Don’t explain away the magic


This is going to be one of those posts predicated on an entirely inexperienced and likely uninformed premise, so feel free to take it or leave it as you choose.  But I’m just gonna throw it out there and see what you guys think.  And that premise is:  there is far too much explaining going on in fiction, especially as regards characters with supernatural abilities.  I skim through people on Twitter glorifying “highly developed, intricate magic systems” in fantasy novels, and have seen, distressingly, a great number of others complain that Elsa’s powers were never explained in Frozen.  I guess the seven-year-old in me is wondering where the magic in magic has gone.  Why does every paranormal situation in fiction have to be scienced up with midichlorians?  What happened to taking magic on faith?

Magic and other supernatural abilities should never be the raison d’etre of a story; they should be an angle by which a dramatic human conflict is examined.  When authors and screenwriters get bogged down in the “why” of magic, the human element is lost.  Stan Lee gave an interview around the time the first X-Men movie came out where he explained the genesis of those characters thus:  having exhausted the idea of superpowers acquired through gamma ray bursts, radioactive spider bites and the like, labeling the new characters “mutants” eliminated the need to craft complex origins for each of the hundreds heroes and villains who would populate his fictional world.  He could just get on with the story.  Likewise, though crippled by a low budget forced upon it by a nervous studio unconvinced of the potential of comic book movies at the time, the first X-Men is by and large better than the dozens of other adaptations that followed simply because it doesn’t waste an hour telling you where everybody came from and how they got their powers.  They’re mutants, they can do things humans can’t, let’s go already.

In the first Star Wars, the entirety of the Force is explained in one line:  “It’s an energy field created by all living things; it surrounds us and penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”  We didn’t need Obi-Wan going into ten pages of dialogue about the different castes of Force-wielders, the innumerable versions of the specific powers and how Jedi Trance Remix can only be used on Hoth in a Wampa cave by an 18th-level adept wearing green trousers on alternate Thursdays.  If you look at the original drafts of Star Wars, George Lucas had included that extraneous crap, but he wisely cut it to improve the story’s pace.  (As we know to our eternal lament, he put it all back in for the prequels.)  In Frozen, Elsa’s magic also gets one line of explanation, and it’s delivered in a moment of urgency at the beginning of the movie.  (If you missed it, the head troll asks her parents, “born with, or cursed?”  They answer, “born with.”)  What more did the story need?  Nothing – because the story was never about Elsa’s powers.  They were only a catalyst for a human conflict.  The story was about the bond between the sisters, and that’s why it resonated so deeply with audiences everywhere.  Emotions are the key, not technical papers about the chemical processes that make fireworks sparkle and go boom.

The obvious, worst case scenario for the inevitable Frozen 2/Frozen Again/Refrozen is that the writers decide to explain Elsa, by revealing that she was actually rescued/adopted from a family of ice sorcerers/arctic spirits/frost giants/magic penguins who return to claim her, and force her to choose between her birth family and “adopted sister” Anna.  (Wanna take bets as to whether this is the direction they go in?  It’s not one I offer with enthusiasm.)  And once you start explaining, you can’t stop.  The narrative becomes less a story and more a Wikipedia, where each hyperlinked word leads to another page of definitions and explanations.  That’s what wrecked the latter incarnations of the Star Trek series, where crises could be solved over and over with plodding explanations of made-up technology – reconfigured electroplasma conduit taps emitting verteon particles through phased quantum inducers and so on.

Apart from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the latest of which I struggled to get through, I haven’t read any fantasy novels in a long time, mainly because I grew tired of wading through elaborately constructed and meticulously explained worlds in which nothing interesting ever happened.  (I am open to recommendations, author friends, especially if it’s your book.)  I understand that world-building can be a consuming exercise, but constructors should remain mindful that the world will only be as compelling as the characters within it.  It’s a bit like visiting a foreign country – you don’t conduct a thorough review of its civil and criminal code before sprinting out of your hotel room to hit the sights.  Tell us just enough so that we don’t get lost, and not a solitary syllable more.  Let us discover the world on our own, hand in hand with the locals.

When a mystery is explained, it loses its ability to compel our interest.  Remember how an X-Wing flying through the Death Star trench looked so much cooler before you knew it was a small model filmed and optically composited against a background plate of another small model, and another layer of black velvet curtain with sequins representing the stars?  So too is the wonder of magic diminished when we’re told it’s caused by a specific ancient Petrifying Spell developed by the archwizard Grumblethorn during the seventh Marcovian Age, requiring equal portions of Skirbian tree lizard earwax and Boltan’s Smoogrifying Powder, gathered beneath a two-thirds waning crescent moon.  I know some readers glom on to that level of detail; I find it tedious.  When I’m describing the use of magic in my book, I try to picture it cinematically, as if I was sitting in a theater watching it unfold before me, and imagining the awe I would experience in that moment.  What difference does it make how it happens?  It’s enough that it does, and that it can be both beautiful and terrifying.  And as always, the emotional impact of the spell on both the user and the witness (and/or victim, as befits the scene) is what’s more dramatically interesting – both to write, and to read.

That’s my take, anyway.  Could be completely off base in terms of what’s grabbing people’s interest these days.  Your thoughts?

24 thoughts on “Don’t explain away the magic

  1. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU.

    One of the things I love the most about the movie Groundhog Day is they never explain why Phil is cursed to relive the same day over and over again. It just–happens. And no one explains to him how to break the curse. He has to figure it out for himself. The point of the story isn’t why or how it happened, but about how it’s going to CHANGE him (and not change him, which is great, too).

    Yes, the midichlorians explanation took a lot of the mystique out of the Star Wars franchise. BIG mistake. But then, I’m not a big fan of elaborate exposition of any kind.

    1. That’s a great example of another movie that would have been ruined had they stopped the story for five minutes to have a wild-eyed scientist character explain that Phil had fallen into a sub-quantum repeating oscillating temporal inversion. I’m not sure where the idea originated that audiences need everything illustrated on a blackboard. (Back to the Future Part II, perhaps?)

  2. I’m so refreshed and relieved to know that there are still people out there who don’t need or want every little thing spelled out in triplicate. Let there be magic. Let there be mystery. Leave room for wonder and imagination and speculation, when the story allows. For pity’s sake, it’s not as if all these magic/super-science manuals actually result in any of us learning how to develop our own awesome powers, so why the tedious tease?

  3. I’m glad that you went in detail about this problem, because as an avid reader and movie goer my friends give me a lot of strife about this. I especially like the last bit of your post about how you like seeing the story from a cinematic approach, I do the same thing. But I think the reason that people have become so anal about the details is because they want to be able to put themselves in the characters situation. Call it larping, call it roll playing or whatever it is that my fellow geeks of the world call it, but nowadays people go to extremes to escape the world they live in (the uber ordinary, unmagical reality that is life). I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that, but sometimes in order to do that one must go into extreme detail. Maybe people should learn how to appreciate characters for what they are, instead of what they want them to be.

    1. That’s an interesting thought. I’ve never been a LARPer or even played a single game of D&D so I guess from that perspective what you or I might see as an excessive level of detail is an important part of the experience. In a story I’ve always been taught that the focus should be first on what the characters want, not the environment in which they live. That sort of fills itself in organically as the story progresses.

  4. This bought to mind how they ruined magic shows with those programmes on TV which sought to demystify the tricks of the trade. It just never held the same “WOW” once they showed you how.

    As a writer of a children’s fantasy adventure novel, I totally agree with you Graham. I got so hung up on trying to explain one magical element in first draft it was ridiculous. Luckily I gave myself a sharp rap on the knuckles and a talking to. I mean I am writing for children. They want a story not a science lesson. (but don’t we all?) World building is a delicate balancing act. You have to let it unfold for your reader and allow them to fill in the gaps. And hell magic is magic. As it doesn’t exist anyway, how can we explain it? Did Rowling explain how sparks of immense power fly from wands? Er…no. We just take it that’s how it is and if you whisper the right incantation you can vaporise another. Do I want to go into detail and explain why my characters can live until 1000 years old yet maintain a youthful appearance? Yes, to a point. But not to point where it distracts from the story. In fact thinking about my draft for book 2 I may well be guilty of a bit too much explanation of one thing, so you have saved me! I am off to cull something!

    Great post Graham. Thanks! 🙂

  5. I enjoyed reading this – thank you. And as somebody with some ‘gifts’ – I concur – the journey holds the magic and the mystery – all will never be known or fully explained in this lifetime anyway – so free ourselves from trying! I too hope that Elsa’s gift remains a mystery – aren’t they all, really?

    1. The challenge is I suppose kindling an insatiable curiosity about how things work – a crucial part of an enlightened life – and being able to accept that some things are simply beyond explanation and that we can be okay with that. I think the two can mesh comfortably, and I’m glad to see that so many others can too. Thanks for your comment (I tidied up the iPad keyboard hijinks for you!)

  6. “Let us discover the world on our own, hand in hand with the locals.”

    Yes! I couldn’t agree more. Magic can be shown, and even elaborately displayed, but not fully explained. That’s why it’s magic!

  7. Brilliant, as always. You do slide in all that wit along with the intellect and seamless crafting. I could read anything by you — the subject would be secondary.

    Yet you get me interested in the subject too. Frozen is the second movie I had no intention of seeing but changed my mind after you wrote about it. Not that this was about Frozen per se…

    I wholly agree with you on the subject of retaining the mystery of the magic. This “born with or cursed” is clever and concise and saves us from 2-3 minutes of tedious exposition.

    I will pose a little squeak of protest though, when it comes to the later Star Trek series — I happened to eat up all the meticulously designed jargon and pseudo-theories. For me, it was part of the Star Trek identity. But precisely because I associate that type of technical over-explaining with my beloved Star trek, I don’t want to see it in the Marcovian Age or anywhere else.

    Terrific post, thank you.

    1. Thank you GG, very much appreciated as always.

      I agree with you to a point on Star Trek – the technology was part of the identity, as humanist Roddenberry maintained that men and women of the 24th Century would have evolved to a point where they were no longer awed or cowed by the supernatural, and the tech explanations were always part of that. My interest began to wane though when problems were increasingly solved by deus ex machina technobabble, i.e. the “particle of the week” with little to say about the human condition in the process. It was a generational change from a staff of writers who’d gone through wars and a lot of hard living (i.e. the 60’s staff) and had more profound insights to share, to a bunch of younger scribes who’d grown up watching television instead and whose depth of experience was accordingly shallow. Anyway, that’s a discussion for another post, I think…

      1. I see what you mean by the “particle of the week.” If I ever revisit the show, I’ll be apt to see deus ex machina all over the place, and that would ruin it for me. But a post from you on the subject of Star Trek would be a serious treat! By the way, I never saw the second J.J. Abrams version; I never quite got over the *spoiler alert* destruction of Vulcan.

  8. Great post – I haven’t seen Frozen yet, but expect to watch it with my baby soon. I think the answer is what I’ve always suspected. When children become adults, they lose faith and they can’t countenance magic, so they need an explanation. However, fortunately many authors maintain that childlike belief in magic. Let’s put it down to our overactive imaginations. I really hope they don’t go into too much detail in Frozen 2. You’re meant to just believe!

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