Genre Pieces and “The Rules”

Overthink overthinks again. Except it isn’t really “overthinking” at all. It’s an important consideration of what good storytelling is supposed to do, by a round table of contributors:



I was reading some Reddit reactions to R.I.P.D. this morning and found one comment where someone complained about the movie setting up “in-universe rules” and later ignoring them.

I haven’t seen R.I.P.D., so I don’t know if this is a Chekov’s gun complaint. But based on other comments I’ve seen lately in other contexts, I suspect it’s not. I suspect rule-adherence is valuable in and of itself.

There seems to be a decent subsection of fans of genre films and genre books who think that the “rules” under which magic or fictional technology operate are an important artistic consideration. If a setting has innovative rules for magic, that is noteworthy. If a story establishes the rules of magic and then breaks them, that’s bad.

As a critic, connoisseur, and erstwhile artist myself, I don’t understand this aesthetic. For me, what makes a movie or book good are considerations like plot, characters, imagery, tension, tone, etc. The idea of keeping score with some eye toward perfect consistency is alien to me. In fact, some of my favorite films fail this benchmark without losing any points in my eyes (e.g.,  in Casablanca, once Major Strasser’s been shot, can’t all three of them get on that plane?)

To use the example we always return to: in A New Hope, the rules of The Force are never clearly established. Apparently, The Force can mimic giant animal noises, hypnotize people, let you see in the dark, choke people at a distance, preserve your spirit as a Force ghost, and aid in missile targeting. Nowhere is this laid out. Yet I would never say the movie suffers for it.

So whence this fascination with the rules? And what do the people who like rules get out of it….?


This is an interesting question, and I think there are a host of reasons why people get upset when sci-fi / fantasy rules are broken.

Some of it is emotionally unhealthy. People who get in cycles of anger, don’t spend enough time outside of fantasy universes and are looking for reasons to be upset. But I’ll put that aside for a moment.

I do think it tends to sap a lot of dramatic tension. It can demonstrate that the filmmakers have failed to set up what is at stake and what obstacles characters need to overcome to get there. This is especially true when a constraint seems really difficult to accommodate within your genre, so people expect to be surprised by how it’s dealt with (Revolution is a good example of this – people wanted to see how the show dealt with its constraints, and then it just didn’t).

Related are instances where the rules set up guard rails for the story, forcing the characters to do the fun things in the movie rather than much more obvious things that nobody wants to watch. When those rules are broken, it raises the question of the characters aren’t doing the obvious thing, which the filmmakers had hoped to dispel at the beginning of the movie….


I fully admit I sometimes have the same complaint about movies that forget their own in-universe rules – and I say “forget” because violations of the rules, on the other hand, are sometimes OK. As Pete mentions above, we don’t mind when the Ghostbusters cross the streams or when Harry Potter survives the Avada Kavadra curse, because there are good story-centered reasons for the violations, and the “rules” are at least acknowledged.

“Probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility.”

I think the complaint with in-universe rules being broken is that it takes you out of the action. For a certain type of person, we pay a lot of attention when the world-building/rule listing is going on. And when those rules get broken, it’s jarring. Your suspension of disbelief is hard-won, and all of a sudden you’re wrenched back into reality. It’s Aristotle’s whole “probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility….”

There’s more, much more, both by the three commentators we’ve quoted and by others. So even though we’re of the school that is dead set against stories violating the internal science/magic/environmental/etc. rules they make for themselves at the onset, we hope all of you will read this whole fascinating discussion through at OverthinkingIt.Com.

One thought on “Genre Pieces and “The Rules””

  1. C’mon! Do writers of today really take these so-called mumbo-jumbo rules seriously? You write to tell a story. Simple as all that. And it’s been that way since man, and of course woman, past time around a fire telling how close that day they came to be eaten by a TRIREXAZOL! Ormaybe two!

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