as long as you have at least 1 square of the other programs being put inside the space, the Navi Customizer will recognize them and make them work for Mega Man without any risk of bugging.
- South Park: The Stick of Truth: The Gentlemen's Code that is constantly restated throughout the game is "never fart on someone's balls." Cartman tells the New Kid to break the rule in order to defeat Nazi Zombie Princess Kenny.
- Following their daughter's birth in Archer, Lana tells Archer that she would lay down some ground rules is he wants to be part of the child's life. While he does improve somewhat, Archer warns that said ground rules will likely be broken in some fashion.
- The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius: Jimmy gets into these situations quite often, such as when he experimented on his Grandmother (effectively turning her into a baby) after his mother makes a rule against it.
- In the first episode of The Dreamstone Rufus is shown the title stone during his first day of employment under the Dream Maker, with explicit warning not to reveal it to anyone. As the Dream Maker sleeps later that day, Rufus quickly shows Amberley the stone in order to impress her, at which point Zordrak's minions immediately invade the place and take it from him. After collecting it back from the villains, Rufus promises to the Dream Maker that he will not make the same mistake again, at least until the next episode where the Dream Maker sets a rule.
- Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: In "Partying is Such Sweet Soiree", Madame Foster warns Mr. Herriman not to throw any wild parties while she's away. Bloo then proceeds to throw a wild party because Foster's warning put the idea into his head. When Madame Foster returns, she chews out Herriman for throwing a wild party "...without ME! You know how much I love wild parties."
- Miraculous Ladybug: When Master Fus superior Grand Master Su-Han makes his appearance, he reads off several rules that both Fu and Marinette have already broken long before he arrived.
- Guardians must not lose Miraculous: Master Fu losing the Butterfly and Peacock Miraculous is what kicked off the plot.
- Guardians must not wear Miraculous: Not only did Fu wear the Turtle Miraculous, Marinette has continued wielding the Ladybug since she was appointed to the position.
- Children are not allowed to wear Miraculous: All of the shows regular Miraculous heroes are in their teens.
- Miraculous holders are not allowed to involve civilians in battles: Ladybug and Cat Noir constantly get help from civilians.
- Phineas and Ferb: Played with in the episode "Candace Gets Busted", when the mother made a "no parties" rule while she was gone. Candace tries her hardest not to break the rule, but people get into her house and a wild party occurs anyways, and in the end, well, there's a reason it's called "Candace Gets Busted".
- This is a common plot on Tom and Jerry. Tom is threatened to be thrown out if he makes a mess, or wakes up Spike the bulldog, or whatever. Jerry, naturally, proceeds to make sure the rule is broken, with Tom scrambling to keep that from happening. It started with the very first short in the series, "Puss Gets the Boot", and was used in other shorts like "Quiet Please!" and "Mouse Cleaning".