Brandon Sanderson is at the forefront of the new age of original fantasy writing that rejects Tolkien’s
influence and aims to fulfill the unlimited potential of fantasy—the unlimited genre. Sanderson is famous for his innovative, brilliant magic systems—whether the allomancy of his Mistborn trilogy, the powers of the Knights Radiant in his Stormlight Archive, or his nuanced handling of the elements-based magic system of The Wheel of Time, he always seems several steps ahead of other fantasy authors in his understanding of and development of magic systems. And there are clear reasons for this. He is better at creating magic systems because he has a deeper understanding of what makes them good—and, fortunately for us, he has distilled this understanding into his four Laws of Magic.
These four Laws do not merely pertain to magic—rather, they are fundamental writing rules for understanding the nature of conflict. Putting them in the framework of magic systems just makes them more clear.
Sanderson’s First Law: An author’s ability to resolve conflict with magic is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of said magic.
George R. R. Martin thinks a story should never be resolved through magic—and in some cases, he’s right. It would be a horribly unsatisfying ending to Lord of the Rings if Gandalf just waved his staff and defeated Sauron with a giant fireball that destroyed Mordor. Yet it is completely acceptable, even expected, for Superman to kill the villain with laser-vision (or super-strength, or any of his other superpowers). So the question becomes: What lets Superman use his powers, but prohibits Gandalf from doing so?
First, we need to articulate the difference between the two magic systems. On the one hand, everybody knows, for the most part, everything Superman can do. It never surprises the audience when he flies, or sees through walls, or is not wounded by bullets.
But nobody knows what Gandalf can do. We know he has a really fast horse, and he can shoot light from his staff, and can disappear and reappear somewhere else—but all his other magical abilities are merely hinted at, and remain mysterious throughout the entire story.
Superman fights his own battles; Gandalf, on the other hand, merely rallies others to fight on his behalf. The reason for this is Sanderson’s First Law: the audience knows what Superman can do, so we don’t feel cheated when he uses his powers; if Gandalf were to fly Frodo to Mount Doom and drop the One Ring in—effectively ending the entire trilogy in one chapter—we would rightly feel cheated. Tolkien would have just used a “Deus Ex Machina”—a solution to the characters’ problems that comes as if out of nowhere. A magic wand used to fix all the conflict because the author is too lazy to come up with a real solution.
(A side note: Fantasy is often accused of being able to fix all its problems with a “wave of the wand”—but this is ridiculous. Any genre can do this. Your protagonist can suddenly win the lottery, or the villain can have a heart attack, or the love interest can forgive the main character and fall back in love. No matter the genre, this approach to conflict resolution is deeply flawed. It rejects the entire purpose of conflict: forcing characters to grow and develop as they struggle against their antagonist.
But because even its most famous writers sometimes espouse this view that “magic can’t fix all the problems” (hello, George Martin), we have to be even more careful. We need to make this seeming weakness into our greatest strength—let no informed reader say that fantasy writers just wave a wand when things get too hard.
This, by the way, is the real problem with Eragon. Despite the frequent grumblings to the contrary—which result from its popularity and its similarity to Star Wars—Eragon is well-written, with strong characters, a compelling plot, and an interesting world. Until the end. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t yet read it (though it’s been out for years now, so if you haven’t read it, you probably won’t ever do so). At the end of the third book, Eragon still needs to defeat Galbatorix, the Dark King—but Galby is seemingly invincible and all-powerful. If Paolini had been able to come up with a real solution to this problem, the final book of the series could have been wonderful; instead, Paolini backed himself into a corner and then, instead of thinking through the difficult problems he had set his protagonist, he simply gave the main character a newly-discovered spear that could pierce all magical defenses and a map that led Eragon to a cave on a distant island, where he was literally given infinite power. The final battle had no tension, because it was obvious that Eragon could now win, without actually having to face any of the obstacles we spent ten years waiting to see him overcome.
This is why Paolini is a terrible storyteller. Not because he ripped off Star Wars (the entire plot, just with dragons instead of lightsabers), but rather because he committed the greatest sin a storyteller can commit: he did away with his conflict with a wave of his wand, rather than blood, sweat, and tears.)
And now we get back to the crux of it all: Sanderson’s First Law states that an author’s ability to resolve conflict with magic is determined by the reader’s understanding of what the magic can do. We don’t know what Gandalf can do, so he can’t fix problems; we all know what the Hulk can do, so it’s not a problem if he smashes the baddies to death. This idea applies to non-magic plot devices, too: for instance, because the reader doesn’t understand why brain aneurisms happen, the author can’t simply kill off the antagonist with a brain aneurism. However, we all understand that if you drink unclean water, you may get ill—so it is not a problem if the antagonist has to spend a few chapters in the bathroom after drinking swampwater.
This raises an important question, though. Why have magic systems that you can’t resolve conflict with? What’s the point of Gandalf?
First, let’s get our terminology down: a hard magic system is one with hard and fast rules, like Superman’s powers; a soft magic system is one that does not have rules. All magic systems (indeed, all plot devices of any kind) fall on a spectrum between the two extremes. For example, Harry Potter’s magic
—hard or soft? One instinct might be to say that because each spell has a very rigid, defined result—we know expelliarmus makes your opponent’s wand fly out of her hand, and we know it doesn’t do anything else—Potter’s spells are a hard magic system. However, because Rowling keeps adding new spells (often in the book they are needed to resolve the plot), and sometimes adds ethereal concepts like the protective power of true love, Potter-magic is in between the two extremes: a soft set of hard systems (a vague collection of well-defined spells).
Soft magic systems can’t resolve conflict; hard magic systems can. So why have soft magic systems at all? The reason is that soft magic systems are intriguing, mysterious, and wondrous. Gandalf is fascinating, because he is mysterious—we are given very little proof of his miraculousness, but what we imagine he can do is so much more awesome than anything we actually see him do that it doesn’t matter. We love him. On the other hand, if we know a character’s only power is his ability to fly, we are not intrigued or awed by his flight. It might be interesting and useful, and if there is some unknown reason he is able to fly when others are not, that soft aspect of the magic system might draw some wonder out of the reader, but the flight itself gives no sense of awe.
There is a tradeoff: hard magic systems are useful but mundane; soft magic systems are fascinating, but never help the protagonist. Patrick Rothfuss, you may have noticed, understands this, and includes both in his books: “sympathy” is rigorous, practical, and clearly defined, and it helps Kvothe when he’s in a bind; “naming,” on the other hand, is the ultimate un-understandable magic, and is mainly a source of wonder for the readers and the characters.
The same idea applies in real life. One may be interested in guns, for example, and one may respect their utility, but nobody worships them or spends their nights kept awake by their intrigue and wondrousness. However, the more exotic and unintelligible technologies fascinate us all: teleportation and telepathy, or the less-futuristic-but-still-interesting iPhones and nanotechnology.
By writing this article, I aim to make the art of constructing interesting magic systems more hard, less soft, and, therefore, less confusing and imposing to us as writers. In doing this, I increase your ability to make magic that functions properly in your stories; however, I also make the concept of magic less attractive. If you still value magic, you do so with an understanding of its usefulness, not a sense of childlike awe at its grandeur. For robbing you of this, I apologize.
Soft magic systems aren’t completely useless, though, in terms of plot. A soft magic system cannot usually resolve conflict, but it can create it. Nobody calls foul if Lex Luther gains access to a nuclear bomb, or wins the lottery. Sauron’s powers are mysterious and enigmatic, too, yet they fuel the entire plot, calling up giant hordes of ogres to march on Middle-Earth.
Furthermore, there is an exception to Sanderson’s First Law: an author can resolve conflict with soft magic when doing so creates an even bigger problem. For instance, Gandalf fights the balrog at the end of the first book, saving the Fellowship from certain destruction. What’s the consequence? Gandalf is gone for the entire next book. The Fellowship is alone, without Gandalf’s advice and aid—a very steep price for destroying one balrog.
Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is structured around this principle. At the end of nearly every book—aside from the final book—something miraculous happens, fixing the book’s Big Problem and saving the day…but this miraculous occurrence creates an even bigger problem, which becomes the plot for the next book. The hero finds a dragon and kills the Dark Lord, but by killing him this way, he tears open the veil to the Underworld and lets the Devil gain the power to destroy the world; the Hero finds a prophecy and a magical item that together let him seal away the Devil, but in doing this he exposes his homeland to a giant empire of rapists and pillaging armies. Et cetera. Of course, the final book ends with a hard-magic-solution the protagonist found through hard work, suffering, and cleverness—if there’s no sequel, there can be no massive cost to outweigh the soft magic’s help in the plot, so Goodkind needed to end that book differently.
And here’s the thing: this works. It’s a perfectly acceptable plot progression, moving from one Big Problem to another, Bigger Problem, each time resolving the conflict with a wave of the authorial wand. But it is dangerous. There are two important points that you must pay attention to if you wish to use this plot device:
1. The new problem created as a side-effect of solving the original problem must be bigger than the original problem. Kill a dragon by praying to a god? Great. But now that same god that saved you is going to enslave you and make you fight three dragons in an arena while naked, armed only with a bag of cold butter and your wits. You eat the butter and suddenly are repulsive to the health-conscious vegan dragons? That butter better have been poisoned. And to get the antidote, you have to kill your grandparents.
Or, you know, something that makes somewhat more sense than that…the point is that repeated use of this plot device balloons the conflict from something relatively small to something comparatively massive—in Goodkind’s story, the first book just involves an evil dictator, but the final book concerns itself with the fate of existence itself.
2. Your characters still have to work hard and struggle for most of the book. That’s the whole point of conflict. If a dragon’s going to save the day, your main character better have tried her damn hardest to solve her problems on her own first.
Now that we have a firm understanding of Sanderson’s First Law, we can move on to his Second Law—which springs from and extends the First.
Sanderson’s Second Law: Magic’s limitations are more important than its powers. Put another way: What the magic cannot do is more important than what it can do.
In one way, this is counterintuitive. When we speak of superheroes, we talk about their powers. It’s the first thing we see, and, as we discussed in Sanderson’s First Law, it’s what lets them resolve conflict. Powers are how the heroes win.
But in a more general sense, Sanderson’s Second Law doesn’t come as a great surprise—we already know conflict is the heart of all stories. Without an antagonist, a problem, or a question to drive the plot, there’s no story to tell. And what a magic system does not let your protagonist do will usually create more conflict than what it lets her do.
Which is more interesting: Superman fighting the most well-armed and skilled thug of all time, complete with gatling guns and a bazooka, or Superman fighting absolutely anyone with kryptonite? Let’s face it—there’s simply no tension when Superman is in a one-on-one fight with a criminal, and we know there’s no chance he’ll lose. But Superman has two weaknesses—kryptonite and his code of honor—and if either comes into play, the story is far more compelling.
As with all of Sanderson’s Laws, this does not only apply to magic. Take music as an example—if you are not a musician or a musicologist, you may not know that there are very specific and complex rules guiding the creation and performance of music. In a Music Theory course, you learn the beginnings of the laws of “tonality” (as it’s called), and you may begin to grasp the reason it’s so difficult to compose new music. “Atonal” music (music that violates these rules) sounds discordant and wrong to the human ear; “Romantic” music, on the other hand, was composed in the era right before experiments in atonality began, and it is the most loved area—it is the most beautiful because it is just on the cusp, flirting with
the edges and the limits of tonality, but not breaking the rules. Romantic music was the most inventive, the most dangerous, the most profound, not because it had freed itself from the constraints of tonality, but because it was most strongly defined and bound by those constraints.
Poets will argue that life is given meaning by its inevitable end, that death is what makes our fleeting moments on earth worthwhile. Those who shine brightest in humanity’s past are, in many cases, those who died youngest: Mozart, Alexander the Great, Ramanujan, Elvis. Similarly, they say time spent apart makes the heart grow stronger (the “they” in this scenario being far too cliche and irritating to let live—please terminate immediately), and they are (annoyingly) right.
Constraints on magic force your characters to be more inventive and clever in their use of their powers. The effects of magic’s weaknesses will drive your character development and plot forward far beyond what any power would do.
The Wheel of Time is, by some standards, just another Tolkien rip-off. The NYT quote on every cover says it best: “[Robert] Jordan has come to dominate the world Tolkien began to reveal.” And nobody likes a Tolkien rip-off—there is no cliche readers are more bored of than the farmer-become-chosen-hero-who-must-defeat-the-dark-lord. Yet the series garnered over 20 million readers. And, despite its flaws, it was good.
How is this possible? Simple—one small twist on the typical story makes the story enormously more tense. The twist is this: if a male uses the magic, he grows more and more insane and powerful, until he ends up destroying everyone for tens of miles around in a giant, uncontrolled explosion of madness and power…
Of course, males who can use magic are killed. It’s necessary, for the safety of civilization itself. Nobody weeps when female magicians come to put down a rising wizard.
Rand al’Thor, the protagonist, is the Chosen One, who is prophesied to defeat the Dark One and save the very fabric of the world from certain destruction. To do this, he has to use his magic powers. Nobody can kill him without bringing about the end of all things. And so we watch as he goes slowly insane over the course of fourteen books. This man, whom we love and identify with, starts out normal, kind, and generally quite Frodo-like. Seven books in, he’s twisted and broken inside, unable to tell reality from delusion, unable to control himself, to stop himself from hurting everyone he loves. Ten books in, he’s a tyrant. By the end, he’s gone batshit crazy.
And we never stop loving him.
This is the driving conflict behind the entire series—it’s not Shai’tan, the Dark One who threatens to destroy the world. It’s not even the enemy hordes, the constant struggling against seemingly impossible odds, or the dangerous romances.
No. The reason I love this story—why millions upon millions of readers trudged through fourteen books full of slow plot progression, too-flowery writing, and pure boredom—is that the magic’s cost lays Rand’s soul open to the bone.
The Wheel of Time merely uses the framework of a Tolkienian tale to disguise its brilliance and originality. All of which is derived from a single, negative trait of its magic system.
I will go so far as to say that every good story is only good because, in character, setting, or plot, it follows Sanderson’s Second Law. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy’s characters have basic powers of levitation—but two simple limitations (they can only move metals, and can only move them directly toward or away from themselves) make the story orders of magnitude more interesting than it would otherwise be. The One Ring leads to a good story because it makes the wearer more and more evil the longer he wears it. Even The Odyssey is driven by the fact that the hero’s divine lineage gives him even more enemies than it gives him allies.
Now, this is all well and good, but how do we use it to make our own stories better? First, let’s get more precise. “Limitations” can actually be broken down into three categories: limits, weaknesses, and costs.
Limits are simply what the magic doesn’t let you do. Superman can’t see through lead. Spider-Man can’t fly—he can only swing through the air in places with tall buildings. The genie in Aladdin can’t bring people back from the dead.
Weaknesses are vulnerabilities that come with the powers. For example, if using one power means you can’t use your other powers, that’s a weakness. Another weakness is that when Avatar: The
Last Airbender’s protagonist Aang goes into the Avatar State, he temporarily loses the ability to reincarnate if he is killed.
Costs are often the most devastating of the three. In The Wheel of Time, Rand’s insanity is the cost of his magic. Sometimes the cost is much smaller—in Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive series, characters need money to use their magic. If the cost is too big, on the other hand, the magic may never be used—a spell that gives you a jar of peanut butter but kills your grandparents really just isn’t worth it. (Now, if we were talking Nutella, this would be a much harder decision…)
Ahem. What were we talking about? Oh, yes—these three types of limitations improve the magic system in different ways. Let’s go through them:
Limits force your characters to be more creative, more inventive—if a character has mind-control powers that only work on people who are eating ice cream, that makes it much harder for him to use his powers. But it also could make him work harder at getting opportunities to use his powers—perhaps he opens an ice cream shop. Maybe he starts lacing the ice cream with addictive substances so people will return. Maybe the police show up and arrest him—and now he has to choose between (the immoral decision) using his powers to force all his satisfied customers in the shop to attack the officers and free him and (the moral decision) letting himself go to prison so those same officers, who were only doing their jobs, don’t get hurt.
This plot is a natural extension not of the magic system, but of its limits. In working to use his powers despite their limits, he becomes far more proactive (and therefore far more likeable to the reader) and our understanding of his inner character and his sense of morality becomes much deeper and layered.
Now, the plot itself does not always have to come from the limits of the protagonist’s powers. That would get old quickly. But even if the plot is completely separate, the limits make the character have to work harder to use the powers—therefore making her successes more impressive and her failures more devastating. They make you, as a writer, work harder to figure out how to use the magic, and they make your readers’ experience more rewarding.
Most stories (of any genre) could be improved with the addition of limits on characters’ abilities. If Superman could only jump to great heights, but not fly, he would have to work harder to achieve his goals—and the harder the characters work, the more satisfying their eventual success is. (Or, the more devastating their inevitable failure.)
Weaknesses are the least common of the three types of limitations, but that just means that exploiting their benefits will set you apart from other writers and let you tell newer, more interesting stories. The main effect of a weakness associated with a power or ability is that it makes the characters’ decision to use that power either more foolish or more momentous (depending upon whether they knew about the weakness beforehand). If a character ignorantly flies too high, unaware that the glue holding her wings’ feathers together may stop working if she gets too close to the sun, her ignorance of the weakness makes her fatal plummet to the ground below a sad, perhaps even tragic, end. If she knows the wings’ weakness, and flies too high anyway, then that reflects poorly on her character, showing that she is foolhardy and careless. On the other hand, if she knows the wings’ weakness, understands the consequences of her actions, and chooses to fly higher than she should in an attempt to retrieve her dying daughter’s pink balloon, the reader knows she loves her daughter so much that she would risk death to bring her daughter some small joy.
Weaknesses improve a magic system because they increase the storytelling power of the magic. In all the above examples, the scenes’ emotional impacts came from the interaction between the character and the weakness—in this way, weaknesses can be seen as character-development tools, much in the way limits can work. Also as limits can function, weaknesses can advance the plot. A weakness creates a vulnerability, and if that vulnerability is exploited to harm the protagonist, that creates more conflict and pushes the plot forward.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender (our earlier example of a weakness), the protagonists abandon their defense of a city and go on the lamb because Aang’s use of the Avatar State was very dangerous—when he was wounded while still in the Avatar State, there was a great risk of his death preventing any future Avatar from being born. While this exploited weakness led to great character development, in that Katara realized she was in love with Aang and Aang began to have chronic, debilitating nightmares and accompanying fears he had to overcome, it also let their enemies win their greatest victory yet. The weakness made the obstacle the protagonists had to overcome far greater than it had been before, raising tension and making the characters work harder to achieve their goals.
Costs are the most frequently used limitation because they are often the most devastating of the three. We already talked about how The Wheel of Time gained tens of millions of avid fans through a single cost to its magic, despite the wildly varying quality of its books, its frequent use of cliches, and its unoriginal plot.
The reason costs are so powerful is that they involve the greatest degree of personal choice. Weaknesses are just bad things that might happen if a character uses the magic; limits are bad things about the magic that are beyond the control of the character; costs, on the other hand, are usually bad things that the characters do to themselves deliberately, because they want to use the magic more than they want to avoid the consequences.
In all things, a greater degree of choice makes for a more impactful event. “A man accidentally steps on a pile of broken glass and cuts open his foot” is far less interesting than “A man saw a pile of broken glass in front of him and suddenly knew the quickest path to getting the painkillers he craved—he closed his eyes, braced himself, and slammed his bare foot down into the middle of the broken beer bottle.” This is not only true in stories—consider the much greater legal punishment for premeditated murder, as compared to the penalty for accidental manslaughter. At the end of season eight of the sitcom Friends, when Joey accidentally “proposes” to Rachel, she thought it meant so much more than it actually did because she thought he had done it on purpose.
All the examples we have been discussing have been rather drastic—life or death, love or indifference, sanity or madness—but this is just to illustrate what costs can do. A good cost doesn’t have to be dramatic, by any means. For instance, if we take “cost” very literally, we realize that every time you buy a grilled cheese sandwich, you are using the “magic system” known as a restaurant to gain the “power” often referred to as a grilled cheese sandwich, and the cost is 3.99$. This particular cost doesn’t reveal the earth-shattering truths of a character’s soul in quite the same way the previous, extreme examples did, but by being much smaller, it has much farther-reaching implications…
The cost to this “magic” is small. Therefore, it can happen with great frequency—if we aren’t limiting ourselves to grilled cheese sandwiches, this magic system actually describes the entire field of economics.
A cost that is similarly small (and therefore very commonplace) but significantly less mundane has extraordinary worldbuilding potential. If my magic system simply allowed anyone to extend their lifespan by one year in exchange for losing one IQ point, or to gain one IQ point in exchange for living one year less long, that would completely alter the structure of society, provide a powerful tool for characterization, and create interesting moral dilemmas to fuel my story. There would be short-lived geniuses that would revolutionize technology and advance science, achieving fame and recognition just before tragically dying; there would be extraordinarily old, extraordinarily stupid people, too, and society’s healthcare system would have to take these self-inflictedly incompetent people and decide what to do with them. If these people are considered to have forfeited their right to aid by bringing their state upon themselves, that reflects upon the mindset of the culture; if they are cared for as any normally disabled person would be, that reflects differently on the society.
Take Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive as an example: to use magic, one needs Stormlight, a substance that is stored in spheres of glass that are left outside during a storm. Stormlight is a cost to the magic—magic-users draw upon this light to fuel their magic. Because this is so central to the world, Stormlight-storing spheres have become the world’s currency. They have monetary value that is directly tied to their magical value.
This seemingly-simple change makes the world so much more richer (pardon the pun). For one thing, the wealthier you are, the more magic you are able to perform—social status directly ties into magical power. Furthermore, the combination of society’s use of Stormlight-bearing spheres as currency at a time when there are almost no magicians in the world implies that, when the currency system was adopted, magic was very widespread—this ends up tying into the plot.
This is so much richer than the typical, unnoteworthy use of gold, silver, and bronze coins as currency. In using spheres as both currency and magic-fuel, Sanderson accomplishes the single greatest goal of all fantasy: making the familiar more strange, and the strange more familiar.
Limits, weaknesses, and costs are at least as important as powers in a magic system. Great—we understand what they can do for a magic system and, by extension, a story’s character, plot, and setting. Now the question becomes: How do we most effectively build limits, weaknesses, and costs into our magic systems?
The important phrase here is “most effectively”—it is easy to build a random magic system which is strange and exciting in its own way, but ultimately isn’t actually a good magic system. The way the best magic systems are made, it turns out, is that they utilize Sanderson’s Third Law.
Sanderson’s Third Law is less technical-sounding and more general than his first two, but it is the most important Law of all: Go deeper, not broader.
First, an example (from Sanderson’s original essay) to help with later explanations. If you decide to write a travelogue, in which your protagonist travels to ten different cities over the course of the story, your first instinct might be to give each city a different magic system; however, a better decision would be to have only one magic system, but make each city use it in a different way.
This demonstrates how Sanderson’s Third Law is actually just an extension of Sanderson’s Second Law (limitations are more important than powers). By limiting yourself to one magic system, you force yourself to be more creative in your writing, and also make your story cohere more fully by uniting all the different cities through one common thread instead of taking an “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality to magic and worldbuilding.
By having all the cities use the same magic system in different ways, you don’t only force yourself (and your cities) to be more creative—you also increase the storytelling power of the magic system. If every city had a different magic system, you would be simply showing how ten different magic systems affected society in ten different ways, and therefore you would be putting the storytelling power in the hands of the setting, instead of in the hands of the setting’s characters. If every city uses one, constant magic system in a different way, however, you make the inhabitants of the city drive the story. It is the people, not the magic, that determines the differences between one city and another—how they choose to use the magic system reveals a great deal about their society, their psychology, their history, and their culture.
Another way to say this is that in the better, one-magic-system-for-ten-cities scenario, the differences between the cities reveal much more about the cities and the characters in the cities than the differences in the first, ten-magic-systems scenario would. The former makes the differences imply and explain several layers of worldbuilding (and even possibly the plot and characters of the part of the story spent in a single city); the latter, meanwhile, makes the differences in the cultures of the cities reflect only one thing—their separate magic systems.
Keep this example in mind—we are going to refer back to it frequently as we continue. Now we discuss three different, general methods of going deeper instead of broader: extrapolating, interconnecting, and streamlining.
The single greatest skill of the worldbuilder is that of extrapolation. The entire process of creating a setting (and, in a less obvious way which we will discuss down below, the process of creating good characters and plots) is just the process of extrapolating the ramifications of changes you have made—extrapolating and exploring how small changes impact and affect different, seemingly unrelated pieces of the world. For this reason, worldbuilding can be seen as an exercise in understanding the interconnectedness of everything in the world.
One example of a world with insufficient extrapolation is the world of Harry Potter. Now, I know it’s cool to criticize Harry Potter, because it’s mainstream, and has some minor flaws, but I am not giving an overall condemnation here—the fact is that it’s a great story, with compelling characters, a fascinating world, and a well-executed plot. It’s so ridiculously successful because it is so good, and it is not, as some “hardcore” fantasy fans might say, bad simply because it’s successful. However, it does have one major, glaring flaw, which pushes the thoughtful reader out of the story because it is clearly an error:
Time-turners allow you to go back in time—why aren’t they used?
Rowling brought in a time-turner for Prisoner of Azkaban to make the plot more interesting than the plots of the first two books. It worked—the third book is, of the first three, perhaps the most thrilling—but it never comes up again, despite being by far the most powerful piece of magic in the entire series.
The justification given for time-turners never being used is that they are too powerful, and so the Ministry of Magic heavily restricts their use. But when has outlawing something extremely useful or pleasurable ever actually worked (remember the war on drugs)?
A time-turner allows multiple versions of one person to be in different places at the same time—so why doesn’t Hogwarts prepare for the final battle by having some of its best defensive magicians replicate themselves hundreds of times, creating a massive army of expert wizards and witches? (In the third book, they had to be careful when using the Time-Turner because interacting with their former selves might cause them not to have ever used the Time-Turner (or, at least, not in the same time and place), thus creating a contradiction. But if they were all aware of this before the battle, and they planned accordingly, this problem could have been averted.)
The thinking reader expects Time-Turners to affect law enforcement, war tactics, physics research, media reaction-speed, and technology; on a smaller scale, this same reader expects Time-Turners to affect Voldemort’s attacks and Hogwarts’s defenses—even, if Harry and Ron are particularly foolhardy, their Quidditch practice schedule. The effect of Rowling omitting any one of these ramifications is small; the effect of her ignoring every possible ramification, however, creates a giant, unsightly wart on the face of a series we love.
(Rowling clearly realized that Time-Turners were too powerful a magic system, as she actually had 100% of them destroyed in the fifth book.)
By extrapolating from a change made in one part of the world to a series of branching changes that affect the plot, characters, and cultures of our story, we make our story more cohesive, we prevent overextending the reader’s willful suspension of disbelief, and we enrich and deepen our setting.
Everything is interconnected. In creating a new world from scratch, we have an opportunity to examine in a new light the connections and relationships between seemingly unrelated parts of life. In this sense, the act of creating a conworld can be seen as another instance of making the familiar into something strange, and in doing so we increase the reader’s understanding of her own life and world on Earth.
Interconnecting is the most underestimated aspect of story creation. What interconnecting allows an outliner to do is create massive plot twists that amaze the reader instead of pissing the reader off.
Plot twists are one of the least studied aspects of writing. A plot twist is when the author throws the reader’s expectations out the window, completely subverting them, and then fulfills expectations the reader didn’t even know he had.
It’s that second part that’s difficult. Anyone can effortlessly throw a bad plot twist into any story—meteors strike the city, the protagonist falls down the stairs and is paralyzed, the love interest wins the lottery. Authors are the true gods of their domains, and can wreak all manner of havoc if they don’t restrain themselves.
What makes the difference between a brilliant, mind-blowing plot twist and a terrible plot twist? Simple: the former plays off the reader’s expectations.
As readers, we gain expectations about a story from every direction—the cover, the genre, the author, the title, the popularity, and the opening chapters. If a book merely fulfills those expectations, we will be content; if a book fails to fulfill our expectations, we will rage and deride it for years, and never read that author again; if a book acknowledges our expectations, then pulls the rug out from us and super-fulfills expectations that we didn’t have, but which make even more sense than our original expectations, we will love that book beyond all reason.
Some examples will help clarify. The twist at the end of The Sixth Sense (sorry to spoil it, but if you haven’t watched it by now…) is a classic example of the perfect twist. What makes it so brilliant is that it makes more sense than any of the alternatives, but the audience didn’t expect it.
Now the question becomes: why did it make more sense? The plot twist made more sense because it arose from two interconnected plotlines. The first is that the main character (Dr. Crowe) has met a boy who has the ability to see dead people; the second is that not only the main character’s wife and friends, but also every random stranger he comes in contact with, completely ignores him.
For most of the movie, we see these as two separate plotlines—in fact, the second is so overshadowed by the first that we barely even register it as a plotline—but at the end, when it is revealed that Dr. Crowe died at the beginning of the story, we realize that one caused the other. Everyone’s ignoring Crowe because he is dead; the boy who can see dead people isn’t ignoring Crowe because…(surprise!)…he can see dead people!
The ability to create satisfying plot twists is the greatest advantage of interconnecting. The key distinction here is that when interconnected plotlines combine in unexpected ways, the reader does not feel cheated; an unexpected plot development that comes out of nowhere, on the other hand, is a deus ex machina.