1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

Sanderson's First Law

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

  1. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    3,463
    1,241
    163
    I have to agree with Amanita here!! The beauty of Magic is that we can create it inside our own worlds in so many different ways, we are free, and following rules or something that is supposed to apply for all Fantasy in general would only limit our creativity as writers and storytellers...

    After all, different stories work with different styles of Magic, and the style that exists in a particular story or world would not work well for some other stories: The Magic in Lord of the Rings would not work well with my worlds at all, and the addition of my own Magic to the Middle-Earth world would just completely ruin the story!!

    The style of Magic that you create and use in your stories must follow the rules and limits necessary for your own story =)
     
  2. shangrila

    shangrila Inkling

    436
    59
    28
    No disrespect intended, but you both missed the point then.

    Sanderson isn't talking about universal, story spanning rules for magic. All he's saying is that, if the writer wants to use magic to solve problems, then it has to have defined rules IN THE STORY or else it will just be Deus ex Machina. I think Sanderson describes it in that article as turning magic into a tool, so it becomes the characters using their brains to solve problems rather than just waving their hands and having everything go away.

    That said, he endorses what he calls soft magic too, so he's not trying to put one over the other.
     
  3. Phin Scardaw

    Phin Scardaw Troubadour

    160
    25
    28
    Totally misunderstood, pilot.

    Not I nor Sanderson wish to see magic abuse.

    I'm saying that deus ex machina should never be used by any writer in any story. Period.

    Surely magic systems that are underdeveloped may tempt writers to use spells to get their characters out of trouble - but any writer worth their ink should recognize when deus ex machina rears its ugly machinations and steer clear!

    In my experience, EVERY literary dilemma carries its own solution. You just have to look hard enough to see it.
     
  4. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    3,463
    1,241
    163
    The problem that has been described is that Magical characters could just use powerful Magic to solve any huge trouble, which is what you call deus ex machina (a name that sounds really strange to me!!) well, I think in a different way:

    The Mages in my stories have nearly limitless Magic with terrible powers, but still they have trouble and situations that they cannot escape or solve easily just by throwing Magic at it.

    Why is that??

    Their powerful Magic does not allow them to do anything they want because their troubles are Magical as well- They sometimes create their own limitations, and when they go to battle, obviously they cannot win easily just like that because they are fighting other Mages with the same weapons and defenses that they have.

    It's like the first chapter in the 6th Harry Potter book, where the muggle Prime Minister tells Cornelius and Scrimgeour: "But you are Wizards! You can do magic!! Surely you can sort out... anything!!" and one of them replies that the real problem is that the other side can do magic as well =)

    If my Mages travelled to Middle-Earth they could solve the problem of the ring and nuke Mordor up before Frodo and the others can even start their journey (so, deus ex machina and story ruined!!) because my Magic is not good for a story like The Lord of the Rings, but in their own worlds they face their own freaking trouble and they cannot fix everything so easily.

    So, why do you talk and worry so much about this deus ex machina thing?? You mean, like suddenly Gandalf started throwing huge green lightning and destroyed all the bad guys in two minutes? What story has done something like that?
     
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2012
  5. Phin Scardaw

    Phin Scardaw Troubadour

    160
    25
    28
    The phrase denotes a literary device which once was common practice but now is frowned upon because it's seen as cheating by the writer who gets his characters into insurmountable situations, then invents an equally impossible solutions. To put it plainly, it's bad writing.

    The magic system you describe had limitations, and these are a set of rules you invented. The more clearly you know these rules and the more clearly you express them to your readers, the less chance you'll use magic to fix every problem and overcome every obstacle your characters encounter. While they should be allowed to do so when it's appropriate, a writer shouldn't use magic in every instance where the characters are in trouble, because it will become predictable and monotonous. Readers expect more from the story-tellers than a string of quick fixes.

    Gandalf DOES in fact shoot lighting to defeat his enemies - but we are also shown that Gandalf's powers are limited. He cannot handle or hold the One Ring for even a moment, lest he be tempted and overpowered by it.

    To put Sanderson's precepts in another light, I had friend who was writing a story in which he got stuck, because his villain found a way to become omnipotent. I kept suggesting things that the heroes could do to thwart him, but he argued with me that if the villain was omnipotent he could foresee every move his enemies would make, and could stop them with a thought. His story could not be finished, because there was no conflict. The villain was utterly victorious, and the heroes vanquished.

    The basic principle is that magic needs to be limited and those limitations should be understood by the writer, if never fully expounded to the reader.
     
  6. Jon_Chong

    Jon_Chong Scribe

    39
    0
    6
    The issue here really isn't with Deus Ex Machina. Authors these days do away with deus ex machina nowadays because it is not relevant to our lives. No, the issue that Sanderson's first law has is with vague and undefined magic that allows authors to pull crap out of their asses without due explanation. One good example, Harry Potter.

    We're never given an appropriate explanation as to how magic works and it never clearly frames just what makes Voldemort well... Voldemort. Why was Voldemort so powerful? What made him so feared? Was it because he used the Avada Kedvara all willy nilly? So what do we get? We get horcruxes(problem #1), the Elder Wand(problem 2) and a magic system that quite frankly, doesn't go anywhere. Let's examine them one at a time.

    Horcruxes show up in the sixth book, the second to last book. It is supposed to be an important thing, but it is revealed this late in the game and the whole of book siix is taken up to destroy the horcrux. It is then revealed that the Diary was a horcrux, only we didn't know its significance until now. While it could have been planned, it smells too much of a retcon to me. It's like her editor asked her, "So why hasn't anyone you know, killed Voldermort? Is he like, invincible? And how?" And so she planted it in. Except the horcruxes doesn't quite explain his invulnerability. After 'dying' once, it took him some 15 years to come back, and even then there was major issues with him coming back.

    The Elder Wand is touted as the most powerful wand in existence. Why is that? What does a wand do? Does it amplify your spells? How do spells work for that matter? Is there a level of mastery? Like if you're really good with Wingardium Leviosa, could you float castles? Does casting spells drain you in some way? This point coincides with my third - a vague and empty magic system. These questions are either glossed over or never explained at all. If this was any type of novel - epic fantasy, paranormal fantasy - I can take it. But you're in school for crying out loud. Don't they teach spell theory in school? No, they don't apparently. They don't teach how magic works, just that it does with the write words and a flick of a wand. Really? Is that all it takes?

    I'm sorry if this post has become a rant of sorts and I understand as a YA novel, Harry Potter has some leeway in such matters. I still find it annoying though and its especially infuriating when the author who obviously plans her novels - Snape's character was done amazingly - did not spend enough time thinking out the nuances of what makes Harry Potter magical - the magic. Okay, done.
     
  7. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    3,463
    1,241
    163
    Well, I agree that Magic needs certain limits because otherwise a story could not work at all, but that's absolutely obvious really for anyone writing Fantasy and there is no need to give it a special name like Sanderson's law. Also, there are Fantasy stories with very low Magic and others without it, and still they are good stories =)

    I think that this deus ex machina thing is not so bad for Fantasy stories and I do not understand why it's loathed so much...

    It would be bad writing only when it gets really extreme or stupid: Today I was reading that some people consider that Fawkes helping Harry Potter with the hat and the sword was a deus ex machina in the Chamber of Secrets book!! So, why? Was Harry supposed to fight the monster with his bare hands, because using any Magic against it or receiving any help means it's deus ex machina and bad writing??

    Now, this would be a deus ex machina: In the final battle, when all seems lost suddenly Fleur reveals herself as an ultra-powerful super witch and she starts killing Death Eaters by the hundred with Fiendfyre under her absolute control, and then she takes on Voldemort himself and blasts him out of reality with soul-killing Veelaser beams from her eyes!! Then, Fleur turns to Harry and says: "'arry, your problem ees solved!!"

    However, most "deus ex machina" examples from Fantasy stories are not like that... and in my opinion, many writers are getting too worried about it instead of feeling more free and happy with their Magic systems.
     
  8. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    3,463
    1,241
    163
    @Jon: The Magic in the Harry Potter series is (I think) mysterious and undefined on purpose, in contrast to the more precisely defined and near scientific Magic systems from other Fantasy series. I prefer the mystery and unexplained style of Magic while many others go for the science-style, and stories can be good with both and also without any Magic =)
     
  9. Jon_Chong

    Jon_Chong Scribe

    39
    0
    6
    It is true that authors are getting too tied up in definitions and it often stifles out creativity, but it bears to be cognizant of the pitfalls of writing lest we fall into it. Secondly, both circumstances - Fawkes helping Harry and Fluer turning into a hulking juggernaut of doom - are actually deus ex machinas. Why? Because there has been little explanation leading up to it. Harry has met Fawkes all of one time and he discovers that his wand has Fawkes' tail feather in it - can't recall if this was in the second or third book, to be honest - but other than that, there has been no connection between the two, nothing to hint at Fawkes showing up. Now this is okay for younger readers as it enthralls them as they read of the phoenix(the deus ex machina in this case) coming down to save Harry. This is similar to your Fluer example. There is no buildup, no mention, nothing.

    Magic can be mysterious. Take Lord of the Rings. Magic is barely used, let alone explained and is given this grand sense of wonder. However, the circumstances in Harry Potter is different. Humans use magic. A lot. So why haven't they studied it? Why haven't they dissected it? In order to harness something safely, you need to understand the nuances. In all honesty, they probably have dissected magic, we just don't know it. So do we as readers need to know all of the nuances? No, cos that would be silly. But some groundwork is required. We know you can cast magic without wands - wands are required for the big spells. But why? What is magic? And it is not like she is starved for avenues when it comes to explaining this. Considering Harry's background as a muggle, it allows for Rowling to slip in little tidbits about how magic works in her world without it coming off as ham fisted. We also have to ask something: does learning about something lessen the wonder and mystery of it? I think not.
     
  10. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    11,095
    1,562
    313
    On the contrary, Fawkes helping Harry was foreshadowed a few times earlier in the second book. Dumbledore stated clearly that he would never truly leave Hogwarts while those in it were loyal to him. Harry showed his loyalty to Dumbledore when he faced Tom Riddle, which resulted in Fawkes coming to help him. Also the things like Fawkes' healing tears and ability to carry extremely heavy loads was stated in the scene where Harry first meets him, as well as phoenixes being "highly faithful pets," which again ties into the loyalty thing mentioned above. So no, I don't think this is a Deus ex Machina, but the Fleur example definitely is.
     
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  11. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    3,463
    1,241
    163
    I think it's 100% fair that Harry would get some help to fight the basilisk, after all he still had to gather a lot of courage to take on the monster armed only with a sword... Well, if that counts as a deus ex machina anyway, what should have happened so nobody would think it was a DEM and an example of bad writing??

    The Wizards in that series have this Department of Mysteries thing, so it's clear that there are many things that still remain a mystery for them about Magic. For me, the series explains enough about the Magic... I don't really want to learn everything about how it works and why, but I understand why others dislike this Magic system in particular.

    I imagine that the author focused on developing the story itself, giving less importance to the Magic...
     
  12. Jon_Chong

    Jon_Chong Scribe

    39
    0
    6
    Fawkes coming to help Harry is fine - he's a kid facing off a giant snake with a sword. last I checked he did not know how to use a sword - but the circumstances leading up to the aid was a little too neat in my mind. Granted, it has been years and I don't have the books with me so my opinion about it can be coloured by the recent developments in the series, but it irks me that it's too... clean. Compound this with the fact that Harry has very rarely shown much skill beyond bravery and the ability to fly a mean broom stick ceapens his victories somewhat.

    Personally, I'm like you. I don't want to know the physics of Wingardium leviosa. I don't need to know how much mana is needed to power a Stupefy spell. What I would like to know. however, the foundations for magic. The basic rules on how magic operates. A framework, if you will. Something that gives me a point of reference to say "If Voldemort is here and Harry is here, that means if Harry were to take on Voldemort now, he would be boned..." As it stands, it's pretty much whatever Rowling says. This is problematic as it can lead to contradictory results. For example. Dumbledore. He's portrayed as the world's most powerful wizard but we never see anything... awesome about him besides being an extremely wise grandad. Why is he the most powerful wizard in the world? Is it the skill in his wand? The force of his spells? The sheer knowledge of what spells to use? Conversely, why was Voldemort so feared? What was stopping the ministry of magic from sending a hundred mages and peppering him with stupefies till he can't block? Right now, all I know is that Voldemort was scary because he can say "Avada kedvara". That's... not enough.
     
  13. shangrila

    shangrila Inkling

    436
    59
    28
    Harry pulled a magical sword out of a magical hat in order to kill the Big Bad. I'm not completely sure, but this might just be the dictionary definition of Deus ex Machina.

    If you're asking how that would be done differently, show the guy at least practicing with the sword before the end battle. Just having the main character pull something out of their butt to solve the problem is DEM. Anything else isn't.
     
  14. Phin Scardaw

    Phin Scardaw Troubadour

    160
    25
    28
    Just as a side note, I believe I found the one excusable instance in which DEM can be used with impunity.

    One of my novels in progress has a sequence in which the main characters are flying about in a Cadillac convertible (this should be enough to relate that this story includes the ridiculous as well as the profound) when the driver suffers from a sort of seizure and the car goes out of control. They're about to crash into the side of a mountain when, at the very last second, the car is caught and held at an angle askew.

    When the characters descend from the vehicle they find that the little silver angel that had been the hood ornament on the car has come to life to save them. The car is owned and operated by gods, so this type of car insurance is actually common.

    Quite literally: God in the Machine.

    I greatly enjoyed the irony.
     
  15. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    3,463
    1,241
    163
    I still think that you are taking this DEM thing way too seriously, but anyway, that's just me =) I would not worry about it at all (either in my own stories or while reading those of someone else) unless it was a really extreme form of DEM like my Fleur example, because if you worry too much about this thing you will limit your Magic and your stories a lot!!
     
  16. shangrila

    shangrila Inkling

    436
    59
    28
    I don't see how it would be limited. It's not like you couldn't use the magic at all, just that you can't have it solve all your problems. It would destroy any sort of suspense if you knew that the character could just wave their hand (basically) and get out safely.

    I mean, it's completely up to you. But considering where the genre is right now, that kind of thing might be enough to turn people off your novel.
     
  17. Sinitar

    Sinitar Minstrel

    97
    14
    8
    I think it's the opposite. A poorly developed magic system limits your choices to such extent that DEM becomes the only option to satisfy the readers.
     
  18. Jon_Chong

    Jon_Chong Scribe

    39
    0
    6
    Sinitar, I would like to add on what you said. A poorly developed magic system does limit your choices, but not quite in the way you're thinking. I feel that if you do not set some ground rules on how magic works, every time you use magic it has the potential to come out as a deus ex machina because you don't explain enough. There is no plausible reason. And yet depending on the tone and work being created, sometimes deus ex machina aren't bad. One just has to use them extremely sparingly and in tasteful detail. Case in point, Lord of the Rings.

    That said, I like what you did there Phin. It's got style. It's got sass.
     
  19. I lol'ed. :)

    Also, I'm of the opinion that DEMs are less acceptable the farther you get into a story. DEMs at the beginning are much less problematic—nothing major is really at stake yet, and it's sort of a one-time "get out of jail free" card for the protagonist ("I saved your ass this time. Next time, you're toast," said Zeus)—but resolving big problems with them is to be avoided.
     
  20. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    4,522
    1,580
    163
    Hmmm...In my world, at least:

    Most human magic - actually 'refined' psionic abilities with a few oddities thrown in are reasonably well understood by the mages and scholars who make the effort to do so. However...

    Some human magic, while understood in general, has a serious problems or ethical issues associated with it - spells that animate the dead, require human sacrifice, or Black Magic. These effects are sort of known, but considered to be far too dangerous to muck about with, and some of the more exotic effects are, well...chaotic. It is worth pointing out that while black magic is capable of things not normally possible, some aspects of normal magic become unusable to those who go this route. And in absolute terms, black magic is not really more powerful than the other sort, merely more dangerous. In addition (since there are Lovecraftian things lurking in the corners) :

    There are abilities associated with 'demons', 'fey' (faerie), elder spirits and things that no human or other mortal spellcaster can hope to duplicate - though, with some of these entities, their magical services can be bargained for. Not being truly of the physical world, these creatures get a partial pass where magic is concerned - but they are also subject to limitations as well - Iron, for example is a deadly poison to fey and pretty much immuse to their magic; a genuinely pious priest is immune, and might actually order away a demon, that sort of thing. Additionally, I'm thinking of going with a sort of 'key' with many of the spells of these beings - if certain seemingly harmless conditions are meant, then their spells can come unraveled in a hurry.
     
Loading...

Share This Page