Magic & Beyond as a Plot Device
Hans Ness, Dec 31, 2023
Magic makes writing easy. Whenever you need more obstacles, objectives, or tension, just make up a new spell, curse, time limit, or arbitrary rule for your magic. No logic required.
By “magic” I mean more than just abracadabra. I mean anything far beyond our science — like superpowers, mutant powers, the Force, mind-melding, telepathy, telekinesis, undead, ghosts, angels, etc. I’m also including any technology with super capabilities beyond our comprehension, like transporters or ghost-busting ray guns.
Write magic into stories for:
— The spell ends at midnight (Cinderella
), sunset (Onward
), blood moon (Turning Red
), 21st birthday (Beauty and the Beast
), etc. Or a non-specific time pressure, like Anna’s heart slowly freezing in Frozen
. Any arbitrary deadline creates urgency and tension.
— The spell suddenly doesn’t work when the bud guy uses a counter-spell. Or has a protective talisman. Or it doesn’t work on certain types of creatures (Watto immune to the Force). Or superpowers don’t work near kryptonite. Or the transporters won’t work because of interference from the spacial anomaly.
— The magic requires extra work, which creates a goal or quest. It requires a rare, hard-to-find ingredient (Onward
) or a special, hard-to-reach location (Lord of the Rings
— Add a new spell to solve a problem. In Star Wars
episode 9, the Force can now heal wounds and teleport objects.
— The spell has ambiguous wording, so no one is sure how it works. In Frozen
, the curse can be broken only by “an act of true love”. It’s like a legal contract with fine print.
— Fill in mysterious details with a prophecy, or a character learns clues through vague visions. No one questions the logic [illogic] of this.
Magic helps stories by adding:
Wonder and Awe
— Audiences love the feeling of discovering a world beyond our own.
— Audiences have no idea what the magic is capable of.
— Audiences are curious to learn the rules of your world.
Suspension of Disbelief
— You don’t need much of a logical reason for anything because audiences are generally willing to accept magic without question (as long as you’re consistent within your fictional world).
While the unlimited power of magic can create any obstacle or solution, that is also its drawback. If the magic solves problems too easily, it becomes an unsatisfying deus ex machina
, so it needs limitations. Sometimes in a series, there is already a magic artifact too powerful, so the writer brushes it under the rug and hope no one notices.
Perhaps you have detected my snarky tone. 😏 That’s because I personally find magic a little “too easy” for writing. I challenge myself to avoid magic for major plot points, but I still allow it for minor details. And I must admit that I enjoy stories with completely made-up magic, even if I sometimes roll my eyes. But hey, many people love magic, so never mind my snobby opinion.
Another technique with similar benefits is to write fictional religions, rituals, and mythology — you can make up any goal or obstacle as needed, which readers accept without any logical reason. Think of the rituals of the Vulcans and Mandalorians.
Decide up front how much you want to rely on magic for your story, and stay consistent, otherwise your audience might roll their eyes.