Talking About Magic Part I


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?


8 comments to Talking About Magic Part I

  • >>Don’t you want me to finish yours?<<

    Um, yes please….Even if you are old and persnickety…. 😉

    This is a great lesson for writers to keep in mind, not only for magic, but for worldbuilding and character details as well. Plot and character drive narrative. Explanations slow things down and distract from plot and character. Yes, the magic system based on blending pop-tart ingredients is cool (and tasty!) but only to a point. And then it comes back to the things that count. Plot and character (have I said that enough yet?). Nice post, Misty

  • >>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

    Misty, this is a fantastic blog! Wish I’d thought of it. (grumbles)

    Over explaining is such a trap, and the magical systems a big lure for writers. I too, went with the *MC doesn’t know how the magic works* concept in both of my series, just to avoid being snared in it. Yes, I know how the systems work. No, the reader doesn’t have to, or not all at once. The very questions and blank spots can create as much interest, or more, than having it all spelled out (pun intended).

    Another way we writers overexplain is in the geo political, martial, or weapons systems. In the Jane Yellowrock series, my editor had me cut a lot of vamp clan stuff out of book one, and then in book two there are only 4 clans left instead of the original 8. Much easier for a reader to follow, and I lost nothing to work with.

  • Good point, Misty. Absoluetly agree that too much explanation kills a story, and particularly kills a *moment* which is supposed to be driven by tone (suspense, excitement etc). Sometimes it is possible to work the (bare minimum) explanation in several scenes BEFORE the high suspense moment, so that in the key moment a passing reference will convey what has happened. I know that doesn’t work for your “bleeding to death” example, but it might for others.

  • Info-dumps suck, yes.

    I’d argue that you don’t need to know all that much about how your magic system works as long as you keep narrative consistency. If the magic never solves plot problems, you’re in much less danger of being wall-banged than if you sometimes use it and sometimes don’t, or of it always does, in which case it doesn’t really matter whether you and the reader know how the magic works.

    A good example I think is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, where there are all sorts of vastly different magic that one can imagine would be hard to fit into a single system. The key in my mind is that you have to establish narrative expectations, and a magic system is only one of several possible mechanisms for this.

    I did a blog post where I riffed off of Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”

    I proposed one opposing Law and its Corollary based on the idea of narrative constraints as opposed to inherent constraints:

    Atsiko’s First Law: “An author’s ability to solve a conflict with magic is inversely proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”

    And it’s Corollary: “A character’s ability to solve a conflict with magic is inversely proportional to how well the character understands said magic.”

    And if you switch up who’s doing the solving and who’s doing the knowing, it further frames the issue.

    Of course, source of power is a very common component of the minimal magical mumbo-jumbo often used to keep the reader in line, but as in the Strange and Norrell example above, it’s not really necessary. As long as the author establishes a set of rules for the reader, you can do quite well explaining the what and leaving the how to the imagination. Harry Potter also managed this rather successfully. It doesn’t matter _how_ that “swish and flick” improves wingardium leviosa, only that we know it does.

    The narrative constraints approach also supports your very well-made argument against info-dumping (although from a different angle) because the more the reader knows, the easier it is for them both to predict the solution, which removes tension, and to catch out a sneaky author trying to circumvent their own rules.

    AJ’s comment also comes into play, in that it gives that “everything sliding into place” feeling that makes magic such an effective narrative tool. As Faith mentioned in her comment, those hints and holes can make a story more interesting.

  • I actually would rather not know all the rules, as long as within the story they seem consistent. There’s something mysterious about not knowing when it comes to magic. If a character says, “I can only use this power to create light, protect myself from elements, and rejuivenate the body.” I’m good with that. Too much more would probably sound like a game system.

  • I also used to feel some sort of obligation to finish a book once I had started. Now…too many good books, not enough time. I do give it a good bit, though. The best book I ever read (Dune) took me fifty pages to get interested.

    Anyway, back on topic, if the author puts in too much information, I kind of feel it is an insult. Do you really have to spell it out for me?

  • Not magic specifically, but this is one of the things I’m afraid of with my opening scene in my sci-fi novel. After I’d written it, beginning with an action scene, I suddenly realized that some readers might not know what I was talking about as far as the tech. Of course I knew it, it was there in my mind’s eye, but others aren’t inherently tapped into my ol’ noggin (at least I hope not) and might not have a clear picture of the vehicles and tech. So, I had to add more description in an action scene, which I’m hoping didn’t slow down the action. I haven’t heard from my beta readers that it’s harmed the action. Actually, one said it helped her visualize the scene, so that’s a plus. Still, there’s that danger of adding too much description in an action scene that can bog down the action and make the scene tedious.

    I agree Misty. I used to do the same thing, and sometimes still do read a book to the end even though I don’t care for it. I keep feeling like I want to see if it’ll get better. I read a novel a few weeks ago that’s part of a series and the whole thing was just tedious. The main plot didn’t even appear until halfway through the book. There was pages and pages, chapters and chapters of just internal monologue information about this or that from one character or another with an occasional bit of action or intrigue right at the end of a random chapter. It made me want to throw the book against the wall, but it was a library book. Needless to say I’ll probably not read the rest of the series. I’m starting to feel that way about an anthology I’m reading now. I don’t like when authors try to get all esoteric, cryptic or overly complex. I like to think I’m a pretty smart guy, but when a story leaves me going, “bu-whu…?” it almost feels like an insult, like the writer feels so clever that they’re that far above my understanding. Yes I know they have no idea that they wrote something above the head of little ol me, but it feels a bit like a betrayal of the trust that I gave them as a reader. I’m sure someone’s thinking the story’s good. I just wasn’t one of them.

    I guess it could also be my preference in sci-fi. I like Star Wars style space opera, straightforward story, no overly complex descriptions of things that I couldn’t possibly understand without a degree in the sciences (I don’t have to know exactly how a hyperdrive works, I just have to know it works), descriptions of other things that I may not be able to visualize just with the name, and what I keep picking up is more like, well, I can’t even say Dune because I liked Dune. It’s not hard sci-fi because it’s specifically called space opera. Don’t know what it’s like, but I know it’s not what I like to read.

    And now I’m run-on rambling, so I better stop and get back to work.

  • It’s not that info-dumps suck, it’s more that bad info-dumps suck. Presentation is the key. For example…

    Kathy let her mind slip free into the aere. She contemplated The Cat Who Walks Where He Wills; aka Stumble Rumble; aka Klutz Cat — her tuxedo. Good symbol of sneak and sneaking and staying unnoticed by potential visitors. That would render her aeric self hard to notice.

    But instead of Klutz Cat she got the kitten. The new kitten. The stumble bum, barge in on people, and inflict your pestiferous self upon them kitten.

    Kathy cleared her mind again and tried once more to see Klutz Cat in her mind’s eye.

    Again she saw the kitten.

    Not a bad kitten, but not the right symbol for one trying to add an element of “don’t mind me, I’m nobody you need bother with” to a casting. She cleared her mind again, and again tried to visualize Klutz Cat.

    And once more got the kitten. A kitten who, in her aeric eye, was giving her a most pitiful, beseeching, “oh how can you ignore wonderful me?” look.

    It was then that Kathy understood the aerical nature of her new kitten, and the nature of their relationship. She had a familiar, and that changed the nature and implementation of her dweomers.

    And she hated witches.