There seems to be a great number of writers rules attached to good fiction, right? People are always saying do this…don’t do that… and that?
Definitely, don’t do that.
But what are we as writers supposed to make of a bunch of these rules? Are following writers rules necessary for crafting good fiction?
Or are the rules for writing good fiction unnecessary inhibitors?
I don’t pretend to have an answer to that question. If I did come out here and say that I had an answer, that would mean I had one of those writers rules of my own that happened to supersede all of the others.
I don’t have that, sorry.
Similar to many other things in creativity though, writers rules are better thought of as guideposts. They are caution signs instead of stop signs.
As a way to illustrate that, I am going to break down a fairly well known writing rule known as “Wells’s Law”.
Writers Rules & Wells’ Law
If you don’t know Herbert George Wells, he’s basically the father of science fiction. He wrote many of the canonical texts in the genre like The Time Machine, The War of The Worlds and The Invisible Man.
Wells’s fiction is the blueprint for science fiction books the world over.
In crafting his fiction, HG Wells followed a very simple writers rule that became known as “Wells’s Law”, which states, “that only a single fantastic assumption was admissible per story”.
Easy translation of that bit of 1930’s writing? There can only be one strange or oddball element in a successful work of genre fiction. All of the other elements in the story, you’ve got to play them, more or less, straight.
But is Wells’s Law right?
There is no way to empirically prove it one way or another. The law is applied in much of his work and, here we are, a century later, talking about it. But there are some easy examples to show what can happen when you break that law.
I’m going to lightly dissect two movies. Each one breaks the Wells Law, but the result of that is curiously different.
Does The Marvel Change Writers Rules?
Signs is the third film directed by well-known filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. In the most basic terms, Signs follows former Episcopal priest, Graham Hess, and his struggle out of grief after losing his wife in a tragic car accident. Crop circles begin appearing on Hess’ farm, which foreshadows an eventual alien invasion on a global scale.
In the movie’s final conflict between alien and man, Hess, whose faith was devastated by the accident, witnesses what he believes is God’s intervention. His child is saved, and once the aliens have been dispersed, his faith is restored.
According to Wells Law, there are two fantastic elements at play: the existence of aliens and of God’s intervention.
While these two aspects don’t diminish one another, or logically have to cancel each other out – we certainly can be living in a universe with both God and aliens – in one story, they are a bit much for a two-hour film.
Consequently, Signs is not viewed as Shyamalan’s best work. It is regarded as a decent film, but its resolution is muddled.
By contrast, his first work, The Sixth Sense, an adherent to the Wells Law, is crystal clear with one of the most memorable “fantastic” resolutions ever.
In the summer of 2019, Marvel released Avengers: Endgame as the culmination of their sprawling, decades in the making, “cinematic universe”. Back in the previous film, it’s bookend, Infinity War, a jumbo, purple bad guy named Thanos assembled an “infinity gauntlet” and disintegrated half of all life in the universe.
Only in comic books can you get away with that, right?
Avengers: Endgame does not just break the Wells Law – it shatters the rule with a cosmic sized fist, but somehow at the same time, it manages to be viewed as a masterwork of cinematic storytelling. In order to undo Thanos’ grandiose apocalyptic gesture, the assembled cast of Marvel universe good guys travels back in time in order to undo the deed before it was done.
Did you catch the two massive fantastic elements? Beyond such a thing as superheroes (who can fly, shoot fire, what have you) they travel back through time to undo an apocalyptic stroke by a purple bad guy.
Was this movie a success? Nearly three billion dollars in lifetime grosses says that, unequivocally, yes it was.
What Does This All Mean Though?
Maybe the playing field between these two films is not exactly level.
One is an emotionally centered, grief-battles-faith story based in part in reality; the other is an ensemble piece centered on a generation’s worth of comic book heroes.
By taking two films that obviously break Wells’ Law, though, we see that the writers rule is better viewed as a guidepost.
While Signs has been forgotten by many, save for M. Night Shalyman’s most ardent supporters, Infinity War and End Game are two of the most highly regarded films, by audience approval metrics, of all time.
Certainly, even the father of science fiction could not foresee comic books, or comic book movie franchises, and what those have done to storytelling. However, I think he would still crinkle his mustache at the way Marvel plays multiple “weird” elements in their story.
Do you have tips for Writers Rules that you would like to share? If so, leave them in the comments. I would love to hear more…
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