Writing Is A Bad Habit: It’s A Kind Of Magic

Many kinds of genre fiction incorporate elements far beyond our normal, everyday reality.  Whether it’s advanced technology, magic spells, psionic powers, or superhuman powers, extranormal abilities are a constant in many kinds of fiction.  While essential to those genres, these elements can present numerous challenges for a writer.  However, there is a way to cut off many of these potential problems before they can even take root: establishing the ground rules at the start.

It’s certainly tempting to leave these sorts of things open-ended.  After all, it may seem like it leaves you, the author, with a convenient back-up to unforeseen plot holes.  Paint your characters into the back of a valley with an army of monsters bearing down on them?  No worries, you don’t need to rethink the scene.  Magic can save them!  Or the special super-tech device, or the hero’s new super power or … or … well, I’m sure you can see where this is going.  It basically can lead to a series of ever-increasingly annoying deus ex machina that will alienate your readers.

The obvious way to avoid that is to bound yourself in, to establish ground rules to how these extranormal or super-futuristic systems work.  Even if you never reveal these rules to the readers, keeping those rules in mind will add a sense of order and internal consistency to your tale.  In addition, seeing and knowing that these systems are limited will add to the building of dramatic tension, as your readers will know that your protagonists don’t have an unlimited ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card in their back pockets.

There’s one potential trip-up to establishing a set of rules for your extranormal systems and that’s when you want to break them.  Yes, it’s true that every rule is meant to be broken.  Well, at least some people say so!   I would say that it’s perfectly fine to break your world’s rules once in a while.  There are always loopholes, there are always unknown exceptions, and no one knows everything about everything, right?  So it is fine to break your world’s rules from time to time.  The problem comes when you do so on a regular basis.  Some authors have a habit of doing this and, again, it breaks your readers’ suspension of disbelief or even feel any dramatic tension.  If the rules aren’t rules, why should the readers care or pay attention to them?  If the rules may not constrain the heroes’ abilities, why should the readers worry about their survival when they could unleash an unknown new power to save their collective rears?

So, to sum up: genre fiction means cool supernatural stuff which needs rules, dude!  You can break rules, but only once in a while or else it’s a bummer.  *mic drop*

Until next time, friends, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

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  1. Hmm. I don’t know about this. Are you sure “it’s perfectly fine to break your world’s rules once in a while”? Do you have an example of when this was done, and it didn’t destroy suspension of disbelief?

    I think it’s more likely that the author dropped subtle hints all along, which came together when the unexpected “exception” occurred, and made it make sense. The characters might not have noticed the hints, or if they did, they misunderstood them, and certainly when the exception “broke” the known rules, they had to show their surprise: “Wow! I didn’t know that would happen!” The “exception” proved the existence of a previously unknown rule, which then was understood to be part of living in that world (and also unbreakable).

    Seeding a story with a system of such hints is probably more work than today’s novella and novelette writers are prepared to do. Short works also don’t have the word count to accommodate that kind of development. I believe your advice about having no “get out of jail free” card is what writers of fiction that’s less than a hundred thousand words long should do. (Even in longer works, it helps if magic and superpowers have their limits: Gandalf got a few bruises, too.)

    For example, a screenplay is short fiction: look at how well the hyperdrive failure worked in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s funny, it’s believable, we can empathize, and it’s a hook that keeps us engaged with the story (Han Solo can’t just call for tech support from the Help Desk).

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