Whether writing High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Supernatural Thriller, or Horror, many genres feature magic as a key component. It can range from subtle and inconspicuous to loud and flashy. It can have near limitless potential, or operate within strict confines. It can have a myriad of names ranging from sorcery, medicine, and thaumaturgy — to name a few. It can be the providence of knowledge, the gods, the spirits, or even simply luck of the draw or birthright. Regardless of how you decide to implement magic in your story, how you write magic will be an issue. Here are 3 tips and approaches to using magic in your writing.
Magic Follows Rules
The fallacy many fall into when conceptualizing and writing fantasy is that magic does not have to follow rules. This could not be further from the truth. A story would have no tension or meaning if a sorcerer could simply resolve a problem without any effort or sacrifice. A hero would be pointless if some wizard could just recite a few words and wave a wand to turn the rampaging dragon into a bunny rabbit.
There are many cultures and folk-beliefs that contain a tradition for magic, however it is called or described. These traditions follow rules, steps, and consequences to be observed. While the rules and causality of magic in these cultures may be completely divorced from science, there are rules nonetheless.
In literature, there are two general approaches to writing magic.
Soft Magic is the kind more often found in classical fairy tales — the cursed apple of Snow White, the Fairy Godmother of Cinderella, the puppet Pinocchio who became a real boy. More modern examples of Soft Magic can often be found in High Fantasy stories, the most prominent example being The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The magic of Middle-Earth is both subtle and potent — never explicitly explained but heavily implied. Such is Soft Magic; action leads to result, and the finer mechanisms need not be explained. What limitations there are to the mystical in your story should be shown, not told in exposition. The rules by which Soft Magic operates tend to be ambiguous and flexible, open to influence by intent and emotions.
Hard Magic is the other end of the spectrum for magic in literature, operating by a very specific set of rules and laws akin to real-life scientific laws and theories. Good examples of Hard Magic can be found in the works of Brandon Sanderson. In his books, magic operates along very specific lines, almost never deviating from what is established early in the book. When it does perform beyond expectations, it is usually due to clever application or even exploitation of a loophole within the rules by which magic operates.
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By Ian Smith