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.