Why Having Strict Story Rules Makes For A Better Story
What is a story rule? It is that rule which you create in your character and/or plot that is never to be broken. Example: RULE - a man wears a mask because no one is allowed to see his face. SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? – it means he always wears a mask. Because no one is allowed to see his face. No exception.
I just recently finished reading A Map Of Bones by James Rollins (great book) but there was a “story rule” in that book James Rollins created which he then broke, whether because he wasn’t paying attention or didn’t care, or both, I feel are issues and lessened the quality of the book from being truly amazing.
The story rule James broke was the Imperator always wore some mask because no one was allowed to see his face and know who he was. But then, toward the final scene in the book, the Imperator shows up without his mask and everyone knows who he is. There is no explanation for it. He just shows up and everyone sees his face.
I’m certain the problem James faced was the reader NEEDING to know who the Imperator was, and the only way for that to happen was for a character to see the Imperator’s face and recognize him.
But how James did it was cheap. He created a rule at the beginning because it was convenient, and then broke that same rule at the end because it was convenient.
Don’t do this.
Doing that deteriorates the quality of the story. We are not allowed in real life to break rules. The sun rises every day. We can’t break that rule. We can’t breathe under water. Fire burns. The wind blows. We can’t break any of these “life” rules for our convenience, so why would you do it in your writing?
If you create a story rule, stick with it.
In a series of mine – THE LOST GODS – I have a prestigious skilled group called Bladehands. I’ll use this as my example because I have a few unbreakable story rules about these guys…
Bladehands are extremely good with a blade. So good that RULE: only a Bladehand can fight another Bladehand. No exception. *This rule became a problem for me, because I had non-Bladehand character Joe wanting to fight and kill Bladehand Bob. I desperately wanted this to happen because of the revenge Joe wanted on Bob. But determined not to break my own rule, I thought really hard about it and came up with an even better idea, which I explain in #2.
In training to become a Bladehand, you receive a horrendous scar on your body. RULE: every Bladehand has a scar. *This own rule became a problem for me, because I had created Bladehand Bob but had no idea what his scar would be, because I wanted his scar to have importance. Despite this dilemma, I stuck to this story rule and thought about it really hard and finally decided that Bladehand Bob DOESN’T have this scar because – what for it – HE’S NOT A REAL BLADEHAND. He’s just pretending to be one, makes everyone believe he is one, just to further his own agenda. At the end it is revealed and that revelation adds so much more depth to the story itself and brought about an unexpected characterization of this pretend Bladehand and is one of the best features of this story. Sure glade I didn’t break this story rule.
Let’s say I fudged my two Bladehand rules. Let’s say Bladehand Bob WAS actually a Bladehand, and I didn’t give him a scar. Had I been lazy – made it convenient for myself – I would not have forced my brain to come up with an interesting twist in the story and the final scene would not be as revenge-filled nor as epic.
Now for James Rollins case…he broke his own rule and in doing so robbed his own story of an even better character and an even better plot. Just like rules of life, if you create a rule of story, your characters will be forced to think harder to come up with a way to circumvent that rule. Your CHARACTERS will do that, not you. We can’t breathe under water, but you want to reach the bottom of lake anyway, so we invented scuba diving gear. Fire burns. Don’t want to get burned? Fire proof material was created. The RULE didn’t change, but we just got smarter to circumvent them.
James Rollins could have kept his rule in place and not had his Imperator reveal his face to anyone. James could have had a character wrestle with him and in that process the mask was taken off his face and THEN everyone could know who he was. But James didn’t do that. He just broke his own rule, I guess, because it was easier? He forgot? Both are terrible excuses, and because of it the story lost a tad bit of its magic for me.
IF YOU SKIMMED: if you create a story rule, never break it. Make your characters smarter so they are able to circumvent the rule, instead. Breaking story rules you create robs the story of something amazing you could only have thought up if you’d thought HARDER about how to get AROUND this unbreakable rule instead of breaking it.