The Iron Laws

The problem with the auto having been diagnosed as an easily-fixable (and not especially expensive as these things go) rust hole in the oil filter, I’m free to turn my attention to other matters . . . things like the Iron Laws of Storytelling, for example.

What am I talking about when I speak of the Iron Laws?

They’re the set of reader expectations that have been hanging around in western art and literature for so long that they’re practically hardwired into our brains.  If you’re a writer, you violate those laws at your peril; which is to say, you should only do it on purpose and with your eyes wide open.  (“A gentleman,” my father used to say, “is never accidentally rude to someone.”)

A few of the Iron Laws, slanted toward science fiction and fantasy, but applicable everywhere:

Truth spells (or truth serums, or whatever) never make anyone happier. You’d think people would have figured that one out by now, especially with the way that nobody under a truth spell ever tells one of the good truths, like “The pie here is so delicious I always stop by for a piece after a bad day, because it makes everything better” or “Your hair is beautiful; if you ever cut it I think I’ll cry” or “You’re the only reason I made it out of seventh grade alive.” But fictional characters keep on trying, just the same.

The equivalent, or at least related, law for contemporary mimetic realism is, of course, “Eavesdroppers never hear anything good about themselves.”  They will, however, almost inevitably hear only the most misleading portions of any important information actually exchanged.  Likewise, in a romance novel — or almost any novel with a romantic sub-plot — any platonic hug or similar physical gesture of affection between two uninvolved characters will inevitably be witnessed, sans context, by the significant other of one of the two parties.

And if you’re a character in a story with a title like “Appointment in Samarra”, there’s no point in buying a bus ticket to Omaha instead.  You’re still going to end up in Samarra by the end, and it won’t be pretty.

There are other Iron Laws besides the ones I’ve mentioned here — feel free to enumerate them in the comments.


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