Pump Up and Write Now - Monday

Happy Monday, everyone.

Over the next few Mondays I will provide you with a summary of some of the awesome lectures I attended at the Western Washington SCBWI conference in April in hopes the info will inpire you and pump you up to write as they have me.

Today I will highlight Holly Black's lecture on how to build a magical system that feels balanced and believable.

Okay, okay, so not the Magic Johnson kind of magic, though that is magic. I'm not even a Lakers' fan but I admit, he's got magic baby.

Back to business.

Before you start writing that magic filled story you must first answer the following: In your world-

1.      Who has the magic? Is it one in every one-thousand, genetically passed down, or does it show up randomly, is it given, is it stolen . . . 

2.      What kind of magic is it? What can be done with it? Some examples she gave were curse magic, luck, dream magic, memory, transfiguration, protective, destructive, death, life giving.

3.      How do you make it happen?  Is it complicated with potions and difficult to pronounce spells, or does it require meditative concentration? Do you need to go to a school to learn how to use it, or are you apprenticed, is there any organizational system, any ceremonies involved? Is it touch magic (need to touch the other person for it to work) like in Holly's CURSE WORKERS series.

4.      How is user affected? This is important. There must be some cost to performing the magic. Is there a drain on energy, premature aging, pain, madness, blindness. Are there rules about when, where, how magic is used? Who makes the rules: the family, community, government? Are there magic-police?

5.      How is the world affected by the use of magic? Does it cause blight, disrupt the function of machines, use up the oxygen? In Holly's CURSE WORKERS series everyone wears gloves to avoid mistakenly performing magic on someone by touch.

6.      How are the users of magic grouped and perceived? Are they looked upon by others as immoral and inhuman, are they worshiped, feared, valued or scorned, exiled?

Okay, so you have all that figured out. Phew. Good work. What's next?

Next Holly suggests you decide what limititations the magic will have. Can the character curse people from a distance or do they need to be close? Can you work magic on more than one person at a time? And so on. Go back and review the costs (to the person, the world, the family...) of performing the magic. Without parameters the characters will trample on your pages, zap and curse at random, doing whatever the heck they want with no consequence and ruin your story. By setting limits and consequences that our characters will no doubt push the limits of will make the story believable and create more opportunity for conflict.

The best minds to test the strength of your magical world for holes are those who design and/or play video games. When playing they search for those holes that allow them to win the game and will be quick to find things in your magic system that may not add up.

Last, though I'm sure there's more, what kind of 'logic' will you use to tell your story, day logic or night logic?

Day Logic is where the magic is clearly explained by the writer and is almost a science. HARRY POTTER is an example of day logic.

Night Logic is when the story implies the rules, the magic is believable, but the rules are never fully revealed. Fairy tales, Holly says, are almost like night logic because the reader knows there are limits, they are sensed, but the reader doesn't really know exactly what they are. LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE was the example Holly gave as a night logic story.

So there it is, words of wisdom from the magic maker herself, Holly Black, interpreted and transcribed by moi.

Now go write!!


  1. Great, informative post! I don't write many magic worlds, though I feel they are in my future, and found this post quite helpful. Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. I loved this session at the conference - it was my favorite!! So helpful to have a structure that you can structure your worlds on. ummm...did that make sense? Anyway - awesome, magical post!

  3. Wow, this is a perfect summary of the important things to think about in creating a fantastical world. It's made me want to do two things: 1)Go unlock that drawer and take a look at my fantasy ms again, and 2)read more of Holly Black's writing! Thanks for posting this!

  4. I so wish I could have gone to this session. Thanks for summarizing it so well. I actually saved the post to my new story notes because I can't figure out my magic system. And I can't really start the book till I do. Thanks for the help.


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