Writing Excuses 14.44: Realism vs. Rule-of-Cool
Key Points: What would really happen or something really cool? How do you decide which one to use in your story? Start with the cool things, then justify them for the reader? Fight scenes need to be awesome, not realistic and dull. Jackie Chan’s rule — establish geography first, then fight. For Rule-of-Cool, establish trust with the reader first, then go awesome. Mechanics usually aren’t interesting unless they reveal character. Rule-of-Cool means you expect the reader to say, “Oh, that’s cool.” Should characterization and dialogue be true to the period, or can they be modern? Whatever choice you make, someone will say it is wrong. So, make it interesting for you. In dialogue, pick the moments you want to stick, and make them stand out. Know what the purpose of your scene is, and use what works to support that, cut what works against that, and put in what you need for other purposes.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 44.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Realism vs. Rule-of-Cool.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And you’re very cool.
[Howard] Well, thank you. I’d like to think I’m realistic.
[Mary Robinette] But not. I mean… Carry on.
[Brandon] I’ve been waiting to do this podcast ever since I created this outline. This was my favorite one in the outline, because I love talking about this topic. Realism vs. Rule-of-Cool, the simple question of where do you decide to throw out what would really happen to do something more awesome?
[Mary Robinette] Like have giant crabs, say?
[Brandon] Yes. Like have giant crabs, say.
[Dan] Just as an example. Pulled out of nowhere.
[Howard] I was at a convention where we had a discussion about this. One of the things that came up was the use of Chinese profanity in Firefly. There was a linguist on the panel who said, “I hate this because they are speaking the Chinese tonally, and they’re speaking everything else the way Westerners speak it. As a linguist, I know that those two things would drift together. I just can’t buy it.” My response was, “You’re wrong.”
[Howard] Because all the rest of us loved it because of how cool it was. If we’d done it right, what we would have heard is people mocking Chinese. So thank you for not being realistic, Firefly.
[Mary Robinette] Although I will just put a note in there that using that as an example is tricky because there’s also a lot of people who are unhappy with it because of the amount of cultural appropriation and the dearth of people who are actually Chinese on Firefly.
[Dan] Who appear in the series. My favorite story about Rule-of-Cool was a World Fantasy panel years and years ago that was talking about action. They got into the concept of fencing. A woman in the audience stood up and said, “I am a fencer. I fence for my college team. There is not a single fencer I’ve ever met who thinks that the fencing in the Princess Bride is accurate. But. There is not a single fencer I’ve ever met who didn’t get into it because of the fencing in the Princess Bride.” That kind of sums it up for me. That it can be wrong and still be awesome at the same time, if you do it right.
[Brandon] Mary brought up… Mary Robinette brought up that I… I very much like this…
[Brandon] Concept. In fact, we talk a lot about worldbuilding, how we naturally evolve our stories out of our research, and things like this. This does happen. But really, that’s not how it happens for me. Most of the time, I start with the cool things that I want to have in my books, and I work backward, trying to find every way I can to justify making it feel real enough for you as the reader so that you can suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the story being awesome.
[Howard] Speaking on behalf of Western civilization, we are glad that you are a writer and not a defense attorney.
[Brandon] Yeah, well. I feel like defense attorneys must work the same way. So. But, yes. Like, giant crabs. I start with I want giant crabs. Not with I have this world where maybe I could have giant crabs. I start with giant crabs and say, “How can I make a setting in a worldbuilding where the square cube law doesn’t apply to these creatures because of the magic system?” I start with I want to write knights in power armor. Right? Fantasy knights in magical power armor with giant cool swords. What can I come up with to justify the fact that these exist in my story?
[Brandon] Let me ask you this. Let’s drill in on a few of these areas. One of them is fight scenes. When you write fight scenes in your stories, how much effort are you taking to be real? When are you taking effort to be real? When are you ignoring that, and why?
[Mary Robinette] So, here’s an interesting example of it. There’s… I don’t enjoy riding fight scenes. Like, I really… I discovered this because Brandon and I were working on a project together. He’s like, “Really cool fight scene goes here.” I am like, “I hate you, Brandon.”
[Mary Robinette] So, I went to someone who is in the military, and I said… And a writer, and I said, “Can you just bullet point this for me?” He bullet pointed the fight scene for me. Step-by-step through exactly what would happen. I’m like, “Okay.” So I wrote it. I put in all of the character stuff that went around it. I handed it to Brandon, and he’s like it’s, “This is not written nearly as cool as this other scene.” The other scene I had just kind of seat of my pants’ed my way through. It’s like, “Well, maybe this thing happens. They’re rolling in this magic dust, smoking here thing, and sparkle. Then fighty more.” I mean, that is more or less a transcript of it.
[Dan] That is now my favorite fight scene.
[Howard] Sparkle and then fighting more.
[Mary Robinette] Fighty more.
[Howard] Oh, and then fighty more. Okay.
[Dan] You better get it right, or the power doesn’t work.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, exactly. The point is that one of them was very realistic and dull. The other was… I just went Rule-of-Cool. I’m like… There is no… There’s no specificity in s… I put in like one or two specific details in order to have the sparkly magic stuff happening, but, man, my attempt at realism just bombed. Because it was dull.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. You’re like…
[Brandon] The revision works really well. What did you do to revise those scenes to make them in the up really working?
[Mary Robinette] So… Honestly, I looked at the parts that you were like, “Neat!” Then, also the other thing that I did with that scene was that I looked really at the stuff that I was excited about. I was very excited about… There’s a tent that is a self-erecting tent that she throws at someone. I was super excited about that. So I was like, “I want to keep that.” Then revised the scene so that I was basically cutting a lot of the other stuff. It was mostly just a lot of cutting the interstitial stuff, and moving from set piece to set piece. And keeping my…
[Howard] Like a Jackie Chan movie.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. Well, Jackie Chan’s an interesting example because one of the things that he talks about is that you establish geography first and what the pieces are. Then, when you’re actually in the fight, you don’t have to do it. I think that a lot of times that is the same thing that we’re doing with the Rule-of-Cool is we establish trust with the reader early on. Then we can get away with a lot of stuff.
[Howard] [Mostly though so I can figure out] how a Jackie Chan movie moves from cool fight to cool fight to cool fight with linking material that is less important.
[Dan] Depends on the Jackie Chan movie.
[Howard] It depends on the Jackie Chan movie.
[Dan] Yes. No. I think Jackie Chan is a great one to bring up because… I hate most fight scenes. I think a fight scene in a movie is just a five-minute way of saying, “And then Jim took the thing away because Bob was lying on the floor.” Like, you don’t need to take five minutes to say that, unless the actual process reveals something important about their characters or you’re so interesting to watch that I’ll just watch you flip a ladder around for a while. Right? So, coming up with a way to do that… Most often, I will just default to Rule-of-Cool, because the actual mechanics of it aren’t as interesting to me, unless I’m going to use them to reveal character in some way.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Wes Chou said that fight scenes are a conversation. Which I thought… I was like, “Oh, that makes so much sense.” I… In some ways, I feel like that is also what’s going on with the realism vs. Rule-of-Cool, is that with realism, the conversation that we’re having with the reader is look at the research that I’ve done. With Rule-of-Cool, the conversation that we’re having with the reader is look at this, it’s so exciting.
[Dan] Well, it can be done… I remember there was a really good fight scene in the Jack Ryan show on Amazon in the first episode. The reason it was cool is because you could watch step-by-step this is how the people are attacking this army base in Afghanistan and I can see every stage of oh, they’ve made it to this point, which means that now the stakes have been raised. Part of it is because I understood the geography beforehand, like you were saying. So it was all, okay, I know what’s going on, and I know what it means to this character specifically, and I know how this character’s going to react to each progression of that battle.
[Brandon] Before we move on from fight scenes, there is one good example that I wanted to mention that is very interesting to me. This is actually the Matrix films. Because the Matrix films are all about Rule-of-Cool in fight scenes. One of the things they earn by doing that, that I think I want to highlight here, is there is a fight scene in I think the third movie where they’re not in the Matrix suddenly and two people are having a fistfight. It is one of the most brutal and shocking fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. Granted, I know there are worse, but it was the contrast. Right? The contrast of we know that we are using Rule-of-Cool in these other fight scenes. Now, when we take away their powers, and we have two people just beating each other bloody, it is way more interesting and shocking. So that contrast is also something. We’re not saying always use Rule-of-Cool. We’re saying that you’re allowed to, and we like to in certain instances. But there are certain times where just trying to be as realistic as you can will play to your story a lot better.
[Howard] Sometimes, Rule-of-Cool… I say sometimes. Rule-of-Cool applies to anything to which the response for the reader will be, “Oh, that’s cool.” A stand-up-and-cheer moment, a big emotional beat for one of the characters. Often, realism is the character would have figured this out and isn’t going to have been surprised. So it’s not realistic for that moment to be as emotional. So, in order to have Rule-of-Cool, in order to have that moment, I have to go back and do some things to undercut the reader’s belief in the other possible versions of the story. Because, as Dan said, I don’t actually love writing fight scenes. I hate drawing fight scenes. Good grief, you have to show every limb.
[Howard] It’s like…
[Dan] Well, that depends on how far into the fight scene you are. There might not be very many…
[Mary Robinette] [garbled] the POW bubble is for.
[Brandon] Howard, why don’t you tell us about Terminal Uprising?
[Howard] Ah. Yes. Terminal Uprising by Jim C. Hines. It’s the second book in the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series. Just the phrase Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse should tell you that he’s focusing on cool perhaps a little more than realism, but in reading these books… They’re funny, they’re emotional, they’re upbeat, they’re space opera with pirates and zombies and janitors and aliens…
[Mary Robinette] I loved the first one.
[Howard] Yeah. They’re wonderful. To my mind, Jim makes all the right calls in how much of the science fiction am I going to give you, how much of the science am I going to give you, about the zombie plague, about the aliens, about whatever versus how many cool things am I going to do. So, Terminal Uprising by Jim C. Hines.
[Brandon] So, let’s take a different path here and talk about characterization. One of the things that people struggle with sometimes with fantasy is deciding how much they’re going to make their characters act like real characters from the period, and how much they’re going to let them have modern sensibilities. This strays into dialogue as well. How often are you going to let people talk like people really talk or make them talk like people really talk and how often are you going to Joss Whedon them and make sure that everybody’s saying something that’s very interesting at any given moment? How do you make this decision? Where have you done it in your stories, and where do you find the balance for your own writing?
[Mary Robinette] I think one thing to know going into this is that whatever choice you make, someone will tell you that you got it wrong. So, this is one reason to, I think, err on your own personal… The side of your own personal Rule-of-Cool. If you aren’t finding it interesting, whatever choice you’re making, it is in fact the wrong choice. So, for me, what I try to do is I try to remember that my readers are modern readers. Whatever it is that I write, they are going to view it through a modern lens. So, there are often things that would be completely realistic that are the total opposite of the Rule-of-Cool. Like, there’s language that if I were writing something realistically set in the 1800s, is just horrific. Not just unpalatable for a modern reader, but actually offensive. So I don’t go realistic that way. There are other times when I do go realistic and people are like, “Well, I don’t believe anyone would ever say that.” I’m like, “Well, yes. That’s actually a line straight from Jane Austen. That’s fine, thank you.”
[Mary Robinette] So it is a balance. It is, I think, a balance that you have to find tune for your own sensibilities.
[Dan] Yeah. I do think, and this is a broad generalization, but at least in my experience, the kinds of people who complain about whatever aspect of your historicity you’ve gotten wrong… Typically it’s because they have an ax to grind, and they were going to complain anyway.
[Brandon] I have found that, for me, I have the big loophole in that I’m writing secondary world fantasy with a lot of my things. People have asked me that. They say, “Your people act like people from modern or early America rather than people from the 1400s or the 1200s.” I’m like, “Well, it’s not the 1200s.”
[Brandon] It is Roshar. This is the sensibilities that they have in their kingdom. I am not really that interested in trying to create an accurate portrayal of how someone might have thought at a different time period. I am interested in creating an accurate portrayal of how someone might think in the culture that I’m creating. But I tend to create cultures where the ideas I want to discuss are discussable.
[Mary Robinette] Well, the other thing is people tend to think that concern about human rights is a modern invention. It’s really not. Like… I mean, just on feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women is a book that came out in the 1700s. This is not… Like, most of the time, as Dan said, when someone complains about it, they have an ax to grind and… Oh, I have a lot of thoughts about this that can take us way off topic. I’m going to can of worms myself.
[Dan] It’s wise.
[Howard] The decision about who gets the clever lines, who gets the pithy lines, do they all get to be clever and pithy? For me, often because I have to prune so many words on my second and third pass for it to look like a comic strip instead of a wall of text with pictures hidden under the wall of text, everybody has to be pithy. Because I have to condense every… Everything. So that it gives that meaning. When I’m writing prose, and I want it to read less like a comic strip and more like prose, even if the dialogue doesn’t have a punchline, I will pick the moments in the dialogue that I want to stick. I pick the moments where someone is making a point, and if there were a… If C-SPAN was watching this, that’s the part that would get turned into a meme gif. That’s the part that would be a soundbite. So I will pick those moments. That’s where I refine the dialogue. Then I go back to the other dialogue and ask myself, “Are there syllables, words, whatever that would function as send ups for this? Are the things that would undercut that?” But mostly, I can leave the other text is is.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things for me, speaking of it hitting, that I look at is whether or not this moment of cool is going to make the reader pop out of the story in a way that will hurt the story. So, one of the things that I do in all of the novels is I insert a Doctor Who cameo. I’m very careful about when the Doctor appears on stage, or when I do the plant of This Is the Doctor. Because I know that, for the readers who recognize that character, they’re going to pop out of the story. It’s cool, but is that going to harm their emotional moment in the scene? I also tend to slide in Princess Bride references. In one of the stories, there was a perfect setup for “I am not left-handed,” but it was at a point that I didn’t need a laugh. A laugh would be actually harmful to the scene. So that was a moment where I’m like, “Okay, my character doesn’t get to do that.” I err on the realism side rather than the Rule-of-Cool side because it’s going to harm forward… There was… But in another point, I needed the laugh anyway, and I could get this line doing double duty. So I put it… It’s not I am not left-handed, but, this word does not mean what you think it does.
[Howard] What you think it does. That’s the… The whole idea there is that you have to know the purpose of the scene at that moment, and then ask yourself, what works in support of that, what works against that, and what is information that’s neither in support or working against, but that the scene has to do for other purposes. Making those decisions… I mean, at this point, I think for me and probably most of us, a lot of that is instinctive, and we just go through and do it automatically, but I fall back on craft all the time with this when I realize that a scene isn’t firing. I look for the piece that is undercutting what it’s supposed to support.
[Brandon] All right. So, I have our homework today. Our homework is for you to write out a quick pitch of two things. We want you to practice your pitches. But we want you to give a pitch of something very fantastical. The example we came up with is Star Wars. Try to write it as a very realistic pitch. A very grounded pitch. Then, we want you to take something that is very… A type of story that is generally very grounded, very… Like a procedural or something like this, and Rule-of-Cool it, and make it sound really outlandish.
[Dan] This is like taking a cooking show and turning it into the anime Food Wars, which has all of the visual flair of a Dragon Ball Z fight scene just when they’re tasting food.
[Mary Robinette] I love Kitchen Wars…
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.