How to Find the Magic in Your Story

Unseen forces go far beyond fantasy


Whenever I look back at my younger self, I cringe so hard I grind my teeth to dust.

I was a tall, thick hulk of a girl. I constantly stared at other girls and women around me in an attempt to be just like them. I studied how they dressed the way they sat, and how they moved their hands when they spoke. I willed myself to fit in, whether I liked it or not because I felt certain that if I could be someone else, I could be happy.


I was surrounded on all sides by lithe, petite females who could pull off a messy bun and a chic outfit in minutes while I clomped around in big, black boots and thrift store dresses. Unable to throw my hair up into a cute, imperfect updo, I constantly tried out new haircuts for my unreasonably thin, flat hair in hopes that I could find something that made me look at least a little bit feminine.


While I obsessed over fitting in, the women around me get boyfriends, and then get married, and told myself that wasn’t for me. Who wanted a long-term, devoted partner with whom to enjoy life, anyway?


Like any façade, it worked for a while. When I look back it’s painfully clear I was in the closet and nowhere near ready to come out, but at the time I really felt I was on the right track.


It all happened thanks to a dark, magical force called insecurity.


Main elements and magical systems


We’ve already worked through the brainstorming, end plotting, and beginning of your novel. Now you need to get the main elements and magical system nailed down.

Your main elements are the easy part. Take a moment to note down the genre of your story and the time and place.


Then, move on to your magical system.


Your story’s magical system is an unseen force, something that simmers beneath the surface and keeps your characters wrapped up in one another’s lives. For instance, in the story I told at the beginning of this issue, the magical system was fear. Fear can make us do any number of things without thinking or completely understanding why we’re doing it.


You can go dark with your magical system - terror, a character’s impending death, or a need to escape can all drive a story. Whatever you choose, make sure it pushes the plot forward and keeps you interested as you write. Remember, writing is fun! Pick something that intrigues you.


Lighter magical forces can be true love, hope, familial love, a sense of justice, or a search for freedom. Those options tend to lead to a happy ending, so make sure your force and your conclusion match up.


Right now I’m reading Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, a story about two kids raised by absolutely insane performance artists who believe that chaos is the only real art. The magical system in this book is a bit hard to pin down - it’s somewhere between dysfunction and an intense drive to please Caleb, the family patriarch. The pressure to be true artists hangs over everything and constantly muddies the waters.


Wilson found a way to make his magical system as memorable as his characters, turning the art scene into more of a supporting role than a setting. It makes for an incredibly interesting read, (though you can also check out the film of the same name).


How to do it


We’re moving into the analytical phase of your book. Go back to your original idea and pick it apart a little bit. What emotion or desire drives your characters? You can ask them directly if you want, they’ll likely tell you. Let this section of your outline get a little bit messy as you jot down notes about what characters want and why.


Once you have a feel for the magical system, write it down and include a quick note about how this will manifest in actions in your story.


For example, my magical system is terror. It will manifest in a mother spying on her son, little kids refusing to be alone with him, and a father who abandons his family rather than spend one more day with his creepy kid.


Notice I didn’t mention dark comedy in my magical system even though I want my book to be funny. That classification is my genre, but no one in my story feels funny or wants to make anyone laugh. If I get that dark sense of humor right, it will happen as if by accident, much like the story that inspired my novel.


And if you’re a fantasy writer…


If you want literal magic in your story, now is the time to lay out the rules. For instance, if one character can make objects move telepathically, you need to establish when and how. Does this character need to be a certain age in order for his/her/their magic to manifest, or does it happen at birth? Can your character control it from day one or is there room for your him/her/them to learn and grow as the power develops?


Once you set out your rules for the magic in your story you can refer back to them anytime you want a magical scene in your story. Readers love fantasy, but they can’t stand writers who completely disregard the implied or stated rules seemingly out of nowhere.


Stick to your stated rules throughout your book to help create friction in your story in those moments when someone needs magic but can’t access their power or special talisman. A clearly laid out system keeps readers interested from beginning to end and will win you a group of lifelong fans.


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