Once upon a time there lived a person named Willful Writer who wanted to create a story world filled with wizards, apparitions, a noble hero, and a talking cat named Orville.
Willful Writer began his story with an exciting event designed to kick off episodes of danger and calamity. A magical hurricane blew down the castle, releasing noble hero from his chains where he’d been kept in the dungeon for five-hundred years. Noble hero fled, heading through the ghastly ghost field and the haunted forest and the river of misbegotten souls before he joined forces with Orville. Together, these two intrepid adventurers finally made their way to the wizard’s gate, through which they had to pass in order to reach noble hero’s home.
But at the gate crouched a dangerous sphinx armed with riddles and traps and trickery. While Orville was trying to solve the riddle to keep the sphinx from eating their heads, the wizard arrived to blast them to cinders. But at that moment, noble hero discovered miraculously that he possessed magical powers that he’d never known about before. He was able to toss wizard fire back at the villain, then blast the sphinx to rubble so he and Orville could make it safely home.
Wow! thought Willful Writer while typing, “The End.” That’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
Happily Willful Writer took his manuscript to his writing teacher, Ms. Sagacious. She read it, grimaced, and tossed the pages at Willful’s head.
“Never, ever, do this!” she shouted. “Never cheat with magic!”
Okay, this fable stops here. I’m as exasperated with Willful as Ms. Sagacious. Aren’t you?
Now we can all see that Willful has made numerous writing mistakes with his story, including using every cliche and threadbare trope known to fantasy, but let’s stay focused on what Ms. Sagacious said to him. What did he do wrong with his magic? He cheated. He violated the first of four common rules of writing fantasy magic.
And what, exactly, are those four common rules of writing magic plausibly?
#2–Pay a price.
#3–Limit the magic.
#4–Reap the consequences.
Okay, we’ve established that Willful cheated. We’ve jumped up and down about it. But how did he? What did he do or not do? Why was Ms. Sagacious so upset?
Answer: Willful did not stick to his own parameters. In other words, when writing a fantasy story you can establish any type of magic system you want, and you can award magical powers to any character or characters you wish. You can make magic an ordinary and mundane fact of life or you can write that magic is special, rare, and hard to possess. It’s up to you and the type of story you’re writing.
But whatever you create in terms of where the magic comes from, or how magic is used, or who possesses magic, or what the magic can do–you must thereafter abide by your rules.
That means you can’t suddenly award special powers to a character that never had them before just to get that character out of a tight spot.
That’s how Willful cheated in the above example. And readers won’t accept it.
If, let’s say, you set up the parameter that using magic requires a blood sacrifice from a firstborn human, then halfway through your story you can’t switch that requirement to any other birth order just because your firstborn protagonist is the last man standing.
If you establish that only human blood will appease the Lizard God Othal, then you can’t have the high priest shrug and capriciously allow his minions to toss a goat on the altar instead.
If your wizard protagonist uses rituals to cast spells, and several times you’ve described a painstaking procedure of gathering the correct herbs by the light of a new moon, boiling the knees of eels for three days, and lighting seven spell candles in proper order while chanting an incantation, you can’t–at the climax–dispense with that procedure simply because the trolls are coming fast up the staircase and there isn’t time to follow the ritual.
These examples are illustrations of what we call writing yourself into a corner.
When and if this happens to you, it means you didn’t plan well when you were outlining your story. Or just possibly you didn’t bother with outlining at all.
Does this mean you’re doomed?
When you can’t figure any way for your hero to escape annihilation except through breaking the magic rules of your story world, the solution is simple. Revise your story! Alter your magic system to allow flexibility in how the magic is used, OR plant for the possibility of hero doing the ritual in a new, very risky way that might possibly succeed although it hasn’t been tried in a thousand years and could result in his dying of spontaneous combustion. Before you choose a solution option, however, think long and hard about how you would react as a reader to each one. Which could you accept, if you were reading this story? Which would annoy you? Then make your changes from that perspective.
I’ll address Rule #2 in my next post.