Once in one of my college classes, we talked about what constitutes a good fantasy or science fiction novel. One of the qualities is that the story follows its own rules, meaning, if Harry Potter book one states that it’s impossible to magic food into existence, Hermione better not create a bowl of stew out of thin air in book five.
The fantastical universe you’ve created has to follow the rules it sets up for its readers. Otherwise, any deviation feels like a continuity error. The magic doesn’t make sense. Or, in other cases, it feels like the rule was broken out of convenience for the plot and as readers we feel cheated. We’ll probably question the writer’s abilities. The fantasy or science fiction world needs to follow the rules it lays down. . . usually.
There is a right way to break your world’s rules. And it can kick up the heat of your story, and keep your reader glued to the page.
Last year I watched a show where the magic system was based on alchemy. In it, an alchemist can break down matter and reassemble it into something else. It’s impossible to create a living, functional human being this way.
Or so we think.
But then the protagonists get stuck in a fight with humans who have crazy abilities and discover they were created by alchemy. The main characters are shocked because it’s supposed to be impossible to do. Bam! Rule broken.
Now as the audience, we’re glued to the show, not only did an impossibility suddenly become possible, but this plot turn opens up a bunch of new questions. How exactly are these man-made humans created? Who created them? Someone who must be powerful. Someone who is an enemy? How are the heroes going to defeat them?
So the plot grows thicker.
This plotting trick can be surprisingly simple to do.
1. Set up your worlds rules
2. Break them.
* In order to break them the right way, make sure your characters are just as surprised as your audience about it. Otherwise, it will feel like a mistake. The break needs attention. The characters involved need to be shocked.
The follow up to doing this is that the audience needs to learn something about how the rule was broken. For some stories, the audience will want a very specific explanation (bordering on science) by the end of the book. In other stories, it’s enough to simply know that someone discovered how to do the impossible or that it’s some kind of freak anomaly. Do what is right for the magic system you set up.
Breaking your world’s rules often creates a feeling that we are on the cutting edge of science (or magic). The characters can discover more and more about the magic system, maybe even push it to its limits. This can keep your magic system feeling fresh because there are more mysteries to discover. The magic system can grow and expand.
So if you’re working on speculative fiction, think about how you can set up and break your world’s rules to rein in your readers.