Playing by the Rules (After Making Them Up) Part 1

Growing up, I was never a fan of ‘chase’ cartoons. You know the ones where one character is coming after the other, who then brings down all manner of comedic punishment upon them? They’re classics, I know, but they weren’t really my thing, mostly because the object of the chase, usually Jerry of Tom and Jerry, or Tweety Pie, were vile, scabrous monsters from the deepest, most bile filled depths of hell.

Really, someone please explain to me why, oh why we’re supposed to root for Jerry, who more often than not has broken into Tom’s (or his owners’) house and is stealing their food? How is Tom the bad guy for doing his duty as a cat and repelling rodent aggressors with not even a thanks and a bowl of cream?

I am so confident that Jerry is universally awful, I’m just linking a short at random to prove my point:

But I digress. Droopy got a pass because of the wolf’s wild takes, Pepe LePew gets the same because he wasn’t trying to hurt anybody, he was just in love and socially stupid (also, he stank). But your typical chase, even some Bugs Bunny classics just never did it for me.

Except the Roadrunner shorts. I could never explain why I liked them, unlike the exceptions up there, not until I was much older and learned that behind the scenes, Chuck Jones had discovered the magic alchemy that turned chase cartoons into comedy gold.

And that alchemy was a set of rules, reprinted here by the auspices of Wikipedia:

  1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “meep, meep.”

  2. No outside force can harm the Coyote — only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.

  3. The Coyote could stop anytime — if he were not a fanatic. (Repeat: “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” — George Santayana).

  4. No dialogue ever, except “meep, meep” and yowling in pain.

  5. The Road Runner must stay on the road — for no other reason than that he’s a roadrunner.

  6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters — the southwest American desert.

  7. All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.

  8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.

  9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

  10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.

  11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.

These eleven simple rules are all that made these cartoons different from all those others. Not genre changes, not new characters, not even really a change in tone. All Jones did was add rules to the series where there had been none before and from those came something pretty unique to chase cartoons to the point that they made me, someone who doesn’t like chase cartoons, love Roadrunner and Coyote shorts.

‘Vaal’, you are now no doubt saying in a calm voice edged with anger, ‘this is the second time you opened one of the blogs by yammering about cartoons. Do we need to send you away?’.

Well yes, but not for this. If you want to commit me, everything about Vorpal is probably the best reason. But I’m making a point here, honest.

You see, fiction is unlimited. As long as you can imagine it, you can put it down on paper or up on a screen and you can make it happen on the mental plane of the reader. Creators are able to control the very reality of their worlds, dictating social trends, establishing and creating the rules of magic, projecting the shape of future technology, and even designing the very physics of their world if they so wish.

But like a raptor in a blackout, imagination can do terrible things when running wild and free. And just like in Jurassic Park, often those terrible things happen to Samuel L Jackson (See also: Deep Blue Sea, Revenge of the Sith). Even more often they perpetrate their savage maulings on the innocent readers (But really, we’re more concerned with pissing off Samuel L Jackson. How many readers are both Shaft and Nick Fury?).

Without rules to keep a writer focused on the important things, the things in the story with value, not only can you veer wildly off your intended theme and tone, but you can annoy or even confuse your audience.

Elements that should be brought to the fore are ignored, elements that should not have been become Scrappy Doo, and things that should logically follow one another fail to in a spectacular manner.

That’s why I’m doing a series on Rules and how I use them. My intention is to help people understand some of the bones beneath the flesh of these stories and possibly other writers to step up their game by applying just a bit more thought to what they’re doing.

First up:

World Building Rules

Building worlds is my favorite part of writing. It’s my version of painting a fresco. The process of that can wait for another day. This time around, I’m presenting my guidelines for the Descendants Universe and the reasoning behind them.

1) No Space Aliens

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some aliens. In fact, my major beef with Firefly was that after doing so many monsters on Buffy, Whedon couldn’t give his space show one measly little non-human race. (I understand why he didn’t, but I wanted them, damn it.) Hell, my the only poster in my first dorm room was the X-files ‘I Want to Believe’ poster and I meant it.

But dudes from other planets in space ships are never landing on DU Earth.

Why? A matter of scope, really. I like keeping the DU close in. Humanity is stuck on Earth with extra crap leaking in from the seams. As it stands now, I have plenty of places on Earth to explore, an I don’t need more at the moment.

More importantly, introducing aliens introduces interplanetary diplomacy and a whole lot of rapid changes to the way the world at large works. I could fudge it, but I don’t want to.

2) All Religion is Correct (Except When It’s Not)

Eagle-eye readers may have noticed that I’m having my cake and eating it too. The Adriel’s faith based weapons, the Armor of Drausinus and whatever Sister Sacred have going on all work. But when people looks into the Astral plane, they see the wheel of samsara, people with chakras or the Car of Juggernaut (Yep, I really meant both kinds of Juggernaut there). Oh, and Anansi and Coyote are running around fighting some thing stole out of Summerian mythology.

My comment on that? ‘How ’bout that?’

This is a mystery that will never get solved (until I run out of ideas). Something is doing all this and not all of these are the same something.

I will add something cryptic here though, mostly because I can’t figure out how to work it into the story: when a person goes into a ‘trance’ in the biblical sense, they are seeing the Astral Plane.

3) The Actions of the Characters Move the World

A small number of people can make a difference. It’s something I want to believe is possible in the real world and something I make sure is possible in the series.

From the moment George handed the plot off to Alexis, the events in the world at large have rippled out with her as a center point. Without her, Cyn would still be in stasis. Without Cyn, the Lifesavers, Inc never would have existed. Without Lifesavers, Inc, the Brother Wright wouldn’t have had the leverage to scam Project Tome. Without the Redeemer incident, Tome wouldn’t have been forced to stage the attack on Braddock Island.

And so on and so forth. At this point in time, the ripples have reached Europe and Japan and have encompassed dozens of lives. And they can all be traced back to the choice Alexis made to go to her old friends to help.

Actually, it’s kind of a fun game to trace stuff back if you’re a continuity fan. 🙂

The Future is Neither Shiny, nor a Dystopia

I’m sick and tired of dystopic and post-apocalyptic futures where everything is gray, every person is hardened or oppressed and the general atmosphere is stifling in its stink of decay and hopelessness. Every future you’re likely to see in a non-comedy is a terrible one where nonsensical things had to happen and the basic way the world operates had to bend over backwards and bite its ankle to make sure absolutely everything is awful.

At the same time, the bright and shiny world of chrome and rampant terrible Apple-inspired design aesthetics (Hurray! Everything is shaped like a bar of soap) is pretty boring unless some dudes come to blow things up really soon.

The DU future is a future where we didn’t fall into dung and psychosis, but never rose into crystal spires and enough under-lighting to make a sixteen year old car enthusiast go into a joy coma. Instead, we sat on the couch and let the future happen.

Technology has advanced, but not as well as it should, thanks to bean-counting, bureaucracy and the profit motive scorning things that aren’t immediately profitable (like the Wright Flier, or Hero of Alexandria’s vending machine), society hasn’t collapsed, but there’s still plenty of people waiting to be scared into terrible decisions and bigotry just found new targets after hating gays and quietly discriminating against racial minorities and women fell out of fashion.

I’ve always seen the people in both the crap-smeared and chrome covered worlds as a sort of alien with regard to our current world, really. A person from the United Federation of Planets would starve to death in a week here while a character from the Ultimate universe would be so overjoyed with how not terrible everyone they meet are, they would die of a happiness induced heart attack. Character written by Mark Millar would destroy several square miles in a matter/antimatter explosion.

But I like writing people who are just folks in a world that isn’t particularly concerned about them. And that’s why some of our fellow people need to step up.

Those are the Big 4 I try and live by in terms of world building. Next blog post, we’ll talk about magic systems and I’ll be emitting a high, girlish squeal while singing the praises of Brandon Sanderson and Jim Butcher.

Aren’t you glad that next week is a Rune Breaker week?

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. Couldn’t agree more about the chase cartoons, both on the repulsive evil of certain mice and the roadrunner ones being different in a good way.
    Haven’t really ever thought about the rule-aspect of why I like them better though. To me the important part has always been just the two things: 1) The sympathy is clearly on the coyote’s side. 2) The invincible, uncatchable opponent is completely harmless.

    Of these, the latter’s important because the perilous struggle to achieve an impossible aim is only fun as long as you could walk away at any time. If the invincible opponent keeps actively making your life a hell, then it becomes stressful, depressing and a situation you just wish you could walk away from. And you can, by turning off the TV.

    I just realized I’m rambling aimlessly so I’ll just cut to the other thing I wanted to write.

    I agree 100% on the importance of setting rules for anything longer than a short story. It’s just so easy to introduce a new element you want to use once, and then have it become a permanent eyesore either by mysteriously not affecting other things like everybody would think it should, or by corroding the setting when everything has to change to account for it.

    And no need to even mention how frustrating it is when a story starts out saying “this is how the world works” and then keeps breaking the declared rules constantly without anyone paying attention to how the rules clearly must be wrong then.

    • Hey, ramble on! I clearly did.

      I’m glad someone agree with me on the chase cartoons thing.

      I’ll be covering this in later articles, but I totally agree with what you’re talking about when you mention breaking the rules. There’s a contract between reader and author that the reader will accept the fantastic as long as it makes sense in context, even if that context is symbolism and metaphor. Breaking that contract reduces the trust the reader puts in you that they’re going to get anything out of the work.

      Now, there are ways you can break the rules, but I’ll save that for the article 🙂

  2. Don’t scorn the profit motive too loudly. For every wondrous idea before its time that was bypassed for lack of profit incentive, there are a thousand other things (namely EVERYTHING) that came to light precisely because it made someone’s prosperity possible. If something was ahead of its time, it was often because there was no underlying infrastructure of technologies and services to supply it, and no human needs in existence that it would fill.

    Can you imagine how useless an airplane would be to a medieval European? you could give it to them, whole cloth, and it would never leave the drawing board— they wouldn’t have the infrastructure for the fuel, the parts, the alloys the parts were made of, the runways for it to land on, and if they could manage to get around THAT, no possible cargo that would justify the expenditure. Just financing the construction of one biplane would beggar kings back then. It would be worthless technology.

    • You are aware that the first airplanes were built by hobbyists, were largely comprised of wood and cloth and took off from flat fields and beaches, right? They also gained popularity not based on profitability, but military applications.

      The current corporate structure doesn’t properly respect R&D or the value of revisiting ‘dead end’ technologies.

      The electric car is over one hundred ears old and we’re still dragging our asses on mainstreaming them. It’s pathetic from the standpoint of scientific progress. And don’t even get me started on treatments for rare diseases.

  3. Pingback: Descendants Serial » Vaal’s Top 20 Moments In Descendants Vols 1-5 (Part 3)

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