Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Building Rules and Breaking Them

Common consensus about anything is a rare thing, especially since the dawn of the internet, but if there is one thing that writers all seem to love about writing it is this: They love the endless possibilities and the way they can do whatever they want with the places and people they create.

Need to commit a few murders but it is irritatingly illegal in the real world? Make up some characters you don’t like much, murder them in horrible, horrible ways and you’ve got yourself some great free therapy right there!

Wish you could have a fabulous and glamorous job? Write a character who does!

Want superpowers, or to be around super-villains? Boom! Create your very own and make them go off and have wacky adventures!

I myself have only made it through some days at work by imagining in great and graphic detail how I would go about turning some of my co-workers into frogs.

I may or may not be weird. It’s a possibility.

Anyway! So the point we’re looking at today is that writing is a place where anything is possible…

…or is it?

Ch.4 Building Rules and Breaking Them - small

So the focus this week is two-fold: Plausibility and Narrative Tension.

First let’s look at Plausibility. In the world we live in, there are literally (and I know what the word means) millions of rules; rules made in law, rules made by religion, rules made by a common consensus of what it means to be a ‘decent human being’, rules made by your family, by your workplace, by your school, by the group of friends you have. Humans like to talk about freedom but we like our rules. I’m sure people with backgrounds in psychology will be able to explain why we like them so much, but empirically if you put two humans or more together they will create a set of rules. I mean, they’ll probably start breaking them instantly but that’s not an exception from these rules at all; it’s part of it. You can’t break rules that don’t exist after all.

In a book that really shows evidence of a well-thought out world with lots of effort going into giving the narrative something solid and tangible to play out its plot in, the setting is there to support the narrative by (ironically) giving it believable constraints and limitations. Not everything should be possible, or we’d have nothing to invest in, to latch onto as relatable from our rule-filled experiences, which is especially true as we get older.

Listen to a child tell you a story and it will probably be filled with an attitude that random things can magically happen for no justified reason. And this will make sense to other children, because in their experience of the world they haven’t found out where the possibilities end and the limitations start. We all know that children like to ask us ‘Why?’ a lot, but it’s always worth remembering that we ask kids to take a lot on faith in their early years. Milk will make you grow tall – really? Is milk magical? Fresh air is good for you to play in, but dirt can make you sick – but they are found together, so how does this work? I volunteer with children, and the intricate explanations that they once gave me me for why people get taller as they get older is still one of the most fascinating and magical ideas I’ve ever heard, and I’m genuinely sad that none of them were true. Especially the one about how we’re all plants who rebelled against the soil years ago and don’t want to admit it, or the one where we get stretched out by goblins in the night…

However the biggest and best part about limitations, at least for a writer, is Narrative Tension.

Here’s a riddle for you: when is a big moment a Big Moment? And how do you know?

The world we live in affects our lives every minute of every day of everyone’s lives and the main effect of this is in our choices. You don’t even notice half of it because we’ve all assimilated the rules of our society so early we forget that there are other options which we naturally don’t choose because it’s Not The Done Thing, and when we do choose to make an alternative choice this is a Big Deal.

Setting up a world with rules and expectations gives your characters’ choices weight and meaning, gives context for why some decisions are hard, but others are not. If the plot takes place in a post-apocalyptic war-zone then killing someone would be an (arguably) easy choice while sparing someone’s life would be harder. They could be an enemy after all, or someone who will take up resources that you cannot spare, thus endangering the lives of others. But if the plot is in a land of peace then those choices are totally reversed. Why on earth would you kill someone, you monster?

But a world with clear rules also implicitly indicates what actions are a struggle and what actions are easy, not only mentally – through choice – but physically. An extreme example would be gravity. Gravity is hard to counter, making flying difficult. Sure, you can get around that by mechanical engineering (if your plot takes place in a time where this is possible) but even then there are limitations such as weight, fuel, weather which can all complicate this solution. The audience knows that flying is difficult, and so while they will accept that it can be done, they will also accept that there are plenty of times when a problem cannot be solved by flight.

But, how does this help you as a writer? Imagine that you need to write a scene and the solution to the problem is that a rescue can only be managed by flight. You bring it up and the audience says ‘oh yeah, that works. Great, everything’s going to be fine here.’ But you need to add extra tension to the scene. It cannot be this simple! So you can say that the weather is too poor for flight and the planes might be dashed against the cliff-side (which being a good writer you have already told the audience is there, yes?) You therefore don’t have to explain any further; the audience will accept this as a valid obstacle and instead of using their energy trying to reconcile a random explanation (think ‘The stars are not yet in alignment and so we dare not fly this day!’) and can instead focus all their thoughts where they should be in this scene; worrying about our protagonists and their rescue-which-cannot-yet-happen.

Fantasy and science-fiction is not exempt from this either, in fact these writers must work even harder to find consistent and believable problems. Because Plausibility and Narrative Tension are separate factors, but they are very much interlinked. If a writer loses control of either of these factors then they lose control of the other.

The main rule for this would be; once you introduce the audience to the idea that something exists, you don’t get to ignore it later for plot-reasons. That’s a common cause for plot holes, when you’ve told an audience that an option to solve the problem the characters are facing is available and then they don’t use it!

You can of course avert this by giving a simple easy to understand reason why this option won’t work. All the problems Harry Potter and his friends are facing in the Deathly Hallows, wouldn’t life have been easier with a Time-Turner or two? Yes, it would, but they all got destroyed in the attack on the Ministry for Magic in The Order of the Phoenix. Boom! That’s why Harry doesn’t immediately just go, grab a time-turner and then set off looking for horcruxes. Right, everything makes sense. Done.

But if you over-use this way to get narrative tension and not make everything too easy, you start to lose plausibility.

Let us at this point take a moment to think of the suffering (self-inflicted, I admit, but still) of the writers for Stargate SG1, back in their first season. Like fools did they establish that their ‘zat guns’ could have the power to make things and people invisible! Sounds like a great idea, and cool for the special effects, really showing off that this is a world of The Future, right? Now we watch and realise their plight, however; every single time they have a situation where it just seems so obvious to use this invisibility-technology, they have to find a good reason not to use it because their plot needed something different! And there were times when you could really see the strain this caused those poor souls!

And as ever, consistency is key! Do not, ever, under any circumstances, hold tightly to a rule you’ve set up in one scene and then abandon it without a word in another, even if you come back to it later. Just like with a friend or parent who treats one person  or child differently to another, your audience will lose all trust in you and the rules you have given them.

However, all is not lost! For there is another way…

Let us now consider the realm of the Not Meant To Be Serious. It is a fine realm and I spend as much time there as I can. Because your setting only has to follow logical rules if your plot is following logical rules!

Let us consider, as another obvious example, The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy.

This plot has absolutely no logic whatsoever, and is not meant to be taken even a little bit seriously. That is its purpose; to be ridiculous and to show that nothing really matters in the end. The characters themselves can be serious, very much so in some cases, but the plot and the setting are not in the slightest and that is where the humour of the whole thing hangs. The result is that the author can absolutely and joyfully get away with saving his heroes from two torpedo missiles by turning them into a whale and a bowl of petunias (this is the earliest joke I ever remember being told and it still makes me laugh).  Did that make sense? I’d say no, but then once you’ve explained how the Infinite Improbability Drive has been invented, I would say that all bets are off… In any other tale this would be madness but in THGTTG it so completely matches the tone that the audience just takes it right in their stride.

So I suppose that’s the crux of the matter; if you want a serious tension-filled plot then you need a serious setting with serious rules that you stick to. If you want a ridiculous plot that knows it’s ridiculous and is entirely unashamed of such, then gleefully fling all logic right out of the window.

There is, I hear tell, a legend of a Middle Ground, but it is very hard to reach; there are no maps to its location; few have ventured to that land and the road is littered with the works of those who sought it and failed. If you, like me, are just starting out, perhaps it is best to play it safe for now…

First experience of Chronicles in Creation? Catch up with the rest of the series here.


Writer. Crafter. Nerd.

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