Following The Rules

The more I read and the more I write, the more that I notice how stories are all fundamentally the same. This is hardly a unique thought. The Greeks understood it well enough to define every aspect of their theater around it. And, in many ways, the thousands of years between us and them have only added a couple new formulas and hundreds of thousands of embellishments.

What’s the point of writing (or reading) if every story is just the same thing in new packaging? Well, personally, I tend to like shiny new packages, but, that weakness aside, people continue reading and telling the same basic stories because they work. Now, I never went in for the idea that there’s a universal Oedipal complex or anything like that, but there is a reason that a basic storyline works. Normal person stumbles into extraordinary situation; overcoming obstacles turns person into a hero; hero’s life can never be normal again. Doesn’t sound like much, but, hey, it worked for Neverwhere and Star Wars, didn’t it? Or maybe Ender’s Game? Or The Lord of the Rings?

It’s the embellishments and details that make the story new and exciting. It’s the fundamental archetype that gives the story its needed emotional force. That’s why I spent the last couple of chapters of Neverwhere yelling at Richard that he couldn’t go back to London Above because it just wasn’t right and he couldn’t possibly be happy there now. (Disclaimer: I’m not saying that all creations built on an archetype succeed; the writer has to do a good job with those characters and embellishments to make it interesting enough to be worth reading the same story you’ve read your entire life.)

In a way, I think everyone knows these archetypes and such as unspoken rules. If you don’t build on them, you’re breaking The Rules. It’s like having evil conquer over good. As the Boy in The Princess Bride knows, the story’s no good if Humperdinck gets away and Westley dies. Someone’s got to kill the bad guy. Fail to end the story the way it’s demanding to be ended and you’re cheating. And chances are that people won’t like it. For example, The Lord of the Rings could end with everybody living happily ever after and Frodo being a great hero with a fantastic and happy life and ten fingers, but the story wouldn’t be as powerful (or, in my humble opinion, as good) because that ending cheapens the struggle. If someone doesn’t lose their chance at happiness, then that evil must not have been so bad after all. (This, incidentally, is why I think that J. K. Rowling has to kill Harry at the end of Book Seven. To me, if Harry lives happily ever after, it ruins the whole series. I frequently get in trouble for saying this to HP fans. Then again, my LOTR example flies in the face of countless fanfiction writers and readers, but maybe it’s best not to found my literary philosophies on them. 😉 )

Maybe it’s a question of realism, which is a funny term to use when talking about fantastical stories, but it’s vital nonetheless. The best writing advice I ever received was to put a little good in your antagonists and make sure there are weaknesses in your protagonists. Nobody is completely evil or completely good, and well-written characters mirror that. If there’s no realism to a story, there’s nothing for anyone to relate to in the characters or events. That typically kills a reader’s interest, which is a Bad Thing. (Sort of like my stating the obvious throughout this entire post.) The Rules give something for readers to relate to, no matter how strange the places and characters may seem.

I think that most successful stories tend to fall into two categories: those that directly follow archetypes and those that challenge the way the reader sees the world. Some stories manage both. Neverwhere, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars go under the first category. Despite their elaborate and very different details, the stories follow a very basic archetype and adhere closely to The Rules and a reader’s (or viewer’s) expectations. Books like Wicked go into the second category. Start juggling with questions of the gray space that lies between good and evil and you’ve got a tougher job as a writer and something that’s more likely to challenge the thoughts of a reader. Both, when done well, are excellent and enjoyable. Chances are that both succeed when they follow The Rules.

So what are The Rules? I think about this a lot actually, and I’ve never come up with a good way to verbalize it. It’s the sort of thing where you can hear a story and know whether it’s followed The Rules based on your reaction at the end (or middle, or even beginning depending on how terrible the story is). In the end, I think the Boy’s reaction in the middle of The Princess Bride is spot-on. If Humperdinck marries Buttercup and no one kills him, then what’s the point of reading?

2 Responses to “Following The Rules”


  • Hm… this is an interesting idea. Have you seen “The Emperor’s Club”? The film comes to a related conclusion about people sort of having to follow the same “rules” they did in the past.

    I only spent a few minutes preparing this comment, but I guess there’s evidence of the rules in other genres as well. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have to get back together in the end; that’s probably why someone wrote a sequel to “Gone With The Wind” like 50 years after its original publication. In mystery fiction, the sleuth has to track down the murderer — or if he/she can’t, the murderer has to expose him/herself to the reader. The few adventure stories I’ve read always finish with the good guys getting the gold.

    I’ll have to keep my eye out for books that break this trend now….

  • I own “The Emperor’s Club,” in fact, although I hadn’t really made a connection between this argument and that.

    I didn’t mean to imply that this only happens in science fiction and fantasy. I focused on those because I write and read them the most. Also, I feel like archetypes (and the Rules) tend to get used there more because it’s more necessary to have something that the reader can relate to. In stories set in our world, featuring an all-human cast, there’s much more likely to be something “real” that a reader can relate to than in a book in a fantastical world with lots of non-human characters.

    Hmm.. I think my trend was vague enough that it can cover just about anything except that book that a couple people tried to read but it was just so awful that they threw it down in disgust. 😉

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