Thought of the Week: Rules in Fiction

A writing friend of mine recently shared a Facebook post about sticking to the rules in writing. I tried to share it but for some reason it wouldn’t let me, so I thought I’d write a short blog post about it instead.

The gist of the post was that in fiction, it’s important that the characters and situations abide by whatever rules are set up in the first place. Not necessarily the rules of the real world – if that were so, pretty much all fantasy would be out the window. Rather, each world that each author creates must have its rules that the characters must be bound to – whether they be rules of physics, of etiquette, or culture. Fiction is rife with examples of this, and the reason is simple: in a world where anything is possible, everything becomes mundane. We don’t want our characters to suddenly have superhuman powers because it’s convenient at that point in the story; we don’t want our spaceships to just instantly be somewhere else because it avoids the tedium of the journey.

Star Trek (a favorite of mine) is a wonderful example. From The Next Generation onward, they hired scientific consultants to make sure that the ideas they had obeyed – to an extent – the real-world rules of physics. Warp drive is one of them. If a spaceship could simply go as fast as it needed to, there’d be no fun in the adventure of getting there. Instead, they borrowed from Einstein and simply pushed the limits of the speed of light a little bit further. It turns out that the reason a ship can’t travel past warp 10 is because it would require an infinite amount of energy to do so. We aren’t bound by technology – we’re bound by the rules of the world around us.

Harry Potter is another good example. One would think that in a world of spells, curses and magic that pretty much anything could be possible. We can levitate objects, we can transform into cats, we can have light whenever we want because it’s convenient to do so – except, you have to be extremely skilled to be able to do such things. Wizards and witches are bound by the limitations of their own capabilities; Harry and his friends can’t do everything they want to, because they have yet to learn how. Even the most powerful of wizards can’t do anything, because some are better than others at various aspects of the wizarding world. Dumbledore can’t turn into a dog; McGonagall can’t predict the future (though of course, neither can Trelawney). Harry can’t stop Snape invading his mind, at least at first. (Truth be told, I haven’t read past The Order of the Phoenix, so forgive me if some of this is wrong).

From my musical background, I’m reminded of something the great Russian composer Shostakovich (I think) once said:

“The more I restrict myself in my writing, the better my music becomes.”

Alright, it’s a paraphrase and it might be from a different composer, but the point is the same. Restrict yourself as much as you can, and your writing will be the better for it.


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