The “Rules” Of A Comic Or Story – A Ramble

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A while before I wrote this article, I was watching this Youtube video about game design which included a part showing how a modern videogame broke it’s own “rules” in order to make a dramatic point. It was really interesting to watch because usually this sort of thing is an absolute no-no in gaming, but it seems to work well in the example given.

It also made me think about some of the problems I encountered with this year’s upcoming Halloween comic (that I finished preparing a day or two before writing this article).

Although I don’t want to spoil the story too much, there was one part of the ending that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with. And, thanks to that video, I now understand why. I’d broken an established “rule” of my story. A rule that I’d introduced a bit suddenly in the later parts of the story.

Yes, I’d broken the rule for comedic effect. And, it works as a strange joke, as something for long-time fans of the comic and as a subtle movie reference. But, it was still something that I felt a little bit uncomfortable with for the simple reason that I’d introduced said rule somewhat later in the story. This made the rule in question seem slightly contrived. In retrospect, the rule was something that I probably should have established much earlier in the comic.

This, naturally, made me think about rules and storytelling. Since, although there are very few “formal” rules about storytelling (eg: grammar, spelling, the order of speech bubbles in comics etc..) stories, like videogames, rely very heavily on rules.

However, most of the time, the author or comic maker gets to create their own rules. However, this also means that they have to stick to them and/or establish them properly. They also have to think about how these rules will affect the events of the story too. They also have to think about how the characters will interact with these “rules” too.

For example, one reason why my Halloween comic’s story was let down by introducing a “rule” later in the story is that it was the kind of rule that any logical person would have exploited at the first available opportunity. Yes, I tried to cover this up by including some comedic dialogue and character-based explanations for why the characters didn’t… [you’ll have to wait for the comic].. much earlier in the story. But, nonetheless, this part of the story comes across as slightly contrived because I didn’t establish the rule properly.

In other words, even if your story is set in the distant future, the distant past or in some alternate dimension, you need to have rules. “Realistic” stories have an advantage here, since they can just focus on the ‘rules’ of real life (eg: physical laws, legal laws, social conventions etc..). Likewise, some genres tend to be more tolerant of rule-bending (for example, the thriller/action genre can depict combat in unrealistic ways, because it looks more dramatic). But, less realistic stories still need to have rules.

To use a cinematic example, there’s a brilliant low-budget sci-fi movie from the 1980s called “Trancers“, which is about time travel. One of the gadgets that a character from the future has allows him to create a “long second”, which can freeze time for ten seconds. This device is introduced early in the story and – more critically – it is explained that it can only be used once before it’s battery is depleted.

So, when this character uses it to escape danger a bit later in the film – the scene doesn’t seem contrived. Plus the rule about using it once means that it doesn’t allow the characters to use the device in every dangerous situation. So, the film is able to maintain a decent level of suspense and drama.

So, yes, not only do stories need rules but you also need to establish the rules as early as possible, and construct them in a way that prevents anyone saying “well, why don’t the characters just do this instead?

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂