All stories, even the fantastic ones, need rules
November 25, 2013
I can’t remember who said this, and Google searches have brought up nothing, but I still think this is great advice when writing stories with a fantastic bent to them:
‘Where anything can happen, the interest isn’t held for long.’
Such simple advice, but ignored by many storytellers these days. Especially in the superhero genre.
Because if the superhero can do (and survive) anything, then why am I watching?
I’ve seen superhero films where the masked crusuaders can be punched so hard they fly backwards through five buildings, completely unscathed. Where they can fall from the highest reaches of our planet’s atmosphere only to suffer nothing worse than getting wet in the ocean they’ve conveniently landed in. And where they can be targeted with all sorts of nasty weapons, and not a damn thing happens to them apart from a bit of actorly teeth gritting.
Even superheroes need limitations placed on what they can and can’t do, so that the stakes matter.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the superhero genre, I like fantasy stories, and I like sci-fi. A lot.
I just think the best of them do this: they start off with an implausible first premise (sometimes even an impossible premise!) but then the rest of the story flows with impeccable logic. The authors of such tales have invented a new set of rules for their own particular universe, yes, but then they don’t go and break those rules. Ever.
You’re not watching or reading, saying, ‘Hey, a minute ago your main character was so beat up he needed a mechanical exoskeleton just to walk, and here, one scene or page later, he can smash up the baddie wearing nothing but his lycra outfit?’
No, you’re watching with admiration and skill as the storyteller not only invents their own exciting rules, but then manages to tease out a thrilling and clever tale under the imposition of these hard and fast rules.
Of course, none of this is good advice when it comes to making money, because obviously with reference to the ‘anything goes’ superhero films, they have made a ridiculous amount. And the far superior superhero films in my opinion (of which I’d say ‘Unbreakable’ is the example par excellence) go relatively unnoticed by comparison. So this isn’t advice any studio is ever going to care about in the least.
But … personally … I just feel the stories in the fantastic vein that will last will be the ones that fit this definition by famed editor Alberto Manguel: ‘Fantastic literature thrives on surprise, on the unexpected logic that is born from its own rules.’
But when it departs from its own rules, the stakes are lost, and so is the interest. Well, at least for people like me that like their fantastic stories to make sense.