Writing About Magic: Book Review

shutterstock_180802175I’m working my way through a collection of books about writing and sharing the results here. Today’s offering: Writing About Magic by Rayne Hall.

In summary

This is a concise introduction to writing magic in fiction. With a focus on examples from actual real-world cultures, it is pitched more at those writing paranormal fiction rather than secondary-world fantasy. Hall’s ideal audience is probably someone who enjoys paranormal fiction and wants to try their hand at writing their own story, but is not sure how the magic should work or how to weave it into the story.

Pick up this book if you’re after a smorgasboard of ideas with a focus on traditional presentations of magic and magic-users. Even if you’re looking to develop something more original, there is no harm in getting the lie of the land, and no reason you couldn’t take these ideas and give them your own twist.  At $3 for the Kindle edition, it’s not going to break the bank.

That said, before you go ahead and purchase this book, there are a few little issues I might mention…

Who gets to be a magician?

merlinChapter 1 is about creating a magic-user’s personality. Ms Hall points out that magician characters typically have one or more of the following attributes: intelligence, good memory, creative, self-disciplined and focused, patient, highly trained, specialist, musical, spiritual, studious, well-organised and methodical, introverted, ethical, sharp senses, descended from magicians, psychic, magical day job, and a pet.

As a laundry list of stereotypical magician-y traits, this is pretty spot on, although I query the advice that sticking to this list will improve your story. Won’t it, by definition, give you a stereotypical magician? Might it not be more interesting to mix things up?

Take the British TV series Misfits. The premise of the show is that magical superpowers are bestowed on a bunch of teen offenders with almost the exact opposite of every quality listed by Hall. Thanks to a sharp script and excellent performances, Misfits shines as an example of the value of looking past the stereotypes and treading new ground.


That said, Hall herself poses an astute question about whether the attributes of a magician are similar to the attributes of a writer, and to think about why this might be. (I have an answer, though I’m not sure if it’s the one Hall has in mind.)

Magic Systems

Onto Chapter 2. If you write fantasy, it is worth knowing that some readers are looking for an interesting, intricate, and original magic system as a primary feature of a story. Popular author Brandon Sanderson has built a career on showcasing his abilities on this front (and talks about his approach in these essays).

Ms Hall delves straight into some typical terminology and features of magic systems in Western cultures. I’m not sure if she intends it, but this chapter could be equally entitled: did you know that fantasy was traditionally written by privileged white men?

Topic 1: High magic and low magic. High magic apparently brings status and is typically practiced by upper class white men, while low magic practitioners are ‘female, networked with other women, with little education and little time for study, poor and good at making do’. Hall isn’t going to touch that any further except to point it out. Instead she moves straight on to Topic 2: black magic and white magic, a topic obviously not at all loaded with an uncomfortable history of race and Imperialism.

Definitely not going there.

In three paragraphs she sidesteps this giant elephant with: ‘Most real magicians find [the notion of black and white magic] laughable’ (ahahaha <- nervous laughter) and suggests that calling oneself a ‘white magician’ is just done occasionally by cleverly deceptive magicians because it is a ‘good look on business cards’.

I’m not sure what she makes of fantasy’s iconic White magician, Gandalf the White, who inexplicably appears with all New and Improved Whiteness, presumably after Gandalf the Grey popped himself through the spin cycle with some enzyme-powered Omo. Pretty sure Gandalf’s Whiteness was meant to be a straight-up statement of virtue and wisdom. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Gandalf was just supposed to be selling snake oil. Maybe after the War of the Ring, Gandalf opened a used horse and cart dealership, and for all that he talked up Shadowfax, the rubbish horse went lame a few days after a gullible customer rode it out of the stables.

Now Brighter, Whiter, and Definitely Not Imbued With Awkward Racial Connotations
Now Brighter, Whiter, and Definitely Not Lugging Around Awkward Racial Connotations

(Sidebar: I love Lord of the Rings. It is a cherished piece of my childhood and a masterpiece, but I’m not going to try and pretend it’s perfect. Saruman might have been doing the White Wizard business card thing, but Gandalf was meant to be the real deal.  And I know, the whole white/black thing can mean night/day quite apart from the racial connotations.  Nevertheless, it is an inescapable feature of the novel that not only are the Good Guys are White and come from the West, and the Bad Guys are Dark and come from the East, and appear with Orientalist trappings.)

Having very carefully not discussed white and black magic, we zip through ceremonial magic, natural magic, religious magic, alchemy, traditional witchcraft, wiccan witchcraft, necromancy, shamanism, ancient Egyptian magic, folk magic, and voodoo. The detail of each is brief, and unhelpfully defined in terms of the aforementioned traditional cultural lens, but is still a great starting point for getting you thinking about different possibilities for magical systems.

Next up: mix and match to create your own magic system. Ms Hall turns to an interesting discussion of terminology. For example, she suggests that ‘warlock’ literally means ‘oath-breaker’ or ‘traitor’, which is an interesting tidbit I hadn’t heard before. More dubiously, she proposes:

‘Witch’ is not a female wizard, and ‘wizard’ is not a male witch. Witches and wizards are practitioners of two very different magic systems.

I can only deduce that Ms Hall’s childhood predated Harry Potter.

That’s pretty much all this book has on creating magic systems, which was disappointing. I would have expected that Designing an Original Magic System 101 would be a core topic to cover in a book on writing about magic. I expected some discussion of basic ideas such as: Don’t make magic a free ride – ensure that there are limitations and costs to using it.


A so-called ‘witch’ unacceptably failing to understand that formal education is just for boys.

Chapter 3 looks at how your magician acquires their skills or what I might describe as magical pedagogy. (Sidebar: Now I really want to write a short piece called Magical Pedagogy). Harry Potter crops up here but I’m still not convinced she’s read it. Either that or she spent the whole reading experience mumbling: This is outrageous! Witches and wizards are completely different things! Women only get to be underappreciated backyard earth mothers. Who does this Rowling woman think she is?

The take away point from this chapter is that Ms Hall is really fixated on traditional gender roles doesn’t like characters stumbling into their powers without training.

I know what she’s getting at. Training = effort. The risk of a character obtaining powers without training risks a plot where your characters simply wave a magic wand to make their problems vanish. They don’t earn their dramatic victories. However, sudden power acquisition can work just fine when this does not solve the story’s dramatic problems.

For example, in Carrie by Stephen King, the titular Carrie is untrained in her telekinesis, but she doesn’t need training in order to go ahead and wreak havoc. In the stage musical Wicked!, Elphaba acquires a grimoire which she can instantly and instinctively use, but this makes her situation worse because it makes her a valuable commodity to people who want to control her power for their own ends.

Executing Magic

Chapter 4 deals with specific ideas for executing magic, and this is where we glimpse some of the considerations that you might want to build into an original magic system. She looks at potential sources of magical energy, and some rituals, although it would have been good to see some strong original examples of executing magic from contemporary fantasy fiction.

For example, in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic is executed by characters consuming and then ‘burning’ controlled quantities of particular metals, which allow interactions solely with metallic objects. Burning one metal allows metal to be pulled towards the user, another allows it to be pushed away, which plays out in the story in some fascinatingly acrobatic fight scenes. There are inbuilt limitations because the needed metals are in limited supply, and most characters only have the capacity to use certain metals.

Fan art of Mistborn by the talented Shilesque
Some awesome Mistborn fan art by the talented Shilesque (http://shilesque.deviantart.com/art/Mistborn-Vin-and-Kelsier-531814692)

Another example is the Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, which has two similar magic systems premised on using runes to manipulate the ‘wave of possibilities’ and select an outcome to occur. One system developed by an aggressive warlike culture requires the users to focus their magic through the use runic tattoos on their bodies and small drawn symbols, the other system developed by an artistic culture dance and sing the runes. What works so well in these books is that the magic helps develop and highlight the culture clash which is central to the premise of the novels.

How to look fabulous

Skipping over chapter 5, because this is really just more on executing magic, we come to Chapter 6: Costuming and Equipment.

Here we learn about robes and…

That’s it. Just robes. Ok, robes and nudity. This is not the Vogue of magical fashion. A few accessory suggestions are offered, but they are of the typical wand and crystal variety.

shrek cartoon closets
Vogue Fantasyland.  Would this have been so hard?

Wording spells

Some new stuff in this chapter, because we get into the language of spellcraft, although not very deeply. She notes the use of alliteration, repetition, assonance, consonance, and meter, and gives some examples, my favourite of which is: Cower, computer! By my command, you shall crash no more!

I could have done with that one the other week.

The rest of it

There are a few more chapters: correspondences, love spells, sex magic (a topic with food for thought like: ‘solo sex magic with masturbation would be more practical, but it has less plot potential’), magical weapons and warfare, healing and protection, illusionists and charlatans, magic in the future, and my favourite, magical ethics.

There is great plot fodder in the magical ethics chapter, from the discussion of the scope of an ethic not to harm anyone with magic, to examples of villainous ethics such as ‘never torture someone on a Sunday.’ How can you put a character’s magical ethical principles to the test? What if they make human mistakes? How does magic change the balance of power in the society? Are magicians known or secret and why?

At the end of the book, there are a couple of examples of Ms Hall’s own fiction. The short story was fun once I got past the criminal amounts of exposition crowded into the dialogue. (Ms Hall has either not encountered Hemingway’s ‘Iceberg Theory’, or cannot resist showcasing the magical system she has developed for the story, even where those details are superfluous.) The excerpt from her novel, Stormdancer, is a much better example of how to draw on your developed magic system in order to incorporate telling details into a scene.

What do you think?  Do you have any favourite advice on writing about magic, or favourite examples of stories that do it well?

Image of magical book from Shutterstock / Evgeny Atamanenko.

Save the Cat: The Last Book on Writing Painfully Banal PG-13 Hollywood Comedies You’ll Ever Need

This book provides the perfect guide to writing movies I loathe.

Key example movies in this book made me want to hurl pointy objects at the screen when I saw them. I haven’t succumbed to this urge to inflict criminal damage at my local multiplex (yet), but it remains an attractive fantasy.

It may be true that Miss Congeniality and Elf made good money at the box office, but you know what? If I’m going to sacrifice my work and family time to write, I’m going to write about something slightly more meaningful and less demeaning than whether a Hollywood star pretending to be a badly written FBI agent looks smoking hot in a beauty pageant. And if my goal is to make money but to hate what I’m doing, I will get a job in corporate law.

At first, I slogged through these painful examples because the book was recommended to me, and the explanations of the beats were concise. The name-dropping was annoying, but not atypical for this kind of book.

Then I hit the part that really made me question why I was taking advice from this guy. It’s the part where he goes off on a tangent to complain about the film Memento because it did not follow his One True Structure, in which he asserts repeatedly that any argument it had any value is wrong because ‘guess how much it made’ and ‘I know how much money Memento made.’

I didn’t even like Memento. I thought it was gimmicky and overrated. But by the time the author was done trashing it, the only thing I was convinced of is that I never want to watch a movie written by Mr Snyder. This is a man who armours his bravado with more bravado, and name-drops so defensively he might as well be firing bullets. His screenplays might be perfectly structured, but it was hard to imagine they would not be shallow and inane.

Sadly, this is appears to be the case.

Mr Snyder has only two screenplay credits to his name. After reading his book and writing most of this review, I looked them up. I flicked to the review by Roger Ebert of the first one. It says, and I am not making this up:

“Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” is one of those movies so dimwitted, so utterly lacking in even the smallest morsel of redeeming value, that you stare at the screen in stunned disbelief.

It is moronic beyond comprehension, an exercise in desperation during which even Sylvester Stallone, a repository of self-confidence, seems to be disheartened.

Ebert goes on to say:

There isn’t a laugh in this movie. Not a single one, and believe me, I was looking.

He gave it half a star.

Maybe Mr Snyder’s other film would fare better? Marketed as ‘If you loved Home Alone, you’ll love Blank Check!’ it was not off to a good start, but not quite as bad a start as the Austin Chronicle gave it:

“Blank check” must be what these filmmakers had when they made this movie. Not that it reeks of extravagance in its workmanship, this movie simply reeks. With an unbelievable premise, Blank Check does little to fill out its bare bones structure. … More than the execution, the script itself is the major problem. … Perhaps the movie’s implausibilities would be more acceptable if they were presented with a lighter touch that allowed for more character and plot developments rather than resting on its meager high-conceptual laurels.

The reviewer gave it one star.

Mr Snyder himself may well be a nice guy, and I appreciate that he’s put himself out there and shared his particular method for constructing a screenplay (which is basically the 3-Act structure plus detailed instructions about how to lay out index cards) but this is highly unlikely to be the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.

In addition to his breakdown of the structure, he provides some tools of varying usefulness. The titular ‘Save the Cat’ stands for one of the author’s ‘Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics’ (I wish I was making that up and the quotation marks denoted sarcasm, but it is a quote from the book and the author is deadly serious), namely that your story must have a hero and a villain and the hero must be more sympathetic than the villain. By this criterion, basically every Stanley Kubrick film ever ought not to exist, including the ones based on books by Stephen King and Vladimir Nabokov.

Mr Snyder’s method is so prescriptive that if you followed it as a novelist, you’d end up with a novella. It has too many beats for a short story, and not enough for most novels. Of course he is not purporting to give advice for novellists. But I think the advice is possibly too prescriptive even for film. Mr Snyder says movies that deviate from this will tank miserably at the box office because they have ‘too much pipe’. I can only assume he’s unfamiliar with James Cameron’s body of work. And while it’s true that a producer is unlikely to fund an amateur screenwriter’s three hour epic, I suspect the limitation has more to do with film industry economics than whether it is possible to tell a longer or shorter story which can keep an audience engaged.

But I did get something out of Save the Cat. And what I got is this:

The 3 Act Structure, by itself, does not make a good movie. This is not to say it makes a bad one, but many books on screenwriting focus on structure to the exclusion of all else, as though reverse-engineering a successful film and showing it follows the 3 Act Structure proves that this is what makes a story work.

As Mr Snyder’s resume shows, it also makes for some godawful ones.

The structure proposed in Save the Cat is solid. Not original, but solid and safe, like a house in a gated community where strict covenants ensure that each street gives you déjà vu for the street that came before. Mr Snyder is a sensible builder who can deliver you such a house, but he does not promise you quality fixtures and fittings, and he certainly is not an architect. His book will not teach you how to create innovative spaces or incorporate new technologies. It won’t teach you how you can play with light and shade for effect, or design an experience to influence or even transform a visitor. His houses won’t help people question their assumptions, change their behaviours, or heal their wounds. You might think crafting engaging dialogue, and conveying narrative through images are skills a screenwriter might want to polish.

Maybe this gap between what makes an entertaining experience and the lure of the predictable checklist is why Hollywood is floundering. No one gets excited about the repetitive crap they churn out the way that people cannot wait to get the next episode of Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad, or Orange is the New Black. Some of these shows follow conventional structures in episodes, but they also mix things up. In the case of Game of Thrones, this is literally an adaptation of a book series that was written to be ‘unfilmable’ by a Hollywood screenwriter who was frustrated with the exact philosophy espoused by this book.

All the structure in the world is not going to save writing that is painfully dull, predictable, and shallow. I want more than regurgitated jokes and lacklustre stereotypes. I want movies that surprise me, that give me experiences and insights that make me think – hey, that’s so cool, I never thought of that before.

I suspect that the unspoken truth is that prescriptive guides like Save the Cat gain traction because they create a checklist of measurable, predictable goals which can soothe the nerves of an investor, not because they guarantee good movies. This is why ticking these boxes gets your script sold.  So the value of this book (possibly its sole value) is that it gives you a better idea of how to pitch your script as a ‘safe bet’ for an investor. This is certainly a handy thing to know, so long as you know it for what it is.

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