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Magic - explain it or no?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Gracieyorin, May 18, 2021.

  1. Gracieyorin

    Gracieyorin Acolyte

    Hi, I'm new here and I'm also a beginner in writing fantasy. So I hope this isn't a dumb question to ask.

    In writing about magic, is it generally better to leave a bit of mystery as to the details of exactly how it works? Or is it better to come up with detailed explanations that are woven into the story? Or somewhere in the middle, maybe? I ask, because I'm a "why?" person who always wants to know how something works. But when I was writing about the "why" behind a magical plant in a story I'm writing, it seemed to make it less magical and I wondered if it would be better not to explain at all, or just give slight hints as to how it might work. How do you all handle this in your stories?
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  2. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

    You're probably going to want a really good explanation for your own reference. Like if you have a magic plant, you would want to know what part of the plant has the magic stuff (leaves vs seeds), when the plant is magical (certain times of the year? certain ages?), where it exists in the world etc. Maybe you want to know that it's not magical unless your liver breaks down/converts some compound into the thing that's actually magical, so you need to smoke/eat/drink it for it to work. Maybe it doesn't work on elves, or it has different effects on dwarves.

    Now, how much of that is the reader ever going to see? Probably not most of it, or they'll only see a little bit. You can mention off-hand how trade of this plant is a big source of revenue for that noble house, that elves use it for a spice instead of potions, that your hero needs it for something important so they gotta find a very young plant, since only those are magical. When you get on an airplane to go from point A to point B, you don't need to know the physics involved or the chemistry of combusting jet fuel, you just need to know that it has engines that move it through the air. But if it was an action story and your hero has to take over for the pilot and fly the plane, then talking about what all those buttons and levers at the controls do makes sense. But not if you're just going to sit in first class and contemplate why you're going on that journey.

    I have two projects/systems, one is very science-based and the other is based on historical alchemy. I use enough oblique references that someone who's well-versed enough on the real subjects can figure things out (the special kind of light that only comes from the sun, not artificial light, and only some species can see is UV, but it's called something else in-world), but it's not a problem if they don't. But since I know how it works, I can make it internally consistent, which is the most important part (you won't be able to see UV-colored stuff at night or indoors, a human won't be able to see UV stuff). And since it's all based on real world physics/bio/chemistry, the reader sorta already innately knows how it works. Of course you need to eat and breathe to create energy and using energy makes you tired, and if you use too much you die. You need to refine the products from a chemical reaction to get the thing you want etc. Most readers of fantasy already know/understand some universal basic rules for magic, so you can assume they don't need to be told why, exactly, something is magical. It just is! They get that.
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  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I have a very complicated magic system that I'm using in Smughitter. It's thorough and explained. But only some of the explanations are going into the book, and it's something I have to pace as I go along. There are things that will feel mysterious and powerful in the first book that will feel like old hat by the sequels. That's intentional. I want that sense of wonder, and I have to have a plan for how I can keep stepping up the magic.

    In my case, Smughitter is planned for five books:
    In book one, the characters - sprites, hobs, other fairies - have their own quirky, wondrous abilities that we get to know.
    In book two, we step further into the magical items that have helped shape the setting.
    In book three, we get to see the fairy kingdom, what it was and what's become of it.
    In book four, we get to see, for lack of a better phrase, the fairy gods and their otherworld.
    In book five, we get a closer look at the magic that's underlying the villains.

    For me, managing that escalation is key to striking the balance between a magic system that makes sense and one that's been explained to death. Having that plan out front helps me keep down the power creep. The MCs don't need to keep getting newer, stronger magic. That's not where the wonder and awe come from after the first book.
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  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    There's no correct answer, it's all down to how detailed and rule-based you want the magic system to be and how much you want to explain to the reader. Each will evoke a different feel to the story. I do like mysterious magic systems quite a bit.

    I read some advice from someone (maybe Brandon Sanderson, but I don't remember for certain) saying that the extent to which you have to explain the rules and (importantly) limitations of your magic system is proportional to the extent to which protagonists use it resolve plot elements. That seems reasonable to me. In the old Conan stories, for example, magic isn't explained at all. It's mysterious and mostly evil. But Conan isn't a user of magic. In Sanderson's work, the protagonists rely a lot on magic to solve problems so it needs to have 'rules' so it's not simply used as deus ex machina.
  5. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    I'm on the nebulous, slightly vague end of magic explanation. I like mundane and rare magic. That can be its application and use, or those that can use it. In a tale I like, there are only a handful of magic users with any great power and only a few hundred that have any ability. The ability to use magic goes along with a need to be separate from the rest of humanity to some degree. It allows great magic to be possible, but not readily and easily available.
    As others have said, it is important that you understand how magic works in your stories. And stick to any limitations or rules you create.
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  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I think a lot of this decision is story dependent. Personally, I can get into a system either way if done well when reading. Tolkien described very little of a “system” while Sanderson is famous for his systems, and both can work. I lean more Tolkien, but at the same time, I have deep systems that I understand, but not even the characters do, so I ride the line between the two. If I live long enough to write a thirtieth book in the same world, I still want to be able to have that sytem reveal that gives the reader a little more insight into magic and the world.

    Also, feel free to give hints about how something might work from the character’s vantage, and have it be totally wrong... That’s when it gets fun.
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  7. Malik

    Malik Auror

    I believe that you, as the author, should understand the workings of the magic system, and the reader only needs to understand it as far as the POV character. That said, explaining magic turns it into midichlorians, and IMHO, nobody needs that.
  8. Gracieyorin

    Gracieyorin Acolyte

    Thankyou so much for the responses, everyone! I read them all and will refer to them again as I'm editing my story, hopefully soon! (Currently working on what I'm hoping is the last chapter... we'll see how that goes.)
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  9. S.T. Ockenner

    S.T. Ockenner Auror

    Of course you can! By all means, leave a sense of wonder and mystery! Some of the greatest fantasy books of all time did exactly that (e.g. Lord Of The Rings, Narnia, Song Of Ice And Fire etc)
    Gracieyorin likes this.
  10. Some books do both. In VE Schwab's Darker Shade of Magic, certain people have the ability to travel between multiple/parallel Londons using magic. How and why certain people can do this is revealed in bits and pieces over the course of the story, yet the MC wears a coat that can be turned inside out and then some, to allow him to wear any number of iterations. That magic, or even the actual number of "sides" the coat has, is never explained, but it's not relevant to the plot, other than to set the record straight on page one that the MC, and their abilities, are indeed magical.

    For my stories, I'll make sure I have the way a system of magic works straight in my head, but I may not reveal it all. Only what is witnessed or what is relevant to the characters and the story. For instance, I have a WIP with a physical from of magic that can erase memories. I am showing the mechanical way it's worked and what physical materials are required to enact it and I'll hint at what happens to those stolen memories. I'm also letting the reader see the costs of the magic, which fall mainly on less fortunate people who unknowingly gather the necessary materials and end up with a debilitating disease, Also I'll reveal how dreams are both immune to, and a result of the magic, (because we all dream of people we believe we don't know/have never met, and experiences we have never lived. . . or have we?) but I never reveal the actual "how" of the magic's workings or it's origins.

    The only firm advice I'd give is to allow yourself, and your character, to have their wow moment of introduction when the magic first appears. Don't feel the need to explain or give too much away at first. You can show your character's nervousness at working it, or their desire to use it for revenge or the mundaneness and nonchalance if it's an every-day magic. You can refer to their preparations or their studies etc etc, but let the reader enjoy and formulate their own questions you'll answer over the rest of the story. :) The first few pages of Darker Shade of Magic are, for me, a master class in doing this while still working in bits and pieces of explanation, giving us our first glimpse at our MC, and bringing the reader into the story beyond as well.
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  11. S J Lee

    S J Lee Sage

    Start with Lord of the Rings. Gandalf doesn't usually "cast spells" - he lifts his staff and the lights go out and Wormtongue lies stunned on the floor. A moment later and Theoden SEEMS to get younger - G either lifts a curse OR actually rejuvenated him, but that is left for YOU to say. START with LotR and see how subtle the magic is there. THEN ask yourself if you really need more yakk/explanations than that.
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  12. Malise

    Malise Scribe

    My bit of advice is to write the fun stuff first, then explain the magic later, sort of how a cool chemistry teacher would.

    In my backburner story (a school slice of life), I described the magic system in a P.E pop quiz that the characters take since their biology is inherently tied into the magic system which is basically finger guns but the bullets are all sorts of nasty stuff made from blood. However, that chapter's focus was not about the magic but about the kids frying the brain cells of their teacher by intentionally getting the answers wrong, and him having to explain everything to them like they're five.

    In my current story (a bureaucratic drama that serves as a prequel to the above story), has so far not explained how the magic system works. Instead, people are shooting glowing acid during an office fight and using finger jet-propulsion to spin themselves on rolling chairs, so the reader just has to assume everyone can do this sort of stuff. Tbh, I'm thinking of adding a chapter in between acts 1 and act 2 where a character goes to the doctor to get a thinly-veiled infodump about the magic system + his normie health problems, but I still need to write that half of the story first.
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  13. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Another fun example is Song of Ice and Fire. The magic there is more akin to LoTR, which brought up the rather humorous memory of an early interview with Peter Dinklage speaking the stories as, you know, fantasy but without dragons and stuff. That’s a paraphrase but it was funny as hell, considering how much he said he enjoyed the books. Huh? But anyhow, a lot of magic in ASoIaF is subtle, such as the Wall. The world becomes more and more magical as we move along,
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  14. S J Lee

    S J Lee Sage

    remember - small bits of magic DRAMATICALLY TIMED are FAR more entertaining than pages of waffle about how magic works.

    Mabye THE greatest movie scene where "magic" is suddenly used - and yes, The Matrix is sci fi, but it is a great scene - just skip to 2.30 and watch for 60 seconds

    Agent Smith doesn't explain how he did it, and it would be a sorry-ass scene if he had....
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  15. cak85

    cak85 Minstrel

    Another resource I'd check out is the mythcreants podcast and website. They do have some pretty good stuff about how to write sci-fi/fantasy. I used their articles about magic to help design and create my own magic system.

    They talk about rational compared to arbitrary systems.

    Here is a link - Search Results for “magic” – Mythcreants
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  16. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    If the magic is generated primarily through spellcasting, potions and enchanted objects then you won't really need much of an explanation, except if there's something unusual about that specific spell, potion or enchanted object. If magic comes from other sources then some explanation might be in order.

    The information could be drip fed, especially in a setting where the main character is learning about magic and how to use it. Greater detail could be added in one go if someone is compelled by necessity to inform someone else about how it works, such as in a life or death situation.

    Overall, let the context of how important the magic is, how it is used and the context of when the magic is used to determine how much or how little detail you use.

    In my work in progress the heroine has written a thesis in which she has proven that an almost universally held belief that magic is gifted randomly by the gods to 0.5% of the population when they turn 16 is wrong. The heroine's journey begins because education bureaucrats refuse to accept the thesis out of fear of Branch IX of the Ministry of Internal Security. The young, ambitious commander of Branch IX learns about the thesis and realises that it could be used to groom people so they're all but guaranteed to get the gift of magic. The political, religious and social ramifications of this knowledge could be huge for both the Empire or the Faith.

    By necessity, I think I would need to explain something about how magic works - and who gets it - at the beginning of the story. However, other aspects of it can be drip-fed through the story.
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  17. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

    You can do either one or the other, or even both within the same book.

    What you're describing is often referred to as hard vs soft magic, where hard magic is very rule based and the reader can explain how it works and why that's the case, while soft magic focusses more on the sense of wonder and the fantastical. They are both valid ways of writing and both are common. If you go hard magic, then the tale is more science-fiction like where there are rules and the reader "knows" how stuff works. In such a tale, the story can be about using the magic in creative ways to solve problems. Soft magic is often more used to enhance the setting and create that fantastical feeling.

    Now, be aware that it's not either one or the other. It is a sliding scale. You can explain everything about the magic or a bit or nothing at all and anything in between. How much you describe is what the story needs and what effect you're going for. I think "Hello future me" has a youtube video on this (which I can't be bothered to go find right now...)

    A good guideline to keep in mind here is Sanderson's first law of magic, which states something like:
    How well you can solve a problem using magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands that magic.

    What this means is that if you want to use a spell to have your protagonist win the final battle, then you need to make sure your reader understands that spell and that your hero can do it (or can do it if he figures out X). Sanderson's writing is a good example of this. He likes hard magic and characters using that magic in a creative way often plays a big role in the climax of the story. As a reader you learn the rules of the magic throughout the book and during the climax you can figure out what the hero needs to do or figure out as it's happening. J.K. Rowling is actually a master of this. The students learn certain things throughout the year and they have to apply them at the climax to defeat the big bad guy. Though, it should be pointed out that they then forget they ever had these abilities in the next book...

    To go the other way, there is a reason why in Lord of the Rings the hobbits do all the important climax things and Gandalf only sort of meddles in matters from the side. We don't know what Gandalf can do, and as such it would be very unsatisfying if at the climax of Lord of the Rings Gandalf would simply ride up to mount Doom and cast a spell which destroys the ring. We would feel cheated. So, as such Gandalf doesn't actually solve any major plot points using magic.

    To return to the doing both in a single book, the Lord of the Rings has another magic system in it, which is actually fairly hard. The One Ring is magical, and as a reader we know pretty well how it works. It makes you invisible, it draws the eye of Sauron to you and it corrupts your mind. We're shown these things throughout the book. And all of these actually come back in the climax of the story.
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  18. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    Hmm.... when explaining magic I recommend thinking about what casting magic feels like rather than just the mechanics. It's a pretty rare thing. Hell, I'd say that even Harry Potter doesn't manage it, but it's pretty neat when it does come across.
  19. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    There's no right or wrong answer to this because both have been done many times. I tend to like a bit of both. The magic system used by my main character is detailed because she needs to understand it in order to use it. Another is a bit like most people with electricity, they understand how it works, what it can be used for and that it's dangerous. But they have no idea what to do when it goes wrong nor it's exact origins without a lot of research. We use a lot of things on this planet that we don't totally understand. Sometimes we just know it works or it doesn't. But you tend to get experts in the field and those are the people you go to for help.
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  20. S J Lee

    S J Lee Sage

    away from WRITING for a moment- my DnD campaign is standard "have an intelligence of "9" or more, get educated and stand just right, say the words and wiggle your fingers and magic will happen - ie, be a 1st level wizard.

    Wizards have apprentices who clean their boots and cook their meals and eventually get taught a few simple spells...then it's out the door and go adventuring, which you must do to get powerful...

    NOW a wizard in a rich city proposes the government should invest in a huge magic college - instead of churning out 100 wizs a year, the country could churn out 10,000. The human race on that continent would be very powerful

    The clerics oppose it - either they are scared of wizards gaining power as a SOCIAL CLASS, OR they are right to protest that a city where everyone can cast a lightning bolt and turn invisible or charm the barmaid into going to bed with them ill be a recipe for MAYHEM AND EVIL - humans are not evolved enough to handle such power, the society will rip itself apart....because man's nature is sinful, and power corrupts...
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