How to Make the Magic in Your Story… Magical

This article is by Alex Limberg.

wizard fireball

You want to pull your reader out of his everyday life and draw him into your fantastic world? Want to wow her with things she would have never imagined possible?

Then you need to introduce magic into your stories!

Here are a couple of hints on how to create a special experience with magic:

Clearly Set the Rules Upfront

First things first: To make your readers go along with your action and feel suspense, you have to set the rules of what magic can do in your world and, more importantly, what it can’t do.

Imagine if your wizard would just have to snap his finger and could achieve anything he wanted. The story would have no serious obstacle anymore and it would become boring quickly. To prevent that, you have to define the limits for your magically skilled characters and for their spells.

Maybe a spell only works for objects your magician touches. Maybe its effect only lasts for three minutes, maybe it doesn’t work in windy places. If at a later point you don’t want your magician to use their skill in a certain situation, because your plot has other plans, you then have a very plausible deniability.

If possible, make it clear what magic can and cannot do early on in your story. Then your reader will not feel tricked by you, the author, and by a sudden “deus ex machina.” And when a powerful spell lets the magician take off into the air to save himself, your reader will willingly accept it. After all, the magician already used his skill in scene one to get a book from the high shelf.

Because I know keeping a story realistic and engaging at the same time is a delicate tight rope act, you can download my free e-book about 44 Key Questions to test your story. It will help you make every single part of your fantasy tale tight and unforgettable.

Magic Is Tied to the Magician

Magic doesn’t equal magic. Have you noticed how different a witch’s magic is from, say, an elf’s magic in most fantasy stories?

Witch magic has something more secretive to it, something more wicked and dark. Elf magic breathes positivity and life and embraces nature. Accordingly, these two forms of magic will have different morals, different ways of thinking and learning, different artifacts and rituals, and a different look and overall feeling.

For witches, the well-being of themselves and their loved ones might be most important, they will brew in kettles, use strange or slightly disgusting ingredients like virgin hair and toad eyes, love the night, fly on brooms, and live a more secluded life, often only accompanied by their confidant cat or raven. They might be good at evocation spells.

Elves think more like Buddhists. They lend their power from and feed it back to Mother Nature. They will be good at healing spells, and use wooden artifacts. They cherish community and are soft-spoken.

Accordingly, witch magic and elf magic will look and feel differently. Want some wicked, dark fascination? Watch the witch! Want to see a truly positive being make life around her grow? Elaborate the elf!

Even if your elf, witch, magician, druid, joker or whoever else you have look nothing like these stereotypes, you should still create your own stereotypes according to your own rules. Make your magic recognizable.

Use Moody Language

If the language hits the right note, it makes for a very moody magic spell.

You could formulate your spell like an order, even when it goes towards objects, the weather, the magician himself, etc… Whatever sounds a little crooked, a little arcane, will help you with your magic language. Pompous and unusual sounding words underline the serious business of your magically gifted character.

You can also draw from Latin words. Just use an English/Latin dictionary and translate English words to Latin or give the English words Latin endings. Common Latin noun endings that will make your spell sound potent and heavy are -us, -o, -or (all male), -a, -ae (both female), -ibus, -ibum, -is, -es, -em.

What do you think, which one of these two spells is more powerful to disarm a furious, fire-spitting dragon?

“Dragon go to sleep!”

“Draco Somnus, dragon rest!”

The Right Artifacts are Key

Everybody knows that for a spell to work, you need the right artifacts. It might not always be the case when your magician is out and about and doesn’t have the time for lengthy preparation. But if it’s a big spell and preparation is possible, then you can add a lot more atmosphere with a couple of details.

Think of clothing, for example robes or gloves the magically inclined character has to put on. Think of a magic wand, stick or cap she has to use. Think of signs and marks that have to be drawn on walls or floors, like a pentagram. Think of liquids, powders or other ingredients that might be needed (didn’t even the magician you watched as a kid employ some magic salt?). Maybe he needs sulphur or morning dew or a mandrake. Maybe the ritual involves moonlight, the twilight or another certain time or location.

Use your imagination. The more prerequisites it needs, the more powerful your spell will be – at least in your reader’s imagination…

Don’t Forget the Effects

Finally, magic takes place. But do you give it a quick “Pooof” now and then that’s it?

No way! What takes place here is a major shift between supernatural forces. It’s arcane power shattering earthly physique, and remodeling it at its own discretion. Make your readers feel those powers to the very tips of their hair.

It’s not just what your characters can see. Think in four senses: Seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling.

Seeing: Don’t hold back! Thick clouds of smoke could be involved, flames, lightning. Sparks, a maelstrom of colors, shapeshifting. There are no limits to your imagination.

Hearing: Ok, you can employ the “Pooof” now. But you can also think of more original sounds. Bangs, hissing, bubbling, screams. How long does the spell, and thus the sound take? Is anything transformed that will let out a noise? What sounds could the objects or beings make when they are stressed under the spell?

Smelling: In some cases something will smell, maybe of smoke, dust, sulfur, black powder or sweat. Or it could just be a strange, inexplicable smell that stays as long as the spell lasts (You can see through walls for the next 30 minutes, but there is this strange smell of citrus everywhere around? Eerie…)

Feeling: Use at your own discretion; you don’t always feel something when magic takes its course. But characters could feel an air blast, heat, cold, splashes of water or saliva, or whatever else your deviant mind brings out.

Don’t forget that many spells can work quietly, without anybody noticing anything – for example, when a magician reads somebody’s mind. You don’t always have to employ the full arsenal. But if it’s fitting, bring out the effects.

Finally, it’s too bad there is no magic spell to produce out of thin air what we all need most right now: An awesome magic spell…!

Do you find this helpful?  What is your best tip to make magic magnificent? Do you have some secret recipe that has worked wonders? What should magic accomplish in your story?

About the Author:

Alex Limberg is the founder of Ride the Pen, a creative writing blog that dissects famous authors (their works, not bodies). Make your fantasy stories tight and unforgettable with his free e-book ’44 Key Questions’ to test your story. Alex has worked as a copywriter in advertising and has also been active in the movie industry.

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19 thoughts on “How to Make the Magic in Your Story… Magical”

  1. Alex –

    How do you distinguish between integrating magic, in a literal sense, as part and parcel of a story, versus utilizing magical realism as a literary device?

    I am writing a very complex novel where I want to craft a story that incorporates elements of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s and Yann Patel’s style of magical realism. Allowing the reader to wonder whether or not something that is reported by some characters to have happened, but refuted by others, actually occurred.

    It is a critical theme and underlying element in the story line – faith and doubt, so to speak. The story takes place in modern times, yet begs questions as to the possibilities of inexplicable physical occurrences – particularly in light of all we are discovering about the quantum world and particle physics. In other words, not magic; simply put, physical anomalies that may have scientific explanations.

    Stated another way: does believing in something make it more likely that one will experience it, whereas having doubt robs one of the ability to have the same experience? Or the inverse: believing makes you see things that aren’t there, while having doubt (skepticism) lends one a more grounded sense of reality. These are questions now being raised in the context of Quantum Consciousness. Is reality real?

    Hope that makes sense. Just curious as to what your thoughts are on this issue and how best to approach it?

    • Hi Lance,

      What you are talking about is a different, and very poetic kind of “magic” in stories. Shall we call it “Magic that disguises as realism”…?

      Actually, the more realistic magic, the magic in fantasy stories, is what this post is talking about: The author tells you exactly what happens and suspends your disbelieve as much as he can. Whereas in magic realism, the author poetically enchants and confuses you…

      Some points of this post still apply, IMO, but some of them do not, and the ones that apply get a new meaning. For example, senses are important for magic realism as well, but the author could just use them to give a more sensual, enchanting experience (and not to make the story more realistic). And moody language is certainly important, but in description, dialogue, etc… and not for a spell.

      As you are fascinated by the genre, I’m sure you read a lot of magic realism. That’s a great place to start from. Then listen inside of you, what your magic world view is telling you. Follow your heart! You will do great.

  2. How can I set the rules for magic in my stories without actually sounding like I am setting the rules. I always come off as sounding like an instruction manual rather than a good story.

  3. I love the concept of touching on all the senses. Because we often do not use pictures or illustration in a book, it is very important to do your best to allow your reader to physically feel for your characters and what they are going through. They can’t smell, taste, feel, hear, or see what each character does so explaining this in the right context aids the reader to be a part of the story, not just reading it.

    • Yes, totally! We experience the world around us through our senses all day long, so we learn to trust them. You can take advantage of that fact when describing your scene.

  4. The laws and restrictions of the world are the ones that make “forbidden/hidden/dark/sealed” magic so highly sought after, even the reader wishes he could get his hands on it. And it definitely needs to be broader than “running out of mana”!

  5. Love the tip about different types of magic–witch vs. elf–and the ways in which they might feel completely different. My world has a very practical magic but also an old, less well-understood magic, and I hadn’t thought about giving them separate feels.

    As a Latin PhD, I HATE random Latin spells. JK Rowling’s were okay because they were always slightly off, and half the fun was figuring out what Latin words she’d cannibalized to get the spell. But ungrammatical Latin phrases thrown together? I twitch. But I’m a Latin PhD, so…. 😛

    • As a Latin PhD, you have an advantage when searching for the perfect magic formula… or a disadvantage, when you have to read the off ones. 😉

      I had Latin in high school for a couple of years, but most of it has magically disappeared from my brain now.

  6. Quite enjoyed that article, it is a nice connection of good tips. Had to chuckle at the revealed truth that nothing makes things sound more arcane and serious than Latinizing them.

  7. Nice tips! I also think magic is more effective when it is used sparingly. When there’s magic on every page, or every chapter, well the magic is lost, or becomes just ordinary.

  8. A bunch of really good tips here! I’ve had a devil of a time writing chronomancers–you know, time mages–because how can the bad guy do bad things if the police could just jump back in time and stop them? I’ve had to bend over backward to come up with reasons it doesn’t work. Next time, I’m just giving my heroes fire magic. You want believable magic, watch the way Dresden refuses to fireball an enclosed room for fear of burning up all the oxygen. That’s some good detail.

    • Ha, I love that example!

      The world is a complex place. As we all know from our everyday and professional lives, there are a billion reasons why something could not work… just when you NEED a reason – no one is there. 😉


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