My Cardinal Rule Explained

Since I published my highly controversial TCWT post, I have been getting all sorts of complaints about what I call my “cardinal rule”.  It states:

When you can’t think of anything to do next, add a duck or some explosions.

I, of course, took that famous extra step and made it an exploding duck, but that’s beside the point.

In the days since I published that post, I’ve run into several people who didn’t know what to write next.  What did I tell them?  I quoted my cardinal rule.  Infallibly, they answered,

I don’t think ducks or explosions will fit in very well with my story.

That’s where you’re wrong, my friends!  Ducks and explosions are symbolic, and I am probably the only person who could ever take this literally.  For the rest of you, however, there requires some translation.

One thing that alternately annoyed me and pleased me about Brian Jacques’s writing was his sideshows.  As the characters are on their quests, journeying across the wilderness, they infallibly meet with “the locals”, who infallibly choose either to kill them or to give them a feast.  (I never really figured out why there were so many feasts.)  The ones who tried to kill the characters were always the most annoying, because they distracted from the ultimate goal of the quest and took away time.  Why couldn’t we hurry up and kill the antagonist already?  It wasn’t fair!

And that was exactly the point, I think.  The biggest villain always stayed in his mountain or with his villainous crew, beating their heads against Redwall’s gates as a small group of intrepid travelers journeyed to bring back either a cure for cancer or just an army that would pound the villain.  The villain couldn’t stay in the spotlight all the time, as I talk about in my post about showing your villains hand, simply by attacking that little group with wave after wave of minions.  No, the villain stayed obvious by camping outside Redwall’s gates.  For the group of travelers, however– how are they in danger?  Where’s the suspense for them?

And that’s where the ducks and explosions come in.  If you can’t make an extension of your villain attack your main characters, it doesn’t mean they can’t be put in danger.  One group Jacques always liked was the band of painted weasels that rose up out of the ground in ghillie suits and shot poisoned darts at the characters so they could eat them later.  Of course, these weasels have nothing at all to do with the army surrounding Redwall, so what’s their purpose?  Simply suspense.  If those travelers fail in their quest, Redwall is doomed.  It doesn’t matter who is stopping them at that point, especially if the true villain can’t actively oppose them.  All that matters is the duck and the explosion.

If you have a protagonist, you will have an antagonist.  However, that antagonist doesn’t have to take on all the work.  He’s got a big team of painted weasels, killer toads, and rogue corsairs working for him without even realizing it.  We always know he’s the villain because he’s the embodiment of what will happen if the protagonist fails, but he can delegate his smaller annoyances to the little crazy people.

And if you still decide to protest, saying that your story wouldn’t work with painted weasels either, here’s another example: Star Wars, Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back.  Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca are trying to escape the Imperial Navy in their half-broken Millennium Falcon.  The Imperial Navy are obviously the true antagonists, but when Han Solo flies into a cave that isn’t a cave, the task of putting him in danger is briefly shifted to a giant space worm living in an asteroid.  Was the space worm in the Empire’s employ at that point?  No, but it still did the job of putting them in danger.

And now my examples are becoming increasingly far-fetched.  Ducks, explosions, painted weasels, and space worms– what next, you ask?

Pirates.  Bandits.  Ninjas.  Pickpockets.  Just put your team of stalwart heroes in danger and see what happens.  It doesn’t have to have the antagonist’s signature all the time.


13 thoughts on “My Cardinal Rule Explained

  1. +10000 for the Redwall/Jacques mention. And a great overall point, too—if there’s any questing/journeying going on then you have to throw in some extra villainous side shows to ratchet up the tension.

  2. I approve so highly of this post that I shall put it on a symbolic pedestal, and maybe blow up the base to bring it crashing down upon the heads of all those who do not run away fast enough.

  3. Good post. (I seem to say that a lot.)

    This is very similar to the “if you’re stuck, kill someone off” device, though I believe the main antag is usually the one doing the killing in that case.

    In the story I’m editing, when I got stuck I a) told my antag to cause more trouble, or b) brought another part of my MC’s failing manor down. Kept my word count up for NaNo, though now I have to go back in and write filler/transition scenes. Oh, and today my MC’s nasty cousin started gossiping about her, makings her equatable with the painted weasels.

    (Also, thanks to the word wars yesterday, I managed to write just barely over 5k words for the day.)

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