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Friday, May 18, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Managing Magic in Your Novels, Part 2," By Eric Dontigney 


In Part 1, I laid out some of the questions that you need to answer before you launch into writing a fantasy novel. Now let’s turn our attention to some of the problems you’ll face once you start putting words to the page.

Every Last Detail

You’ve put a lot of effort into working out all of the ins and outs of your magical system. You know how it works, what its limits are, whether it’s a secret, and whether its limits can be transcended. Depending on how much time you spend on this part of things, you may have a pretty substantial amount of writing on the page already. Your first impulse is probably to get every last one of those details on the page.

It’s a mistake you commonly see in historical fiction and alt-history. Someone pours a lot of effort into learning all about a given time period. Then, they want you to know that they know just about every little thing about the era. So, they lovingly describe the food, the clothes, the architecture, the government, the monetary system, the state of trade, and so on and so forth ad nauseam. The problem is that this loving attention to detail is often secondary to, if not irrelevant to, the plot.

For example, I’ve read enough about Medieval/Renaissance Florence and the Medici family that I could probably write a novel set in the period. In doing so, I could talk extensively about how many of the Medici suffered from gout. That opens the door for a delightful little field trip into Renaissance medical practices. The only problem here is that I can’t think of a single meaningful reason to do that, except as a brief aside for why one of the Medici might not appear in public on a given day. At which point, there isn’t a particularly compelling reason to go into it.

A similar argument applies to the construction techniques used on Brunelleschi's Dome at the Florence Cathedral. While it’s fascinating, there aren’t many good reasons to talk about it on the page. So, what’s the takeaway here? Just because you know it, it doesn’t mean the reader needs to know it.

Relevance Before All Other Masters

A caveat here. Your first draft is all about getting the story down on the page. If you need to fill an extra 50 pages with all those details about your magical system to get the story down, then do it. Your first draft isn’t for public consumption, so it can be as bloated, disorganized, and inelegant as finishing requires. Once you turn to revisions and editing, though, things change.

The question you must always ask yourself while revising and editing is this: Does this detail about magic matter to the reader?

Another way of asking the question is: Does this detail forward the story in a meaningful way?

The sad truth is that, more often than not, the answer will be that it doesn’t matter. You might very well find that 95% of the information you generated about your magical system won’t end up in the novel. That extensive history of magic can end up being one or two lines because it doesn’t forward the story you’re working on. The cost you put on magic, on the other hand, may take up pages and pages of consideration because it’s central to a character’s decision-making. That information matters to the reader and the plot.

So, Why Bother?

If all that information isn’t going to end up on the page, why bother with generating it in the first place?

First, we’re back to the law of narrative consistency. You must do all that legwork so that when you’re writing, you know what magic can do and how it happens. That keeps your descriptions consistent across the length of the novel. Consider how often writers change a central character’s name halfway through a novel’s first draft. They’ve probably written that name dozens of times and they still end up changing it. How hard is it to imagine that you’ll change how magic is done halfway through if you didn’t do all that legwork?

Second, it actually speeds things up in the long run. Knowing exactly how magic works in your book means you aren’t figuring it out on the fly every time your wizard/mage/sorceress/witch violates the natural order. It's more like a fill in the blank problem.

Magic user does (blank) and then the bad guy (blanks). Afterward, the magic suffers (blank) because the cost of magic is (blank).

It’s really the same logic that applies to building character profiles. You figure out all of those character details so you can apply consistent reactions across the novel. It makes your life easier in the first draft and the revisions. Let’s face it, writing novels is hard enough. Anything that makes the process easier is a boon.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


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