How to keep readers from making assumptions over elements not specified

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Thread: How to keep readers from making assumptions over elements not specified

  1. #1

    How to keep readers from making assumptions over elements not specified

    Twice, readers, actually editors, have jumped to conclusions that my fantasy books' magic laws were limitless, just because the possbilities happened to be relevant. The first time was when my first installment was being updated into a new edition. My MC was just getting introduced to the magic world and learning the possibilties. The editor kept obsessing over how they thought it was limitless, the best fantasy books have magic limits, and so forth. But there are magic limits in my book series. In fact, there are a lot! Many just haven't been addressed because they weren't relevant to the moments in the stories. When I finally did say a limit later in the story (not being able to create expensive items out of thin air, only being able to teleport those one already owns), the editor seemed to complain. This bugged me for a while. A year later, I told the editor how I felt about that (I didn't think of it being okay until then since it was bothering me a lot) and listed all the limits in my series I'd thought of at that moment. They said that they never stated that the limits had to be addressed up front. But they appreciated the explanation.
    Recently, for my current WIP, in spite of mentioning a few limits, the editor still thought it was limitless in the critique. So, I wrote to them again and reminded them that I did say the limits that were relevant and clearly written out: magic not being able to take people back in time, predict the future, and create expensive items out of thin air. This was a different editor. They presumed that there were only a handful of limits. I contacted them again and said that there are many more than what was specified in the story. I also asked why they jumped to that conclusion as I also did with the editor for my first book. I have yet to hear from them.
    Is it normal for readers to make assumptions over things that the author never specifically says, other than how a character looks? I want to make it clearer to editors and readers that there are a lot more magic limits. But the only ways I can think of how to address them are the methods not recommended: As I told you, Bob/as you know, Bob, omniscient POV, forcing it into places irrelevant, info-dumping, or explaining on pages before or after the story, which I know no one would read.
    For my first book, I did add some more limits and possibly some explanations to the magic restrictions, and no one has commented on that after the book was re-published. I am brainstorming revisions for my current WIP, the third book in that series, and wondering how I can make it clear to readers and editors that there are a lot more limits without using any of the discouraged methods. Note that at the setting of the third installment, the MC is already familiar with magic.
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  2. #2
    If it matters to the story and you don't specify, the reader is going to jump to their own conclusions. If your magic system has limits, define them. If you don't, then your reader is free to think whatever they want.

  3. #3
    Got it. I'll try and work in those details.

  4. #4
    So these editors formed their own assumptions about things that you didn't state and then disliked the versions of the story that they themselves had imagined and blamed you for it. I regard our task to be writing guidelines within which a reader can imagine a story which pleases themselves rather than creating a rigid framework with every detail defined. It is true that those guidelines should be precise enough that they don't lose your thread entirely but if they choose to imagine versions of your story that don't please themselves then I would question their psychological state. Of course I have no experience of what useful purpose an editor serves, but all that I read about them suggests that they can be barriers between writers and readers rather than enablers. Setting my personal reaction aside I'll try to give you a more practical reply now.

    If editors claim that readers assume that magic is unlimited unless told otherwise and in your story the phenomenon that you describe isn't unlimited then perhaps the solution is not to call it magic. That word is bandied about so liberally as a catch-all for every phenomenon not classified as anything else that it is virtually meaningless. If for example you had referred to the phenomenon as preternatural then any suggestion that it was unlimited would be naive given that only the supernatural is entirely unlimited. For an explanation of these categories look up "preternatural" in Wikipedia; your editors may have to as well before offering any criticism. However, it may be best to coin your own term for the power involved, such as Stephen R Donaldson did in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever. No editor could jump to conclusions about the limits of "earthpower" or "wild magic" as Donaldson invented these terms for his own purpose. The "weirding way" in Frank Herbert's Dune is similarly unique. I did the same in my novel and projected trilogy with the power of the "Hermes Culture", about which even the characters in the story knew virtually nothing to begin with. There, that's a nice simple solution then, not to use a word that carries so much baggage with it.

    And now my laptop battery is running flat as usual, the only limit to my ramblings.
    'Sharing an experience creates a reality.' Create a new reality today.
    'There has to be some give and take.' If I can take my time I'm willing to give it.
    'The most difficult criticism that a writer has to comprehend is silence.' So speak up.

  5. #5
    For a beginner, it can look limitless, then have someone wiser say "There are limits." Then, go find everywhere in the book where a limit is relevant to the story. Somewhere at least a chapter before, preferably further, have that limit brought up in some other way, be it conversation, anecdote, or whatever. Don't just spring the limits on people.

  6. #6
    I plan to have a character say that there are many limits in a chapter with a different POV.

  7. #7
    Brandon Sanderson of Mistborn fame had coined the terms soft and hard magic, in reference to magic systems in fiction.

    Soft magic systems are ones where there are no real rules to it, or there are but they aren’t explained, but it also doesn’t undermine the plot. In stories with soft magic systems, magic almost never is used to solve the problem, but rather it will usually create the problem that has to then be solved without magic. Good examples of soft magic system include Tolkien’s works and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.

    However, since the rules of soft magic systems are so vague, it can be assumed that magic can do anything. Because of this, it usually has to be used rather conservatively so as not to kill the dramatic tension. How many times did Gandalf use magic in the Lord of the Rings trilogy? Despite being a Wizard, not that much. In my personal opinion, soft magic systems are good for sword-and-sorcery stories, where magic isn’t used that much anyway.

    Hard magic systems, on the other hand, have very defined and clear-cut rules as to what you can and cannot do with magic (or its equivalent). It still doesn’t just make everything better, but it can still be used to solve problems and the main protagonist will likely wield it. Here, magic can be used more liberally because it’s counterbalanced by the rules to the magic that are set in stone and usually cannot be broken.

    One very good example of a hard magic system is alchemy in Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. In it, alchemy allows you to take the structure of matter, break it down, and then recreate it as something new entirely. However, it runs on what is known as the Law of Equivalent Exchange: In order to create, something of equal value must be lost. For example, you could transmute a broken radio into a working one (assuming you don’t have any missing parts) because you’re still working with the same basic makeup and properties. And unlike LotR, many characters use alchemy in FMA, including the two main protagonists Edward “Ed” and Alphonse “Al” Elric.

    Than there are hybrid magic systems, which are a compromise between soft and hard. One example would be J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The various, rules laws, and ideas of magic are outlined and seldom violated, but you don’t really get an understanding of exactly what magic can do. In essence, magic here is hard in its specifics, but soft in the big picture.

    When writing a fantasy story where magic is a thing, I’d advise you take into account what rules are in place, how much in the forefront of the story it is, and who can use magic. You don’t want it to be so specific as to be not be practical, but you don’t want to have where magic can create deus-ex-machinas left and right either.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by NeutralGoodNormie View Post
    Brandon Sanderson of Mistborn fame had coined the terms soft and hard magic, in reference to magic systems in fiction.


    Than there are hybrid magic systems, which are a compromise between soft and hard.
    What purpose does such a classification system serve? These terms will presumably never appear in a story and how literary analysts care to classify stories is just their way of enjoying the reading experience. It seems to me to be much like genres, a way of pigeon-holing stories for people who want to limit their reading in some way, but I doubt that any reader would avoid a story involving magic because it was at the wrong level on the magic discipline spectrum, which is what this seems to be.

    How one approaches magic may depend on what purpose it serves in the story. In my writing the "Hermes Culture" is an unknown phenomenon which presumably has a scientific explanation but that has not been identified. Whether the story involves magic and fantasy or fictional science doesn't really matter as it is about how the characters cope with these things alongside their more normal lives. That is a different situation from a story where magic is an off-the-shelf tool or weapon. In the former case the phenomenon is explored and revealed gradually and maybe never fully understood while in the latter it may need early explanation along with its limitations so that it can take its rightful place within the story.

    In The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever "earthpower" would no doubt be called hard magic by Sanderson's definition while "wild magic" would be soft magic. The point was that earthpower, being governed by rules, could be used for specific purposes, both good and evil, but wild magic was boundless and highly uncontrollable, so it was potentially the magical equivalent of a nuclear doomsday machine, a last resort. In fact there was a whole spectrum of powers used by various races in Donaldson's series of books and it was how he incorporated all these different forms of magic into a single series of stories that made them so rich.

    The story is always what you haven't told the reader yet. On the other hand once they know everything about your world they can make up their own stories within it and probably will. World building and story telling are separate things. Equally, criticising your world and your story are separate things, or at least should be. A critic should be clear about whether they are finding fault with the story, its setting or the way that the two are combined. One story's palantír is after all just another's smartphone. "We had to take Peregrin Took's smartphone away because he was spending far too much time on Sauron's website." Yes, it's just a familiar problem in an unfamiliar setting.
    'Sharing an experience creates a reality.' Create a new reality today.
    'There has to be some give and take.' If I can take my time I'm willing to give it.
    'The most difficult criticism that a writer has to comprehend is silence.' So speak up.

  9. #9
    Member Rojack79's Avatar
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    Personally I'm not going to explain my magic all that much. Sure there'll be two magic systems in play, Divine Magic and Chaos Magic.

    Divine Magic is only ment to be wielded by Gods and Goddesses. Some mortals can access it from time to time depending on there ancestors and if they can survive the power of the spell they are trying to use.

    Chaos Magic on the other hand can be used by anyone but because of its very nature it is highly unpredictable and wild. Normal people can still use it with ease but the there's a major risk of self harm or mutilation especially when they don't use specific rituals to harness Chaos Magics power for there own use, AKA Sorcery.

    For me my magics laws, rules, and limitations are bult in. Divine Magic can do anything but it's effect is limited by the God or Goddess using it. For example Ares the God of war can use his divine magic to fight and kill just about any foe. But he can't use his magic to manipulate a storm or other people's minds. Only Zeus can manipulate lightening and so on and so forth.

    Chaos Magic however can theoretically do anything the caster could ever want but if there not carefull then there spell will backfire and do something completely unexpected. Try to do the same with your own magic. Make the rules and limitations built-in by default. It just might make things a whole lot easier.
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