Been thinking about this today while working on a pitch for a fantasy project and going over my accumulated work notes…
Fantasy (and the more fantastical breeds of sci-fi) is a hazardous genre for writers. Fantasy deals in magic, which can manifest itself in countless forms, from the secondary worlds of Oz, Wonderland and Middle-earth, to flying nannies, goblin kings and gold-hoarding dragons. Magic is about miracles, mysterious forces or inexplicable events that cannot be ascribed to the laws of reason, nature or science. Magic in fantasy stories isn’t so much about escapism; it’s about redefining the real world to better understand and overcome its challenges. Like language, like story itself, magic is protean and can articulate anything the writer has in mind. Magic is kind of a big deal. The problem is magic is anathema to drama.
Drama obeys the scientific principles of Newton’s third law: “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” In Breaking Bad, Walt does something, causing his antagonist to do something in response, which affects another character, causing them to act, which causes another reaction, and so on. Thus character is plot and plot is character. Cause and effect; action and reaction. However, magic in fantasy, whether sprouting wings to effect a getaway or pulling a Basilisk-killing sword out of a hat, is essentially effect without discernible cause.
It’s hard to sustain dramatic tension within a story if the reader knows that anything can happen for no apparent reason. Sloppy writers can kill an entire story the moment they resolve any dramatic situation with the wave of a magic wand (or perhaps a sonic screwdriver).
Different fantasy stories handle this problem in different ways. Surrealist stories eschew drama, so they’re allowed to go nuts. Fairy tales tend to project a dreamlike air in which the magic is part of the fabric of the world, although good fairy tales usually establish a strong sense of cause-and-effect ‘dream logic’. Earthbound fantasies like It’s A Wonderful Life tend to isolate their supernatural elements with specific rules, while heroic and epic fantasies must carefully rationalise the magic-infused worlds in which they take place.
One way of tackling ‘the magic problem’ in a fantasy story is by ensuring there’s only one miracle in play at a time. The brilliant Disney fairy tale Tangled is a great example of this. The movie features only one story-affecting bit of magic: Rapunzel’s hair. Compare this to the Harry Potter movies, which present a hurricane of magic items, clauses and wotnot of which the viewer is expected to keep track as the story unfolds. For me, this is why most of the Potter movies completely fail as drama (although they get by just fine on charm and inventiveness). But back to Tangled. Notice how Rapunzel’s magic ability is not only incredibly simple to understand (her hair can heal when she sings and loses its power when it’s cut), it also helps drive the story, as the other characters fight for control over her magic locks or the heroine puts them to unexpected use herself (as in that scene with the flooding cave).
Stories playing more than one miracle at a time is what the late screenwriting guru Blake Snyder called ‘double mumbo-jumbo’. “A little goes a long way as far as ideas are concerned,” he wrote, and he’s absolutely right. Never overproduce a good idea by adding another one on top of it. Simple is almost always better, and this is especially true when dealing with fantasy stories. To use Snyder’s example, the earthbound fantasy movie 13 Going On 30 involves both a bodyswap and a timeslip and thus struggles to find room for two sets of comedy routines.
If you’re introducing a magic artefact that does one particular thing (a belt that grants super-strength, say), beware making that artefact do something else as well halfway through the story. Don’t change the rules of magic just to fix a story problem. Establish the rules of cause and effect early on then stick to them.
I’ve always felt that epic fantasies like Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones are the single toughest nut to crack in terms of storytelling. Getting to know the ins and outs of your fantasy world and making them easily relatable to an audience is a Herculean task. There are so many extra balls to juggle when you use magic to turn the plot. Writing a story set in the ordinary world puts a welcome limit on the number of threads that can evolve, whereas fantasy employs all these extra threads that must be defined and orchestrated in order to work.
I’ve rambled enough now. So, I’ll end on this great quote from Game of Thrones author George RR Martin (interviewed in SFX magazine, 2012): “Too much magic can ruin a fantasy. Magic is a very powerful ingredient and it unbalances everything. You can’t put in a lot of magic and then still have a medieval setting or the same social structure. The existence of magic would radically deform any society or culture in major, major ways. If you look at the history of the real Middle Ages, magic was very present. Of course it didn’t really work but they didn’t know that. They believed in witches and killed and burned many witches and wizards. They believed in alchemy and angels and demons. There were also doubters so I try to replicate that. When magic works, it works a little uncertainly and it’s not something everyone can work. I don’t like the idea of a magic system, which some fantasists use. If magic is systematic, then it’s not magic and more of a fake science. Magic is the supernatural and it’s beyond nature. It’s dangerous, uncontrollable and unpredictable, which is the flavour I try to deal with. Really my models were the great fantasists like Tolkien. There’s a very magical feel to Middle-earth but there’s very little on-stage magic. Gandalf never tries to solve the problem by whipping up a potion or a spell. When he’s attacked he doesn’t throw lightning bolts from his fingernails, but picks up a sword like everyone else.”
By the way, if fantasy movies are your thing. You may be interested to know I wrote a book about them called Empires Of The Imagination. Click the link to find out more.