I just gave up on a book. Once upon a time I read every book I picked up, regardless of whether or not I was enjoying it. I felt that I owed the book that much, to finish. But now that I’ve become old and persnickety, I just don’t have the time to spend on books that don’t enthrall me. And this book didn’t. I wanted to love it. When I read the back cover, I was intrigued by the setting and characters, and the magic system, based on an ancient game, seemed original and exciting. I couldn’t wait to dive in! By page 150 (or thereabouts), I’d become so bored I would rather have been reading a cereal box. Almost nothing had happened, but the magic system had been explained over and over. And over.
Fantasy, by its nature, must feature some aspect of magic. Magic spells, supernatural creatures…doesn’t matter as long as the fantastic elements exist in its pages. If you’ve decided to write about someone who can perform magic, you’d be well advised to know how your magic works and why. Maybe it’s an alchemical exchange of energy, or maybe the Powers That Be grant the abilities when the character beseeches them to do so. The way it works is entirely up to you and your imagination, and you have to know your system well enough to follow its rules throughout your story. With that said, just because you know doesn’t mean the reader has to. In my case, there isn’t much explanation, because Kestrel herself does not know how her magic works – only that it does. There are tiny clues, not enough to let a reader figure it all out yet, but enough to link to the next book, in which more of the magic system will be revealed. Sure, I know how it works, but Kestrel doesn’t. She and the reader are going to find out together. Sometimes the author is so impressed with the intricate and well-crafted magic system he has created that he feels compelled tell the reader every single little detail about it. The problem is that the reader signed on for a story, not a textbook.
Imagine you’re writing a murder mystery, and it’s time for the victim to die. The murderer is waiting in the closet, with a knife in her hand. The victim comes into the room, the murderer creeps out of the closet and stabs the victim. As he is dying, do you then spend two pages explaining why a person might die from multiple stab wounds? “His death from stabbing was caused by shock, severe blood loss and loss of functioning of an essential organ such as the heart or lungs. His skin had a somewhat elastic property as a self-defense; when I stabbed him with the kitchen knife, his skin closed tightly around the object and closed again when I pulled the knife away, trapping some blood within his body. Internal bleeding is just as dangerous as external bleeding.” And so on. The reader didn’t need to hear all that to understand that someone is bleeding on the floor, and loading the scene with all that information slows everything down to a crawl, at a time when things ought to be slamming along at top speed.
Explaining the magic system can be a trap in the same way. You’ve worked hard to create a fresh perspective on how magic works. You know every detail, and it thrills you to have some up with it all. You’re dying to tell all of us about it. Stop! Remember the story comes first. The story is the reason for all this work. Don’t pile a ton of information on its hardworking shoulders. If dropping explanations about your magic system begins taking up more pages than the action of the story, you’d better do some editing. Because as I said, I don’t finish every book I pick up these days. Don’t you want me to finish yours?