Tag Archives: writing fantasy

Magic: Part III

The third rule of magic that I’m addressing in this small series of posts requires that it be limited.

Now, the word limited, plus all its synonyms and all their meanings, nearly always raises a writer’s hackles.

Who wants to restrict us? Who dares to constrict us? Who presumes to hold us back, keep us in, lock doors, set boundaries, inhibit our freedom, and otherwise stand in the way of our imagination and creativity? Our wildest instinct is to fight this, and yet we must learn the writing principle behind this rule of limitation and how/why it works for us if only we’ll let it.

Willful Writer has decided that Ms. Sagacious is less than competent to teach writing. Disappointed by her unfavorable reactions to his two previous stories, he’s convinced himself that she doesn’t understand fantasy or high concept. Therefore, Willful has decided to write a saga so big, so fabulous, so amazing that it will knock her nylon socks off.

This time, Willful promises himself, he’s going to reach for the stars and beyond to infinity. His newest protagonist, Wizard Warlord, can draw on the very energies of the cosmos. Wizard Warlord is a giant among other sorcerers. He can summon plasma bolts from the sun and fry enemies on the spot. No other character can withstand him. And not only is he all-powerful, but he is also possessed of a tender and forgiving heart. He is noble, self-sacrificing, and kind. Although he is certain to fry the puny villain Malicious Malton in a wizard-fire showdown, he intends to let Malicious Malton’s minions go free. This will prove how heroic and worthy he is.

Are you yawning yet?

You should be.

Willful’s story is going to last two pages, and most of the words he types will be description of the alley where the wizard battle will take place. Thinking he’s building anticipation by spinning things out, he lavishes minute attention on painting word pictures of the pavement, the buildings, the purple sky overhead, and the twittering of the birds in the trees at the end of the street. But at last, after much stalling and purple prose, he types the one-paragraph confrontation, showing Wizard Warlord strapping on his greaves and standing at the agreed dueling spot at the prearranged time. Wizard Warlord looks magnificent. He is charged with so much magical power that he glows in a nimbus of wizard fire. He is ready, ready, ready for the battle that can have only one outcome–his complete and total victory. Only, Malicious Malton doesn’t show. He isn’t there. Has he fled? Did he just stay home? After all, why bother to turn up? Oh, just imagine the joy that fills Wizard Warlord’s heart, for once again he has prevailed and won.

“Phooey!” says Ms. Sagacious, and slashes a line of red ink across Willful’s manuscript. “Too short! Too certain! No suspense! No hook! Nothing to hold reader interest.”

“But I’ve written flash fiction,” Willful protests. “It’s, like, over in a flash.”

“You have no story,” Ms. Sagacious insists.

Willful trudges out. Phooey, he thinks. She doesn’t understand my genius. My concept was so huge she missed it entirely.

Poor, bone-headed Willful. Once again, he has broken a rule of using magic in his fiction. He has refused to limit the magic his character draws on, and in doing so, he has created a sure-thing.

This is not only a suspense killer, but it leaves a plot nowhere to go. Magic without limitations, magic that can do anything and solve everything, leaves a story’s outcome absolutely dead certain. The story question is answered right away, leaving writers with nothing else to convey.

When we write fiction, the reason an antagonist is stronger than the hero or has the advantage over the hero is so that we can make the outcome uncertain. That, in turn, forces us to generate a longer story as our beleaguered hero tries one tactic after another with little to no success. Conflict, resistance, adversity, bad luck, betrayal, and trickery all play a role in blocking a hero’s easy path to success. That, in turn, pushes a protagonist into abandoning the easy path and stepping out of the box, taking bigger risks, leaving comfort zones behind, and embracing change in order to survive and win.

Magic that’s too powerful or too easy or carries no limitations at all is magic that unbalances a story and answers the question too soon. That destroys any suspense and does not entice readers to keep turning pages to see how it turns out.

That is why, in many stories, we see a confident character dealing with a spell that suddenly goes wrong, or meeting a terrifying, more-powerful mage that scorches her. It’s okay to jerk the magical rug out from beneath your fantasy characters, and in fact readers are hoping something terrible and unexpected will happen. Because when things go wrong for your protagonist, or when the unexpected flips her upside-down, the story has to move forward, and readers will be eager to find out what happens next.

On the other hand, if the antagonist is too powerful, possessing magic, spells, warding protections, and demonic assistance to the point that the hero has no chance whatsoever of prevailing, then why show up? Why not forfeit the contest, like Malicious Malton did, and just surrender? It’s not very heroic, granted, but it’s safer.

A story with a fateful situation, with an antagonistic force that’s unbeatable, is pointless. The hero is doomed before he starts. Cheering him on is futile. And readers don’t want to vicariously pretend to be a doomed character.

What readers want instead is a hero that only seems to be doomed. They want an antagonist that only seems to be unbeatable. Then they can experience the hero’s attempts, struggles, and hard-won victories with great enjoyment. A chance–no matter how small or risky–makes all the difference. And limiting the magic helps provide that chance.

 

 

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Magic: Part II

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?

Wrong!

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.

 

 

 

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The Rules of Magic: I

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?

#1–Don’t cheat.

#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?

Hardly!

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.

 

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Podcast 5

Podcast 5 is now live (dealing with a book’s dismal middle) and can be listened to here:

 

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Dialogue Discussed

Podcast #4–dealing with dialogue–is now live on the Manchester University Press Web site. Pitfalls and tips are discussed.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula Final

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Kindle Version Coming

For those of you who have been wondering if THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA will be available in a Kindle version as well as print, the answer is … YES.

It’s in process, and should be live very soon, perhaps next week.

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Count Down …

Having a book come out is always exciting and a day to celebrate, but it’s been a while since a real, tangible, printed-on-paper version of my work landed on my doorstep in a box. I peeled off the tape and pulled out the packing, and behold, there it was. My author’s copy of THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA–a long time in the making–all shined up and ready to launch.

February 1 is its street date. I’m told by a friend that Amazon at least will be shipping on February 3. Big breath. That’s when we’ll see if the anticipation has been justified, if all you wonderful supportive purchasers will get your money’s worth.

Meanwhile, I’m emotionally pacing the floor like a mommy watching her five-year-old ballerina run onto the stage for that first dance recital.

Fingers crossed.

We’ll see.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula Final

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