Tips for Writers: Making Magic Believable

One of the primary struggles of fantasy and science fiction writers is to convince their audience to suspend disbelief, even though the readers know the events couldn’t really happen. Could they?

The good news is that your readers expect magic. (For science fiction writers, let’s call any sufficiently advanced technology magic.) The bad news is that magic doesn’t mean anything can happen, at least, not if you want others to read and enjoy the story. For example, human nature, if you are dealing with humans, must remain intact. And we will even need a basis for understanding non-humans. All this brings me to my first general piece of advice:

1. Make use of reality whenever possible. (Also known as: Check your facts.)

Your story cannot depart from our present reality on every single point, or we will have no context for understanding or enjoying it. Whether your setting is another planet, another realm, or some distant future, you can draw inspiration from what you know.

I am particularly fond of creating relateable characters to help guide a reader through all the strangeness of another world. For example, in The Immortality Virus, I show a far-future dystopian world a piece at a time through the eyes of Grace Harper, a private detective without any particular technical expertise. A lot of complicated things happen around her, some that she doesn’t fully understand at the time, but by living the story through her perspective, the reader has a sort of “in” to the world.

But humanizing characters isn’t the only thing that can basically be a reflection of known reality. Are your characters riding horses through your fantasy realm ? Do you know anything at all about horses? You should! What do you know about wilderness survival? Marshall Arts? Swords? Guns?

Basically what I’m saying here is that you don’t make up *everything* in a science fiction or fantasy story, and it is critical that if something is a reflection of reality, it acts the way we expect it to act. This is true even if you are not an expert in a certain subject. Become one. Know what you write. (Sort of like write what you know, but with the added benefit that you can always learn new things.)

2. Sound convincing.

This is true anywhere, actually, whether you’re writing fiction or a persuasive speech. If you sound like you know what you’re talking about, people assume you do, even if it’s not entirely true. One of the big things that I feel separates an intermediate writer from an advanced writer, and in some cases an advanced writer from a published writer, is the ability to write with confidence and daring.

Don’t hold back. Don’t apologize. You did just walk twenty miles through the Fire Swamp, steering clear of flame spurts and lightning sand, and battling rodents of unusual size. If you start to wonder about the improbability of rodents growing so large without a more stable food source than the occasional human who crosses their path, then your readers will wonder, too. (They might anyway. You can get away with a lot more in humorous situations, which is why so many people enjoy The Princess Bride.)

3. Write well.

I won’t go into exactly how this is done. If you need help with grammar, spelling, sentence structure, active phrasing, or any of the rest there are plenty of workshops that can help you. And of course, practice will help you. I just want you to understand that if your writing is sub par, it will hurt your credibility and believability. If you can write, it goes a long way to sounding intelligent and competent.

4. Bring in expert witnesses.

It’s a strange thing, but even when you make them up alongside every other character in your book, bringing in experts can help your case. Some strange disease is slowly eating away at your organs from the inside out? Bring on the doctor to tell the reader all about it! Nanites running amok, infecting everyone in your world like a virus? Let’s hear from an engineer! If you’re trying to survive in the wilderness, a survival expert will help convince your readers that you’re doing the right things.

Not every situation requires an expert witness, of course, but bringing them in here and there to back up key points can go a long way to convincing readers to believe. And of course, your expert witness has to make sense. If your doctor mistakenly places the heart on the right side of a human chest, we might have trouble believing anything he says.

5. If you can’t explain, at least acknowledge.

Sometimes, when you know something is going to be difficult to believe at first, a simple acknowledgment can go a long way. For example, in an early episode of Lost, a group of survivors found a polar bear while exploring a tropical island. Before I had a chance to say, “What’s a polar bear doing on a tropical island?” one of the characters asked that very question aloud. Now, instead of believing the writers are incompetent idiots, I believe they have a plan, and a mystery that will be solved if I am patient enough. So if you find yourself thinking, “Be patient, I’m getting there,” you can help your case a lot by giving us a hint that you’re aware of what you’re doing, and that answers are coming.

6. Have realistic expectations.

This is the place where I tell you that you can’t please everyone, and you’ll probably never make everyone believe. We all have such different experiences, and when we read your story, we come with baggage. We aren’t blank slates, not even when we read the first sentence. As a result, there are things we are more likely to accept, and things we are less likely to accept. Even when those things are the truth.

A few years ago, I wrote a scene into a short story based on an experience I had at the age of sixteen, when I went to see a retina specialist about my vision problems. He had diagnosed me with Stargardt’s Disease, but he didn’t tell me that at the time. He didn’t tell my mother or I anything, in fact, but only went out in search of some medical students passing through, telling them they wouldn’t get many chances to see this. I then waited in a chair while no less than three medical students got intimate with my eyeballs, all the while wondering what the *#$! was wrong with my eyes. I was proud of the scene, because I had called on my real feelings at the time and tried to put them out there, raw and exposed. Then, when I gave it to a peer to read, she said a doctor would never do something like that, and she didn’t believe it.

Well, I guess there’s no convincing everyone. Of course, you still want to convince most people, so if too many people are flagging something as unbelievable, you might need to rethink it, even if it’s true. Is this thing really possible? Or perhaps, do you need to find a way to sound more confident?

Posted in Tips for Writers.