Tag Archives: story mechanics

Rules of Magic

Today I’d like to share with you a post I first wrote back in June of 2005.  Somewhere I have a full-fledged article I wrote that goes into this, if I can find that and it isn’t too repetitive with what’s already here, that may be worth posting too.

My first novel was a thriller/suspense.  Kind of strange, really, because I do most of my writing in the fantasy genre.  There are a few small paranormal elements in Concerto, but it isn’t fantasy the way Crystal Cave is, for sure.  Even Enemy in the Mirror, which is marketed as sci-fi, has a definite fantasy slant to it.  After the years working on The Music Mage, and now Redeemer of the Realm, I have spent a lot of time in fantasy.

So I’ve done a lot of thinking about magic, and it’s place in my works.  My views on magic are heavily influenced by Holly Lisle and Orson Scott Card, and by the mess I saw in my own writing before I defined certain things.  I have specific resources I can point to for anyone who’d like a more in-depth discussion of magic–that will be a post for another day.

For now, from June 2005:

We’ve talked before about the extra work that goes along with writing fantasy; the world-building and such that is in addition to the regular plotwork and so forth that any writer has to do to write in any genre.  One of those things that a fantasy writer must deal with is the rules of magic.

Almost all fantasy novels include magic of some type.  Whether it’s wizards wielding fireballs or commoners wielding enchanted weapons, fantasy worlds are rife with magic.  It’s part of the appeal of fantasy.  For many fantasy writers, it’s also part of their downfall, at first.

Because the fantasy writer gets to make all the rules, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to start out with no rules.  Especially with magic.  Why should I have to make rules about magic?  It’s MAGIC, it’s supposed to be able to do ANYTHING.  That’s why it’s MAGICAL.

I disagree.  The magic in your fantasy world should always have limits and costs.  Often, for every magic you create you will want to create a counter, whether it is well-known to your characters or not.  But at the very least, limits and cost.

Why?  Well, think about it this way.  If your magic is all-powerful, capable of anything, and costs nothing to use, the first person to invoke it wins.  End of story.

“And Galdad the Great snapped his fingers and Hured the Evil, menace to all the free peoples of the worlds, was reduced to a small pile of smoldering ash.  Everyone cheered and they all lived happily every after.”

Ick.  If there are no limits and no cost, there is also no story.  Story is about conflict and struggle, and if your magic can do everything for you and there’s no reason not to use it, then there is not conflict, and no struggle.  No story.

So.  Limits.  Limits define your magic.  What can it do?  Perhaps more importantly, what can it NOT do?  If you want your characters to be able to summon spirits but not raise the dead, limit them.  If characters should be able to see the future but not scry what is happening right now somewhere else, you need a limit.  Maybe your characters really do have all-powerful magic, but they have to be touching their target.  Ach.  Limits allow your struggle to exist, by making sure your characters can’t just cast a spell and make everything wonderful again.

Cost.  A well-defined system of magic should have a price that is extracted for using that magic.  Unless you really do want your characters to be able to use magic all the time.  Sometimes, if your limits are strictly defined you can get away without a cost.  If a magician must use a wand or a staff to cast magic, then cost becomes perhaps less of an issue–if you don’t want him using magic you can separate him from his implements.

Usually, though, you will have a cost associated with magic.  Maybe it saps the user’s strength, maybe it takes hours, days, or even years off of a person’s life, depending on the magnitude of the spell.  Maybe sacrifices must be made.  Perhaps difficult to locate, expensive ingredients must be combined into a potion that is used when the magic is cast.  Cost allows your basic conflict to exist, by ensuring your characters don’t use magic to solve every problem they encounter.

There are many, many other things you must consider when designing complex, believable magic systems, but the two primary things are limits and cost.  Start with those and you will be well-equipped to pursue the others.

Endings–A Practical Exercise

A while back I posted a blog entry on the old blog (reposted below for your convenience) about endings.  There is also a new article on my website (Endings) on the same topic.

So, taking into consideration all of the things discussed there, how can you be certain your ending is carrying your story’s weight?  I’m not sure there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but here are some exercises that may help.  These are all things I conceived of myself, when working on a big story that encompasses several books, but still needs to be coherent & complete when it’s all said and done.

  • Exercise #1–Beginning, Ending, Change Worksheets

    In this first exercise, we’ll take a straightforward look at your ending.  You can do this whether your book is complete or not–if it is not yet complete, just use the ending as you currently imagine it.  Any problems with that ending will probably be shaken out as you work through this.

    We’re going to sit down with three sheets of paper.  On the first sheet, write “Beginning” at the top.  Now, list out the elements of your story as they stand at the beginning of the story.  You’ll want to include your main character’s situation, any important supporting characters’ situations, the main problem in the story and any secondary problems, the setting where we find your characters–etc.  Essentially you are summarizing the state of your fictional world in this list.

    On the second sheet, write “Ending” at the top.  On this sheet you will list out all of those same elements–only this time, you’re going to list out how they stand at the end of your story.  Everything you had on your first sheet should make an appearance here, plus any significant developments over the course of the story that must be handled in the ending.

    The third sheet should be labeled “Change”.  Up till now we’ve been making lists that are pretty automatic–all the material for them is already laid out in your manuscript or in your head, and you are just putting it down on paper.  This is the sheet that will require you to really think.  I’m about to ask you a question that you may find tricky.

    Look at the first item on your first sheet.  Probably your main character’s situation, right?  Now look at the first item on your first sheet.  It’s your main character’s situation at the end of the story.  What change is necessary to make this happen?

    When you have an answer for that, start your list on the third sheet.  Put a #1 on the top line, and list out any and all changes that are necessary to accomplish this ending.  (If this is confusing, don’t worry, there will be an example later.)  A single item on your beginning and ending lists may require several changes–that’s okay, just list them all out.  Then move on to the next item.  It will take some time.  Just keep going, I’ll wait.  🙂

    All done?  Good!  What you have now are cheat-sheets to your entire book.  Assuming the beginning is accurate as you have laid it on sheet 1, and your ending is accurate as you have laid it out on sheet 2, then sheet 3 contains the bare bones essential plot to get you from one to the other.

    This is crucial.  Sheet 3 is not the entire plot of your novel.  Of course not.  But Sheet 3 contains the essential things.  The things that must happen, for story reasons, for your ending to work.

    Now your work may be easy.  If all of the things contained on Sheet 3 are already in your plot, you are done here.  Your ending grows organically out of your story, and it makes sense.  Good job!

    If not, you have more to do.  If elements on the sheet are missing, these are areas where your ending will be weak.  It will not grow out of the story, because the things leading to it were not adequately explained.  You’ll need to look for ways to work these missing elements into your story.

    You may find, when you attempt to do that, that elements already in your story flatly contradict things that are on Sheet 3.  This is a bigger problem.  Basically, you are in a situation where, for your ending to make sense, a certain thing needs to happen.  But for your plot to work, that thing can’t happen.

    You have a choice here–something will have to change.  You can change the ending so that the missing element is no longer necessary.  You can change the beginning, so the missing element is already taken care of at the story outset.  Or you can change the plot, so that the missing element can be added without breaking the story.

    Whatever you choose, your end goal is a situation where Sheets 1 and 2 accurately represent your story’s beginning and end, and where everything on Sheet 3 happens in your story.  At that point, you can be reasonably certain you have an ending that follows logically from your story, that makes sense.

Good work!  A bit heavy for a blog post, though, eh?  My website has a page of examples to illustrate this. To see the examples, check out:



Here’s the thing: Endings.  Endings are the thing.  Endings are Every Thing.

At least when you are writing.  Or reading.

Ending is not the cherry on top.  Ending is so integral to your plot, you can’t separate them.  At least, not if you want to write anything anybody wants to read.

The Ending is what you’ve been selling the whole time you planned, plotted, backstoried, character developed, and wrote your Great American Novel.  A good ending won’t save a wretched story.  But a bad ending will unfailingly kill a good story.  The ending is why the reader just invested their valuable time reading your story, and if it stinks, then they’ve wasted that time.  Your ending has to be good, or your story is doomed.

So what do I mean by a Good Ending?  Does every story have to end with Happily Ever After?

No.  Of course not.  Good does not necessarily mean happy.  But it should be satisfying.  It should resolve the conflict, and tie up the main storyline and any secondary storylines you had.  The ending should grow organically out of the plot and the action of the story, not come screaming out of left field at the reader, who can find no other justification for it than the whim of the author.

Want to find out more about Endings?  Check out the new article on my website at