Story planning and creation: Rules for your world

Story Planning and Creation: Rules for your worldGoogle ‘Road Runner rules’ and you’ll pull up dozens of sources showcasing Chuck Jones’ rules for the Road Runner cartoon. They’re brilliant.

They succinctly set the scene for the story universe in which the Road Runner cartoon takes place, as well as all the conflict between the Road Runner and the Coyote. They are:

  • Rule 1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “Beep, beep!”
  • Rule 2. No outside force can harm the Coyote – only his own ineptitude or the failure of ACME products.
  • Rule 3. The Coyote could stop anytime – if he were not a fanatic.
  • Rule 4. No dialogue ever, except “Beep, beep”.
  • Rule 5. The Road Runner must stay on the road – otherwise, logically, he would not be called Road Runner.
  • Rule 6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters – the southwest American desert.
  • Rule 7. All materials, tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the ACME Corporation.
  • Rule 8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
  • Rule 9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

There’s a slightly amended version with a couple of extra rules and tweaks, but I prefer the original.

But what does that mean for your story?

As the God of your own story universe, you can come up with any number of rules for any aspect of your story want to, but be cautious; developing rules can become a form of procrastination or they grow far too unwieldy to be useful.

Think of rules as story drivers and sources of conflict, not merely world-building elements.

Take something familiar and consider its rules

In a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the rules might look something like:

  • Slayers are girls. Always.
  • When a slayer dies, another rises in her place.
  • You can kill a vampire with a wooden stake through the heart, with fire, or by beheading it.
  • The Hellmouth spawns and attracts all sorts of demonic creatures, not just vampires.
  • Magic always comes with a cost.
  • Wherever possible, mix comedy with horror.

If you’re a huge fan of the show, you could probably add a few more. The point is, you want to keep your rules broad yet simple.

Why not pick a show, a movie or a book you’re familiar with, and try and figure out its basic rules?

The dryad novel

In the case of our developing novel, we could come up with specific rules for dryads, magic, longevity, immortality, the supernatural world, transformations, mundane perceptions, computer workstations, AI, vehicle emissions, shoes, handbags, etc., and before you know it we’d have the equivalent of a library’s worth of manuals covering every conceivable element and eventuality in the story (but no story because we’d be constantly developing the rules – see the previous comment about procrastination).

For the more detailed information about a story world it helps to maintain a story bible to keep track of ‘rules’ and other elements you create in your story, but that’s a separate matter. We’re not talking about a story bible today.

For now, we’re talking about the foundation rules for your story world, not elements of the story.

As with the Road Runner rules or my Buffy exercise, five to ten rules should be more than enough for most novels.

Beyond offering guidance, these rules must show your story’s conflicts and pressure points.

So let’s create some rules for this story universe.

  1. Magic is scarce on Earth; there is never enough to go around (a pressure point & source of conflict).
  2. Magical creatures need magic to survive, just as humans need air, water and food to survive (another pressure point & source of conflict).
  3. Magic can be stored, stolen, transformed, used and reused by magical creatures and natural processes, but like any form of energy it degrades with time and use (a potential source of conflict).
  4. Humans cannot sense or use magic directly, although they are Earth’s major source of it and can be affected by it (humans are a resource to magical creatures = potential conflict).
  5. Humans can become magical creatures, but magical creatures can never become human again (a potential source of conflict).

That will do for this story.

Hopefully you’ll have noticed I didn’t try to use the rules to explain anything in the story (such as why and how humans are the world’s major source of magic but have no access to it), and I didn’t try to explain the rules either – they’re simply a statement of fact. I know how it all works, but it’s not important to explain it here.

The broader story universe

If we wanted to take into consideration the broader story universe of which this novel is simply a small part of, we’d overlay the first five rules with five more:

  1. Gods are real and constantly fighting among themselves for the control of new universes.
  2. It’s possible, though difficult, to travel between universes.
  3. Time moves relative to the universe you’re in, and even that’s not constant.
  4. Supernatural perceptions and abilities can be attained through magic and/or the influence of Gods.
  5. The past cannot be changed, though with foresight the future can be manipulated and the appearance of history altered.

That’s ten rules for this story universe, though only five will have any real effect in this novel.

As well as try and figure out the rules for a show/book/movie you’re familiar with, why not create five to ten rules for your own story universe? What are they? Do they help?

As always, please share this post if you found it helpful.

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