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The Challenge of Obeying The Rules

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Feb. 8, 2020
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Rules are meant to be bent, or broken.

Of course they are- if it's a one time thing. If it happens all the time, the stakes collapse, the story comes apart, and the experience is ruined. I'm talking about stories, of course…

As we've talked about time and again, the immersive experience of a story hinges greatly on how consistently the rules of the world apply to the story and the characters. Suspense relies on how much the audience believes the main characters are in danger, how possible it is that they will fail or die, or both. And that persuasion can only come when the audience is convinced that the rules don't bend for the characters, no matter how much they might wish for it.

That's one layer of rules.

There is another one though, that lies deep within the infrastructure of the world itself, the world in which the plot takes place and the characters interact. These rules aren't so much about the plot's stakes or the social interactions or any of the surface stuff. These rules are the ones from which the world's cohesion stems.

This can apply not only to fantasy worlds or sci-fi worlds, but also to realistic worlds or historical worlds. That's why Hogan's Heroes looks and feels so much different than Fury and Fury so much different than Inglorious Basterds.

The inner rules are about visceral decisions taken when very early in the stages of constructing the story. How close to reality will circumstances be? How demanding will the world be to the ‘good guys’? How demanding will it be to the ‘villains’? And so on.

The challenge of the matter lies in adhering to the rules consistently and impartially- saving that one time when the rules are bent for the one key moment in the story that you can't afford not to bend or break them. Unfortunately, it's often easier said than done.

The world tends, unknowingly, to become harsher to the the villains in favor of the heroes and/or vice versa. It depends on who the author likes more or admires more- or just plain needs more. If a villain isn't designed well enough, and normally would have been vanquished by the end of the first act but needs to die in the end of the third one, then the world becomes ridiculously lenient to him. The heroes become obtuse, police or bystanders disappear, coincidences happen back to back, and so on. Same if the villain is too smart for the hero.

When this happens, when we detect it, there are only two options if we want to keep true to the original visceral rules we set: either a rewrite with the characters or the circumstances redesigned so we won't need to bend or break the visceral rules, or push forward and let the rules impact the characters and the plot properly- and move on. Have the characters push forward, the plot continue to develop, let secondary ones become (better) main ones, and so on.

How about you? Do you feel like you have had to bend the rules in your story? Were you ever tempted?

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comment

anonymous?

mishi_hime at 5:45AM, Feb. 9, 2020

Break the rules!!

usedbooks at 4:48AM, Feb. 9, 2020

Interesting observation. My brother is an RPG efficianodo and used to make board games too. He's kind of a math geek. Goes on and on about numbers and game mechanics and balance. He writes good stories for his games too, but it's definitely a different kind of writing.

bravo1102 at 3:49AM, Feb. 9, 2020

From my experience with RPGs and wargames, rules can be pretty messed up, tilted one way or the other. Only PCs are special and have skills and everyone else is some kind of level 0 windowdressing to be used and abused as the plot demands. That is until you get to the boss and he has a fighting chance but still not equal to the PC. In some stories its obvious they come from this kind of rule set as opposed to something more random and realistic. One is a game and another is supposed to be a good story. You're not writing something with regards to playability.

usedbooks at 6:22AM, Feb. 8, 2020

I just realized my brain changed tracks a few times and presented an apparent non-sequitur. The point of my comment in relation to the article is that I most like stories where the same rules apply to every character, not different rules for bad guys, good guys, and minor characters. A lot of stories do have separate rules for different characters, and it's kind of annoying. Do only the good guys win even small battles? Are the bad guys incompetent and good guys competent (or vice versa)? Does the color of your uniform indicate your mortality or your ability to aim?

usedbooks at 4:42AM, Feb. 8, 2020

My favorite thing about the Get Smart series is that all the characters, protagonist, antagonist, main, minor, etc. follow the same guiding tone of silly. It's not a story of a ridiculous goofball in a serious world. It's a goofball and his goofball coworkers, goofball boss, goofball enemies, and being spies and killing each other.


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