Saturday, September 19, 2009

Your Story Rules

The first short story I wrote in my adult life was about a werewolf. I asked a good writer-friend of mine to read it and he gave me a lot of useful feedback, but the comment I remember most is this: “Monster stories are all about the rules.”

Well, I suppose I should have realized that. After all, I was a teenager in the 80’s with five younger brothers, which translates into roughly six billion viewings of “Gremlins” --probably the ultimate monster rules movie. So once he said it, of course, I knew it was true. When I read a story about werewolves or vampires or zombies, I’m looking to see how the author is going to put his or her own spin on the rules. How will the monsters be made? Killed? What are their powers and limitations? At this year’s WisCon, the feminist fantasy and science fiction conference, I went to a panel on the “care of your vampire,” which was basically a group of vampire book authors comparing notes on the rules they used to govern the worlds of their stories. It was fascinating to hear how different their takes were, given the fact that they were working with the same folklore as a starting point. It occurred to me that, as a reader, I do not care so much what the rules are, as long as they are strongly stated and consistent. Your vampires may sparkle in the sunlight or they may turn to ash and—although both those choices have very different symbolic connotations and change the story dramatically—I am willing to buy either one if the author truly buys it. I am a theatre geek and one thing you learn in acting classes is that, when you play a character, you must make strong choices, regardless of what those choices may be, and commit to them completely in order for an audience to believe in that character. I think the same thing can be said of writing.

Now, I haven’t always felt this way. When I first started writing, I was afraid to give my stories strong rules. I was insecure in my ability to create a plot and I thought that rules would only trip me up, cause me to paint myself into a plot corner or to violate my own guidelines accidentally, invalidating my story. Besides, wasn’t this fantasy? Shouldn’t anything be possible? Since then, however, I have learned more about world building and I’ve come to understand that stories in which literally anything is possible—stories with no rules for their monsters or magic systems or what have you—are actually not that engaging. Reading one is like watching a tennis match without knowing the rules of the game. It’s not very exciting to watch, and you certainly aren’t tempted to jump in and
play. On the other hand, if you do know the rules of a game--or a story--you can easily move from observer to player. I remember reading Scott Westerfeld’s “Midnighters” series, YA novels that take place in a world with complex rules. One of the rules is that the monsters of the story are afraid of multiples of thirteen. In one scene, the characters have stuck thirteen knives in a door to ward the monsters off. When I read that one of the knives had been knocked loose from the door, I felt a real rush of panic. I had internalized the rules of the story so completely that I felt like I was a part of that story.
It’s an experience I never would have had if Westerfeld’s rules had been wishy-washy or the consequences unclear.

Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t have exceptions to the rules. In fact, the premise of many stories depends on there being someone or something for whom the rules don't apply. But you have to set up strong, consistent rules first and then violate them intentionally, for a reason. And if you do, you may find that your story functions on another level. Because monster stories are “all about the rules” in another sense, too: they are all about our society’s taboos and the consequences for violating them. But if we want to use our monster stories as a consistent metaphor for something in the world around us, we have to make the world within them air-tight first.


JD said...

There's rules and there's rules, I think. My first werewolf story ever is sitting in Harlequin's inbox right now, so the concept of mythological rules looms large in my mind right now.

Readers want their supernatural events to be believable, and the only way to achieve that is through consistency. I'm not sure I completely agree with "glittery vampires", though. I think there is a collective unconscious awareness of myth, and we are limited in how far we can depart from that at our peril, at least if we wish to draw upon the strength of myth. If our vampires (or whatever) don't act like the vampires of legend, it should be commented on. We can't just have vampires and make them (for example) vegan without having to at one point or another nod to the preconceptions that already exist in the reader's mind. At a certain point, one might have been better off creating a creature out of whole cloth, lest we risk our readers saying "Gah. They're glittery vegetarian vampires. What's next? Settling down and raising a family?". They can't predict the rules, so they'll get irritated and put the book down-- or perhaps just launch it to the top of the NYT charts.

For the record, I have nothing against well done unorthodox vampires, just not acknowledging their mythological background. Bunnicula was wonderful, but at no point did the family say "Oh yeah, all vampires are cute and fuzzy."

-David PW

Laura Bradley Rede said...

David, you make an excellent point. I am a big believer in archetypes and I agree that if you stray so far from the reader's expectations that the archetype becomes unrecognizable you will have diluted the power of the monster. I think every reader has a different tolerance for this. Like I said, I'm a theatre geek and the rule of improvisational theatre is "accept, accept, accept." I tend to apply that to my reading and I'm pretty willing to buy into unorthodox depictions. But I agree that at some point it does become a whole different animal. The question then is, how do you put a fresh spin on something to make the concept your own (and to make it publishable!)without squandering the power of the myth?

Laura Bradley Rede said...

Of course, having said that... we have to remember that part of the reason these monsters have been around so long is because they are elastic and adaptable. As I understand it, a lot of what we associate with vampires-- the cape, the aristocraic class, etc-- only date back as far as Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Or, to take a non-monster example, I heard that our image of Santa Claus only began in the 1930's. So it goes to show how an achetypal character can change very quickly in our media age. Does that mean that vampires in the future will sparkle? Twilight fan though I am, I really hope not. But the rules for vampires are always evolving, so I can't rule anything out :)

Jon said...

I think it comes down to whether or not your reader will question the changes. I'm not a Twilight fan, in fact, I disapporved of just about every choice she made, but... she did establish her rules. I mean, personally, I find the glitter thing dumb, but she established it and explained it and then moved on. So, on my end, as a reader, I can go: Ok, that's fine, no problem, that's how things go in your world, I understand that.

The problems come in when you don't explain/establish that obvious deviation. There's a throw-away line in Underworld somewhere where someone says something about how Vampires don't drink humans or something like that (I've tried to block that film from my memory...). And immediately, it's like "what? why not?" But they never explain it or acknowledge it again and the reason is because it's only there as a cheap, paper thin reason to keep the Vampire Lady from eating the Human guy.

That's bad writing.

When it comes to things like Vampires or Werewolves or Zombies or whatever, everyone already knows how these monsters are "supposed" to work. You can't fight that fact, so if you're going to change something that is going to go against the previously accepted rules, you have to address it or you risk losing readers. Maybe it's a good litmus test for writers as well, if you can't explain/establish your deviation, then maybe it's because it's actually just a bad idea.

Laura Bradley Rede said...

I agree, Jon. I'm Miss Willing Suspension of Disbelief, but if rules aren't explained it is very hard to accept them. Now, of course I don't mean that I want an author to info-dump explain things all at once--sometimes I'm willing to wait for an explanation, or to have it doled out to me in bits-- but eventually I do want at least a nod at the reason why. Which makes Gremlins not the best example, since there are consequences to the rules but I don't remember any reason behind them. Hmmm....