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Sanderson's First Law

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Kelise, Apr 22, 2012.

  1. Kelise

    Kelise Maester

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    Apologies if this has been discussed elsewhere - point me that way and I'll lock this one if I've mistaken :)

    What do we all think of this: Sanderson's First Law

    Taken directly from the wiki:

     
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I don't think it's as simple as that. To me it's more about understanding the role the magic plays in the story than understanding the technical specifications, which can in some cases even get in the way. I think satisfying a reader is about making the surprise connections between the specific magic or its limitations with the situation at hand.
     
  3. shangrila

    shangrila Inkling

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    I don't think he means it has to be technically explained, but there has to be definite and defined limitations if the writer is going to use magic to resolve any problems. Otherwise it will seem like Machina.

    That was one of the things I didn't like about the Malazan series. In the later books especially, too many problems get solved by magic that isn't really all that well defined. Things just...happen and, honestly, it just felt cheap.
     
  4. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I agree with Sanderson. It becomes obvious when an author forces a magical feat in the story. I always walk away from the book asking "How come the author didn't think this through?"

    When authors fully work out the details of their magical systems it creates limitations that the character must overcome. This adds an additional layer of conflict to the story, one that the readers may enjoy. Although the genre we love is fantasy, I appreciate it when their is logic to the world. Logic exists when fantastical systems are bound by rules.

    I'm going through that process now. That is why its taking such a long time to world build.
     
  5. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I agree. I loved the Malazan series but the sudden use of magic to solve problems with methods that seemed to readily available.....the series lost some of its luster.
     
  6. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    Hmm.... While I can see where they're comig from, I disagree that it's a hard and fast rule. If you vaguely define magic, that gives you an oppourtunity to say that magic CAN'T solve this particular problem for whatever reason. The deus ex machina-ness of magic isn't related to the magic itself, but how it is used. No matter the form, Magic should be a tool to help solve the problem.
     
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think Sanderson is correct. If magic rules are explained and the reader understands very well how it works, and those rules allow the use of magic to solve a given situation, then by definition it is not a deus ex machina. Indeed, the reader would wonder why the magic wasn't used to solve the problem if it so clearly could be.
     
  8. Leif GS Notae

    Leif GS Notae Closed Account

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    It all ties back to the gritty realism people strive for in their works. When you give it to them, you are going to account for everything out there because it is what the people want. That means volumes on concepts for your magic, governments, main characters, one-offs, and so on.

    It is giving your reader the maximum value for their dollar. It's a standard practice in internet marketing as well, you give them more than they expect with clarity and value added to it, and your customer will come back to buy the next book you are releasing. You are earning their trust.

    That being said, miracles and magic shouldn't really have to be explained in the true context. This is why they term it miracles and magic. The definition covers those things that cannot be explained.

    If it were anyone other than Sanderson telling me this, it would carry some weight. Of course, expanding on that statement is for another thread.

    All in all, do what you want. If you feel your magic must have explanation, do it. If you want to retain mystery, don't. It is your story in your voice.
     
  9. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I have to say... I'm not fond of the term gritty realism.... I mean, what's the point of reading a story if it's exactly like real life? Yeah, you want your readers to be able to connect to it, but you also want them to be able to escape for a time through your writing. There's a line there.
     
  10. Jon_Chong

    Jon_Chong Scribe

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    I can dig this. It often annoys me that authors use vague and soft magic to solve problems without properly defining their rules to the readers. If the world is bound by physical laws, then so to is magic considering that magic is a force within the physical world. And if it is not, then it therein lies a whole area to exploit and use. This school of thought holds particularly true in this day and age considering that we as a society demands explanations for everything. It usually doesn't have to be a good explanation - see Dan Brown - but it has to be reasonable sounding at the very least.

    That said, getting overly technical can be problematic as the entire magic system takes a life of its own. This is not necessarily a bad thing - especially if the story is about the magic system - but it can feel like you're reading a text book at times. There is also my distaste for info dumps. I as a reader tend to skim through info dumps and while I cannot speak for the readers here and in the world at large, I can speak for myself: down with the info dumps!

    I have one last thing to add: the word magic. We call it magic because it is miraculous and undefined by science. But should magic be used in a world that understands its limitations and applications, can we really call it magic then? A few authors have sought to change the name - Sanderson is one but it's a slow moving trend. As such, I would like everyone here to sit down and ask yourself, "Is magic the right word for it?"
     
  11. "Gritty realism" doesn't mean "it's just like real life." It means that it's identifiable as being like real life, rough edges and all, but of course any good story has a solid narrative structure that real life utterly lacks. Less "realistic" stories tend to have more obviously fantastic edges that would seem absurd in the real world, but that we accept in fiction. These days, people generally prefer stories that have a more realistic, naturalistic tone. The Dark Knight would have seemed much too dark and sober back in 1966; the Batman TV show from 1966 now seems silly and childish. Doesn't mean one's inherently better than the other (artistic quality is 100% subjective; no exceptions).

    "Gritty realism" is about tone and avoiding wish-fulfillment. The good guys do not always win easily; people suffer; the heroes may win in the end, but there's always a cost. It doesn't have to be as brutal and dark as, say, Game of Thrones.
     
  12. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    The only problem I have with the phrase "gritty realism" is the idea that reality is always that dark but never equally that bright. Dark Knight was a great film, but it's shades of black and dark grey are as equally real - or unreal - as similar shades of white and light grey. I'll note, in Batman we have a "morally grey" hero, but still always an "evil" villain. I can see why that appeals to people, but I don't think it's inherently more or less realistic than a story with brighter tones and happier endings. Happy, silly romantic couples do exist, and so do good cops and soldiers doing their best to protect people and fight the bad guys. They are a part of the real human experience.

    Sure, people have flaws and weaknesses, but they don't necessarily have to be the sort that would shake up their "good guy" status. And the bad guys have those weaknesses, too, and in reality, are just as likely to have everything work against them as the good guy is.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2012
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  13. shangrila

    shangrila Inkling

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    I think suffering is just more relatable. Everyone suffers at some point or another, but it's harder to find true happiness in real life than sadness.
     
  14. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I still think you shouldn't be limited just gritty realism, stupid funny has it's place as well. I mean, just look at Adventure Time, it's a light hearted comedic series that's aimed at children, but it has a large amount of older viewers.
     
  15. shangrila

    shangrila Inkling

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    I'm not saying that a writer should be limited by that, I was just offering a possible reason for why its so popular these days.
     
  16. Phin Scardaw

    Phin Scardaw Troubadour

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    Magic systems can be the most marvellous things to read about, and one of the most frustrating things to write. No matter how much is explained, no matter how soft or hard a wizard's wand is, a writer should NEVER resort to using deus ex machina to resolve problems.

    If you as a writer are faced with a dilemma, and you feel as if you've written yourself into a corner, then you should be making lists of everything that your character can do to get out of his or her predicament. Sure, sometimes external forces can come into play, and happy accidents do happen - but these will feel cheap to the reader no doubt, who wants to see the character find a way out themselves. Apart from magic spells, there is also cunning and courage. A character can always try talking out of a situation; or if that doesn't work, his sword can express a few opinions.

    I think that explaining any aspect of your world in an info dump is sloppy writing that elicits groans from disgruntled readers. A magic system can be revealed throughout the story, pertinent details being peppered here and there - but as others have pointed out, magic by definition defies explanation. So there should always be some softness to it, and mystery.

    I also like to think that those wielding magic in these stories might botch spells or miscast them. These are powerful forces to be dealing with. Just think of someone inexpert at handling firearms - there's a good chance that they can break their wrists from the recoil of a powerful shot if they don't know how to brace themselves with the gun. Magic can cause as many problems as it solves - and I feel it's a truly brave writer who lets it loose without knowing what will happen. To use magic only as a problem-solver is lame. Magic can also create some wonderful problems, as well and it could be that the characters in the story are striving to understand the mysteries that surround the magic system that they don't even fully grasp.
     
  17. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Sorry, I could be misunderstanding, but are you saying that Sanderson's first law advocates using deux ex machina? Because it doesn't. It's just saying in a world where magic has few or no bounds it's difficult for it not to be the all purpose easy solution to all problems. And as a consequence, IMHO finding those problems where magic can't be the solution is the key but can be extremely difficult.
     
  18. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

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    Magic needs to have set limits on the author, so just some random magic can't abruptly end the story. No one wants a magic wand to fix it all with one swipe. If it could, then why didn't the MC just use it before the reader wasted their time on the book?

    The reader doesn't neccesarily have it explained to them, but it should not be a magic bullet that kills all enemies or brings a hero back to life all of the sudden. It must be believable and not destroy the reason to read the book.

    One problem with magic I have, is why does a wizard use different magics on different enemies? If a fireball kills well, why not use it on all enemies? It might get boring for a reader, but in real life, if something works, people keep doing it. And why learn a whole different elemental magic just for variety?
    In action movies we see this by the hero shooting a certain gun majority of the time, but when faced with the villain, he grabs a bigger and better weapon. Usually a bazooka, missle launcher, or other grand weapon, when a simple handgun would do the trick. Of course, we know, if you don't blow the villian into tiny peices, he/she will come back and kill someone close to the hero or even worse, come back in a sequel!

    Magic having boundries doesn't mean it can't be miraculous, its power can be undefined by science, but the author needs to know the basics of why this power hasn't enslaved the world, altered time reality, destroyed the world, or other world changing events.
    There is alot of space between all powerful with no limits magic versus precisely regulated and defined weak magic. Knowing why the mage hasn't conquered the world helps to prevent the unbelievable magic from destroying the story in one casting.

    I agree, Alchemy is a magic herbal concoction until it is studied by science, then it become pharmacology.
     
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yeah, I think this is the takeaway point.

    Using powerful magic to resolve a plot point is not a deus ex machina if the rules regarding the magic have been established and allow the use. So by setting the rules, you are more likely to avoid the deus ex machina problem in the first place. If the magic system has no rules and the author is basically making it up as he goes, deus ex machina problems become more likely.
     
  20. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

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    - Because some enemies can defend themselves against it by using water magic
    - Because some enemies can send them back into your own lines and do damage there
    - Because it requires plenty of effort from the mage and he can't use it too often...

    - Because different means of attack are always valuable
    - Because magic can be used for things other than fighting (such as healing or helping agriculure)
    - Because different forms of elemental magic might exist and their users need training...

    There's so much that can be done with magic and as a writer, you're (almost) completely free with it. That's why I don't believe in putting up universial laws of magic everyone is supposed to follow. Something that works fine in one story might stand out like a sore thumb in another.
    Everyone has to look at his or her own writing critically and decide if his or her magic system works or if it hinders the plot No one can take this work away from us by creating simple rules. ;) It doesn't seem to be that difficult either though, because at least for me, the number of books where the magic actually got into the way of the story is very small.
     
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