Making the Rules Part 4: Breaking the Rules
“Rules were meant to be broken” ~ Most role-models
So you’ve established the rules of your world, your magic system (maybe) and your characters. Congratulations! You’ve created a consistent base upon which to set your story. If you’re doing a series, you might even have a basic formula the story as a whole follows (Monster of the Week, Tournament Arcs, etc) and that’s fine.
But here’s the awful truth: while your audience doesn’t like inconsistency because it hurts their voluntary suspension of disbelief, they also don’t like total consistency because they find it boring and/or predictable. No, they want you to walk the fine line between the two to keep them watching or reading for the long haul. That means you’re going to have to break some of your rules.
And here there be dragons.
Some writers react to this fact by cranking the random up to eleven just near the end and calling it hakuna. If you’ve ever played to the end of a video game and found yourself suddenly thrust out of the world you grew accustomed to and into a psychedelic acid trip where you’re fighting exploding babies and vaguely Freudian monsters, that’s what it looks like when that plan fails. Some writers are talented enough to get away with that, but I know I’m not, so I’m not going to suggest that route.
Others will introduce one thing that breaks the world rules as a one shot element that’s gone and forgotten by the end of the episode. A lot of these come in the form of suddenly introduced magic where there was none before, or a Macguffin that’s stupidly powerful and scary because it breaks the rules. The Superman series Smallville made a cottage industry out of these with everything from ancient witches possessing characters (hmm…) and wreaking magical havoc, to many, many kryptonite ‘accidents’ (as opposed to the usual ‘kryptonite gives you powers’ trope it usually played) that no one ever tries to reproduce.
These are easier to do well because they’re one and done. They’re also extremely safe because if you find that people hated the change, you can simply never mention it again and move on with your life. This can of course, be frustrating to hardcore fans who wonder why you never revisit the ideas they liked, and can also be unsatisfying for people who wanted to see deeper consequences to such a game changer.
On the other side of the coin from this, some series will also use similar approaches to change their characters. The Black Suit made Peter Parker darker and more aggressive, the Moodulator let the creators of Kim Possible send up a test balloon for and discuss the possible (heh) implications of shipping their main characters, and good old American stress was sued time and time again on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to push characters out of their normal roles (sometimes out of their alignment).
These are even more acceptable to the audience because they usually do show some personal consequences at least within the episode or issue itself. Moreover, it’s very good for making the characters feel more human (not everyone is shy, snarky or perky all the time in real life, after all) and can be used to kick off some character development.
But beware: there are two major pitfalls to this method, especially in the long term.
First, it’s addictive. No, really, it’s like heroin for mild spec fiction writers. Let’s see what happens if I make them artificially depressed! Or angry! Or smarter, dumber, happier! Let’s give them some sort of subculture, or a new weird hobby! And let’s only do this for one episode each and not mention it in the future because it might make people notice I’ve been overusing this device!
And the great granddaddy of them all: turning characters evil. You give a writer a chance to turn someone evil and they will roll over and let you rub their belly. It’s just that much fun. Bonus points if they get an Evil Costume Switch (No, really, visit that link. Look at all of those entries!). And if you can’t make them evil have them be mind controlled or pretending to be evil at least.
So please, keep this in mind and use this tool in moderation. After a while, it may be fun for you, but unless the Evil version of your hero is incredibly awesome, the audience will get bored.
The second trap inherent to this idea is that you might really, really like what you got out of a temporary, artificial change in a character and end up forcing them back into it in a clumsy manner that’s meant to be permanent. Often times, the writer will just make them change personalities in a complete 180, sometimes just stating that the character ‘liked’ how they were under the influence of the weird thing of the week. Others will bring back the catalyst for the original change and then just not ‘fix’ the character, leaving audiences to wonder why not, even if they do like the change.
Sorry sports fans, but just about the only sure-fire (because you can make other methods work, it’s just not likely) way to change a character is with tried and true character development: slowly changing a character over time base don logical reactions to their situation and environment. But that’s another article.
One of the best ways to break the rules and make it ‘work’ is to make it part of the story itself. There are many ways to do this: The X-Files broke it’s usual monster of the week, episodic formula to insert episodes that came together in continuity to create a serial tale, or Myth Arc, that ran throughout the series. The anime series Inu Yasha centered around the quest of the Shikon no Tama, a magic jewel that let the user break the world rules and transform into an insanely powerful monster (or human), and more series plot than you can shake a stick at center around grabbing a MacGuffin that will let someone make a single, reality warping, wish.
This method is good medicine for a lot of reasons. In meta examples, like X-files, It lends depth to the story you’re telling by showing the audience that there’s more happening here than just a series of loosely connected events and it makes them engage with your story more, as they now have to wait for the next installment/chapter to see what else is going on.
In-universe, these can let your world-building shine as the audience can see how that world reacts to this violation of its reality and can also help more clearly define your rules by its presence.
Both types are good because they help drive the story and make a staple indulgence of writers into an actual valuable part of the grand tapestry of the story.
But again, beware! Good medicine is also powerful juju, and these things tend to take over stories—which can be an awesome thing, or it can be a terrible extra appendage weighting on the pace of the story as well as the readers’ enjoyment.
Myth arcs, for example, NEED TO EXPLAIN THINGS and yes, caps locks was necessary. Who among us have been strung along by a writer or team of writers for seasons on end, receiving tons of questions but zero real answers?
X-files did it, with the Myth Arc growing so bloated and obtuse that regular old enjoyable episodes became more and more rare. Castle, one of my current favorite shows, did it with a mystery that’s kept alive solely through people getting murdered before they can explain a goddamn thing. Lost managed to be such a mind screw on such an epic scale that it somehow managed to convince its fans that half a decade’s worth of ‘on the next episode, all will be revealed’ didn’t matter.
Even the pros can screw the pooch on this one, because, once again, it’s addictive to kick the mystery on down the line and keep the readers hooked. But do not give in to temptation, gentle reader! Or at least remember that when you’re writing to entertain, you’re not just writing to make yourself feel clever.
The audience needs to feel like they’re actually putting the puzzle together, or at least being rewarded for their patience. Give them real, useful clues, allow information out in chunks instead of dribbles, and don’t forget to have an actual end in mind even if you don’t plan to end the series proper for a good long time. Or better yet, bring a myth arc to an end in the middle of a series and use that to launch another kind of myth arc.
To use myself as an example, ‘Who is George’ was a question sharp eyed readers might have asked at Issue 0. Other the years, I had him show up, again and again, providing not only nudges to propel the team along, but to help their personal lives.
Believe me, I could have done that forever, but I’ve personally been burned one time too many by the Chris Carters and JJ Abramsi (Abramses? Abramsen?) of the world. So I started spooling out larger and larger looks at him, such as in the Beach Episode and had him lay out his intentions, but not his methods. And I finally brought the question to rest in Descendants #49, exactly 50 issues later in a way that I hope was both rewarding to the readers and making them wonder a lot of things about what’s going on and why.
So yeah, breaking the rules is not only something that’s fun to do, but a valuable tool to the writer as long as you exercise self control and remember your audience. So go nuts! But don’t go overboard.
Next week, I’ll be talking about that perennial internet whipping boy, Fan Fiction and why it behooves a writer to add it to their queue of research materials to make them a better writer.
And before I go, I just want to plug a new book of poetry just published by yet another fellow member of the Forumopolis writer’s group, of which I am a member: You’re Dying Start Living. This one is a dyed in the wool, no foolin’ real world book too, so non-kindle users, no worries about being left out this time.
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