Willful Writer is back at his keyboard, typing busily on his latest story. This one is about a young, brainy lad raised as a peasant, but really of noble blood. He has just been apprenticed to Yon Wizard, a fearsome enigmatic figure in a long, tattered robe and even longer beard that he tosses casually over one shoulder to keep from dipping it into his cauldron. After some haggling, the terms of apprenticeship are agreed and the lad is left with his new master. Yon begins his lessons promptly, and the lad proves adept at conjuring, summoning, and magical sweeping. Yon’s hut floor has never before been so clean.
One day, while Yon is away on mysterious wizard business, the lad finds a quaking, frightened townsman on the doorstep. The townsman says a giant is attacking the town walls, and Yon must come immediately to drive the giant away before the town is destroyed. When the lad explains that Yon is away on mysterious wizard business, the townsman becomes angry and says that Yon has a contract and must offer wizardly protection or he’ll lose his lease.
The lad, being a helpful type and fond of his master, agrees to fight the giant. Standing atop the ramparts, the lad lifts his arms and summons a mighty storm cloud with lightning that sizzles blue fire-bolts all around the giant, catching his tunic on fire. The lad conjures a fierce wind that blows the giant off his feet and tumbles him back from the gates. The lad closes his eyes and draws more deeply on magic than he ever has before. Then he creates an enormous broom with a giant redwood log for a handle and roof thatching for the straws. And with a mighty heave of effort, he sweeps the giant away.
“Hurrah!” cry the townsfolk. “Huzzah! Hoo-yah! We’re saved.”
They surround the lad, slapping his shoulders and asking him what he wants as his reward.
The lad smiles happily, glad to have been of service. “I’d like a beer please,” he says.
“Now there is some good writing,” Willful declares. Typing THE END, he takes his latest manuscript to his writing coach, Ms. Sagacious. She reads it, muttering to herself as she turns every page.
“Awful!” she shouts. “It’s too easy. I hate it.”
Willful, still enamored of his story, dares protest. “Would you like it better if I included Orville the talking cat?”
“No!” Ms. Sagacious tosses his story into the wastebasket. “You’re missing the point. The magic is free, and that’s wrong. You’ve cheated again. Now go away.”
Poor Willful. He’s brought trouble into his story and eliminated the protagonist’s mentor at the crisis point because wizards always seem to vanish just when they’re most wanted. He’s given his protagonist powerful magic and stuck with the magical rules he created by making sure the lad uses a broom to defeat the giant. Why, why, why is Ms. Sagacious so upset with him this time? What’s wrong with free magic anyway?
Do you know, dearest blog reader? Can you guess?
Willful has not put any price on this story’s magic. It’s easy to learn and do, so easy in fact that it’s effortless. The lad does not struggle to master it, does not encounter any difficulties in using it, and suffers nothing in its application. To Willful’s way of thinking, why shouldn’t his protagonist get a break? This nice, heroic lad surely deserves an “easy button,” right?
When a story problem is solved too simply, suspense as to the outcome drops. If the lad never struggles or doubts, there’s nothing for readers to worry about. The story goes flat because a successful ending is too certain.
And magical powers–be they small or great–offer easy ways to success. Magical powers are natural suspense killers … unless a writer tinkers with them.
We do this by putting a steep price on the magic. If a story is to carry any dramatic oomph, then magic comes at a cost. That subsequently serves to counter-balance the effect and keep suspense high.
In The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, the evil magician is dying by slow degrees every time he uses his powers. He suffers nosebleeds after he works spells and grows weaker page by page. His plan is to create a new body for himself and transfer into it before he dies, and he is working against that deadline.
In Robert Jordan’s fantasy world, the male wizards eventually go insane from using magic.
Harry Potter pays the price of having to put himself into danger and face Voldemort, a villain so feared that no one else in the stories will dare speak his name aloud.
What price does Tolkien extract from his hero for wearing The Ring? Poor little hobbit.
In the Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid, Ariel wants to be human so desperately she gives away her lovely voice in exchange for Ursula’s spell.
Horrible or mild, drastic or simple, magic must come at a cost if it’s to be dramatic, effective, and suspenseful. Avoid becoming so caught by your own enchantment that you break this second, very important rule of writing about the fantastical.