This is a reposting from an article I wrote for Literary Rambles a few weeks ago. Enjoy!
I recently read ELLA ENCHANTED by Gail Carson Levine as a guide for the story I’m writing for my daughter. It’s my first foray into fairyland and I’m nervous. To prepare myself, I’ve been pondering the use of magic in storytelling and how to make the make-believe believable. Here are some guidelines that I’ve come across:
1. Introduce magic early on. In the first chapter, there should be a hint of the supernatural. It’s not cool to get halfway through a book and discover that your main character is really a mummy without several big hints along the way. It works against a reader’s suspended disbelief. In EE, Ella is cursed by a fairy as an infant and it’s introduced in the very first paragraph. Straight away, the reader knows what kind of story this is going to be and can adjust their expectations accordingly.
2. Don’t give your character a superpower and not have them use it. Reading minds, flying, starting fires, talking to animals. If your character has special abilities, the reader wants to see them. They’re special. Even better, is if the ability is both a curse and a blessing. Give the character a little struggle and internal conflict—perhaps they lose something each time they use their magic or perhaps they have to make a trade/self-sacrifice for it. High stakes=good tension.
3. Lay out the rules for magic and then stick to them. In EE, Ella is cursed with obedience. The rule is, she has to follow a direct order. The book maintains that rule throughout the book—every time Ella is given a direct order, no matter how ridiculous or dangerous, she must follow it. If the rule were to change halfway through the story (without explanation), the reader would balk. Like in playing a game, you can’t change the rules in the middle.
4. Give your magic a purpose. Use it to propel the plot forward, add tension, and conflict. Make it cool and different. Make it necessary to the story.
5. Rinse and repeat for magical creatures. Make them believable, give them a set of rules and make them integral to the story.
6. Don’t overwhelm your story with magic. Don’t get so caught up in your fantasy world that you let it take over your plot. For instance, big action movies that seemed designed around special effects. Your magic should serve the story, not eat it alive.
There’s my recipe for Big Magic soup. Got any ingredients you’d like to add?