A couple weeks ago, I talked about magic: first about what is magic and then I compared two basic kinds of magic. Today, I’d like to take a look at actually writing magic, and what a well-written magic results in.
Laws and Bylaws
You’d think that a free-form magic (vs. a structured magic) could do anything it wants, right? As a writer, you should have an endless amount of possibilities, right?
Wrong. There’s this thing about readers that can get really annoying: they’ll only believe so much. When they suspend their disbelief for you, they’re saying “okay, I trust you won’t go too crazy”. If you do go too crazy, however, that suspension will snap and you’ll lose them. Losing readers is never good. In many cases it’s inevitable, because someone will always dislike what you wrote, for whatever reason. It’s your job, however, to minimize the number of lost readers.
You can do this in many ways; the most important way is to tell a story so good that suspension of reality is worth it. Another way is to follow the rules. Even worlds with free-form magic systems have basic physical laws that are constant, even when the magic morphs and changes. Take Lewi Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. This is one of the best examples of free-form magic out there, but there are still physical constants that his world abides by. Even as people are growing and shrinking, there is a conversation of exterior space (when Alice grows big, the room doesn’t grow with her) and most of the time (it’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I’m fairly certain there are a few exceptions) gravity doesn’t just vanish and momentum is kept at equilibrium. These are basic things that aren’t hard to write, and are exterior of magic altogether, but which add a sense of realism.
I wrote a blog post several months ago (it was recently the “featured” blog post on the sidebar) called “When Physics and Fiction Collide”, where I go into a bit more detail about this.
Meanwhile, one of the first things you can do to write magic systems well is to note which physical laws you refuse to break. Gravity is usually a good one, momentum can be a really interesting one, and if you want a challenge, try to avoid breaking Entropy (trust me, it’s harder than it sounds, especially when you’re just estimating and not actually running the numbers).
Avoid the Info-dump
One of the quickest ways to ruin a reader’s reading is to dump information on them. When you info-dump, you take all the challenge out of reading. You make it so not fair. We were having such a good time, trying to piece all the information together and then you went and dumped it all in our laps, ordered and ready for us to simply absorb.
It’s tempting to use an info-dump to explain your magic. You want to have the old wise man from the cave atop the mountain explain everything in his deep, soothing voice so that your characters and readers can learn about the magic and move on. But one of the most important aspects of writing a good magic system is this: magic is unknown. When something is magical, it’s mystical and mysterious and foreign. If you info-dump all at once and spill all the beans, it’s like explaining a sleight-of-hand trick. Once it’s explained, it loses its pizzazz and wonder.
I’m not suggesting that you never explain your magic system. It’s good to do that, because you need to let your readers know that this exists. That you’ve planned it out. That it matters.
Not all at once.
For instance, in my recently finished Agram Awakens, I have these complex, intertwining magic systems which permeate every story line. They are, in a sense, the driving force behind the plot. How much of these magic systems have I explained by the end of the story?
About half of one of the magic systems, and the other two are barely brushed upon.
Now, I’m planning this series to be about ten books long, so I’ve got plenty of time. Your story might only be one book long, or two, or three. That’s okay. I paced myself so that by the end of the third book, the reader has a basic understanding of two of three magic systems, and an understand of the third by the end of the fourth. After that, it’s a slow process of their slowly coming to grips with the true expanse and limits of the magic and its impact on the story.
Don’t spill the beans right away. Drop your reader little hints along the way, and let them slowly build their arsenal of knowledge.
In Agram Awakens, I don’t think I ever spent more than one paragraph in a scene explaining the magic system. Instead, I simply showed the magic at work. From the basics of what it did, the reader has the ability to start to form their own mental guides of what this magic is, and what it does. Even if they’re not fully aware that they’ve done this, they have a start. They know it can do this, and this, and this, but not that or that.
As time goes on, I’ll explain bits and pieces more, show the magic at work, and let the reader do the work. Readers aren’t lazy. They’re excited when you let them put a puzzle together.
The Precise Art of Vividness
Magic is an act. It’s a force or talent that characters (or creatures or objects) use to accomplish something to some ends.
Because magic involves a good deal of action, it’s a great and powerful tool for telling a story. It’s easy to show magic, because magic happens in verbs. Of course, it’s also easy to passive tell about magic and show nothing.
When you write magic, think it out in detail before you write. Know what the magic is going to do. If this means writing a draft of the scene and then re-writing it to make it work out better, that’s fine. When you know exactly what needs to happen, you’ll be able to get to work showing it. Active voice and strong verbs are essential to a well-written magic system. If you just tell us what’s going on, then you lose a chance at exciting your reader and creating great conflicts.
As with describing people and places, vivid details are absolutely necessary. If we can’t see what’s going on, we won’t understand and we’ll be frustrated. You can’t just give us vague details to keep us in suspense. In fact, vivid details can convey a much tenser sense of dread than vagueness ever could.
Earlier this year at a writer’s workshop, I heard author Daniel Schwabauer teach a session on “Particularizing”, about choosing the right details to describe things. One of his basic points that’s been cemented in my mind ever since was this: three separate details make something concrete in someone’s mind.
When you describe something three different ways in three different places, people will be prone to remembering that thing. Permanently.
I think this concept can apply well to the idea of writing magic: show us three different aspects about magic. Not just the visual aspect or the physical results, but something else. Engage our senses in new and unexpected ways.
That’s what writing a good story does: it engages our senses and emotions in ways that make us see and feel things we didn’t expect. It makes us want more. It keeps us reading.