Tag Archives: Suspense

World-building—And Why It Matters

One of the first things you’ll hear on going to a writing forum dealing with the genres of Speculative Fiction is that “characters and stories are more important than world-building.” Which, on the surface, is absolutely correct. You could create a fictional world twenty-thousand times as deep and fascinating as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and if you didn’t have a story with characters that took place in it, you’re not going to sell a book. At least, not a commercial fiction book.

But think about this, you could come up with the most fast-paced, suspenseful story ever written, and if the characters are cardboard, you won’t sell it. The same goes for having the most fascinating and intricate characters in the history of story-telling. If you don’t have a story, something for those characters to do, you won’t convince anyone to pay you for writing about them. So, we’ve concluded that no one aspect of a story make up for a lack in the other two.

But wait, didn’t I just quote Generic SFF Writing Forum Member as saying that both character and story are more important than world-building? Well, yes, I did. You can’t sell a story without a story, and it isn’t a good story without good characters. But the question is, how do you create a good story? With good characters? I would like anyone who would buy a story that was exactly the Borne Identity set in 435 BC Japan to raise their hand.

Now, for those of you who didn’t raise your hands, why not? (The rest of you can GTFO.) One reason might be that it makes absolutely no sense. You can’t set a story that’s identical to the Borne Identity in 435 BC Japan, because the story is set in Zurich, relies on the real-world geography of Zurich, and includes a great deal of not only Swiss, but also 20th century culture, that just didn’t exist in Japan (and still doesn’t, and never will) in the 5th Century BC. That makes sense, right?

Now, you could set a similar story to the Borne Identity in 5th century BC Japan. Perhaps an ambitious warlord or clan leader is using deadly proto-ninjas to assassinate his adversaries. (Yeah, it’s cliché, and historically inaccurate, but that’s not the issue. Well… okay, it’s exactly the issue.) But a similar story is still not the same story, right? There are going to be differences, most of them enormous, at least as far as the details go.

You might still be able to throw in some amnesia, and espionage, and a romantic subplot, but there won’t be any car chases, or guns, or long-range communications technology (e.g., cell phones). The characters and the setting, and probably many themes, will be informed by an entirely culture and perspective. And readers will expect the writer to be accurate in those things.

How does a writer do that? They research. A lot. Even the most seat-of-the-pants writer will be constantly checking their ideas against reality. They may decide to ignore it in very important areas, but they will know they are doing so.

In fantasy, or at least, secondary world fantasy, the writer does not have that enormous pool of reality to compare the story to. Instead of research, they do world-building. Everything that your normal, non SFF writer can look up on Wikipedia? You have to make that stuff up.
Of course, you do get the advantage of flexibility. Whereas an author writing in a well-known period of earth will have to fudge things—even when they know some readers will bite their head off for it—an SFF author has a lot more freedom to make shit up.

But, lest the reader still find plot holes you could drive the Deathstar through, you must be internally consistent. And that’s where all that effort you spent world-building comes in. Now, you can borrow a lot from real life: gravity, thermodynamics, human beings—but for most of the history and culture and geography, you can only get inspiration. Same for characters. You have to sew it together yourself from whole cloth. All of it…

Er, well–as much as you need for the story anyway. How much that is will depend on the scope of the story, but considering that most SFF written today has relatively large scope, you’ve still got a lot of work to do.

“But wait! It’s hard enough to come up with a plot and characters. Why must I create an entire world, as well?”

What? You thought SFF was easy? Reality check!

Making shit up is hard, but you have to know all of this stuff because your story and characters have to fit in the world in which they live. Remember our talk about setting the Borne Identity in 5th Century BC Japan? Setting matters—a lot. Now, there are many approaches, many methods, many ways to do this creation.

Some authors spend a few months working this stuff out at the beginning. Some people mix it together with the story and characters as they go along. Some people go back and revise once they have the basic draft of their story on paper. But you’ve got to do this work sometime. We can discuss the advantages of the different methods later. For now, you just need to understand why this stuff matters. In the next post, we’ll discuss how to decide which aspect to cut when they conflict.


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How to Create a Believable Magic System

ETA:  This is pretty much my most popular post, and I’ve come to the conclusion that’s because of SEO advantages such as a convenient titles as opposed to great content.  So an edit is in order.  I’m going to leave the original post unedited below, so feel free to read all the way down if you like.

One of the most common questions about writing fantasy is what to do about magic.  How do you create a good magic system?  How do you create a believable magic system?

What Do We Mean by Believable and How do I Accomplish It?

First, let’s touch on what we mean by “believable”.  A believable magic system in my view is one that allows the reader to maintain their willing suspension of disbelief. (Don’t feel obliged to read every single link if you know what I’m talking about.  PS, link one is to TVTropes.  Reader beware.)  There are several reasons why readers might give up their suspension of disbelief:

  1. Deus ex Machina:  When your magic system makes things too easy.  As the third link above says, you get a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from your reader–I’ll call them confidence points, and you can use it up.  Especially by solving your main plot conflict by using your magic system in a way you haven’t shown that it can be used.  Your fire mage suddenly learning they can use water magic when that’s the easiest way out of the situation is a deus ex and it’s going to use up most or all of your reader confidence points.
  2. Your magic is too easy.  There’s a common sentiment that magic requires a cost.  That’s often understood in the sense of mana points in a video game.   But there can be many “costs” to a magic system.  The important point is that your magic can’t just solve the plot problems for free or with little or no effort on the part of your protagonist.  Your cost can be in mana points if you want, or maybe it’s less concrete and logical such as losing an arm or a life.  Maybe you get a crippling migraine and can’t do anything for three days so you miss work.  But there has to be a trade-off.
  3. Your magic only solves problems but never creates them.  In our migraine example above, Hero Protagonist misses three days of work and gets fired.  Sure, he got rid of the poltergeist haunting his little sister, but he had to pay a cost for it.  And in this case, that cost caused new problems even as it paid off his old debts.  Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is a great way to price your magic.
  4. Your magic is all powerful.  Not only does that seem pretty unlikely, it’s kinda boring.  Why am I walking halfway across Middle Earth if I can just nuke Sauron with a passing asteroid?  There are famous memes tackling this very question.  Similarly, why didn’t they just fly to Mordor on eagles?


So how can you make your magic system more believable for your reader?  It’s not that it has to be understandable in real world terms.  That’s not what we mean by believable.  After all, you’re writing fiction and we know magic isn’t real.  What you’re really trying to do is convince your reader that this is how things would turn out based on your description of how magic works.  Let’s try answering each of the complaints listed above:

  1. Don’t do it.  Don’t let magic all by itself solve your conflicts.  You can let it solve part of your problem, but make your character use other tools, too.  Cleverness, for example.  Maybe you can cast an illusion or change the text of a document with magic.  But your character has to figure out what illusion or change to make.  Maybe your supporting characters can hold off the evil minions with magic, but your character still has to beat them in a sword fight.   Or perhaps your main conflict can’t be solved with magic at all.  Perhaps it requires persuasion, or compassion, or strategy.  And please, please, for the love of the fantasy genre… don’t have your magic do something that breaks a rule you’ve previously established for it.  This includes giving your character unique powers you’ve said your system doesn’t have, giving them a new power–especially with no foreshadowing–right at the key moment because otherwise they’re screwed.
  2. Magic is too easy?  Make it harder.  You can put costs on it as I mention above.  You can make it take awhile.  You can require it to be prepared ahead of time like the old D&D trope of memorizing three spells at a time and forgetting them as they are cast.  Maybe it requires specific ingredients.  Maybe you have to learn a magical language or writing system.  Or complex magical theory.
  3. Have your magic create as many problems as it solves.  This is a pretty common method for non-magical plot solutions, too.  You steal the artifact to trade for your dad, but now you’re a wanted criminal.  Like Nick Cage in National Treasure.  Or consider something like my migraine example above.
  4. Limitations help to make magic believable.  After all, everything in real life has costs and or limitations.  You might be able to walk 20 miles a day.  A car can take you 600 miles a day.  But it can’t cross the entire planet.  A pallet jack in the back of Walmart can let you pull over 1000 lbs, whereas you can only carry 75 lbs.  But it can’t put them on the shelf, and you can’t take one home when you buy a futon.  Magic doesn’t have to work exactly like science or technology do on Earth, but if it can do anything you have to wonder why we’re not all living in palaces waited on by djinnis with zombies plowing the fields for us.  As an example perhaps your fire mage can manipulate fire, but they have to create the first spark through natural means.  If magic that can do anything isn’t believable, then all you have to do is not let it do everything.

Now, I realize these are general abstract principles rather than concrete suggestions.  That’s because the possibilities of magic are by definition almost endless when you consider all the systems together.  I can’t precognitively diagnose your specific problems without knowing what your system is and can do.

Scientific Magic Systems

To address the giant elephant in the room, one common way people have claimed you can make a believable magic system is by having a “scientific” magic system.  You can read that post if you don’t know what that means.  I’ve ranted a few times about the misunderstanding of what constitutes a scientific magic system, but the link above covers the gist of it.  This is one method, but it isn’t the only method, and it has its own problems.

Most “scientific” magic systems are not scientific but rather logical.  You list a few base premises, and then–in theory–by combining these premises the characters and the readers can figure out exactly what the system can and can’t do.  I discuss this at length in my post about The Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding.  The idea is that if your reader knows exactly what your system can do, they can be confident that the conflict won’t be solved by cheap tricks.  (A truly scientific magic system is slightly more complex and involves the idea of limited information, where we don’t have all the rules laid out for us.  Then the reader must make hypotheses, and seeing whether these turn out to be correct is one way to create believable tension.)

A logical magic system is a promise to your reader that you won’t undermine the tension of the story by solving your conflicts with cheap tricks.  They know the dire situation really is dire because by the rules of your magic system the protagonist can’t just wave their hands and say a few words and “Poof!” the bad guy bursts into flames.  Of course, there are two ways to deal with this.  One is to meet the readers’ expectations, and the other is to cleverly subvert them.  This is where a lot of logical magic systems fail to suspend the readers disbelief.  When they aim for subversion but actually just straight up cheat in the reader’s eyes.  It’s a tightrope.

A Metaphor!

And here I’m going to digress a bit.  A truly good magic system (or story) doesn’t rely on the reader to suspend their own disbelief.  It provides the harness itself and suspends the reader’s disbelief for them.  When the magic breaks a promise to the reader, such as that you can’t bring back the dead, it’s like cutting one of the ropes holding the bridge up over the chasm.  If you cut enough of the ropes, even if there are still some there, the bridge comes loose and drops the reader into the chasm of broken trust.  What makes for a really spectacular climax is when you drop the reader into the chasm but then at the last minute they find an intact rope to hang onto, restoring their trust and suspension of disbelief.  But if the rope you leave dangling for them is too slippery, they can’t grab ahold and still fall to their death.

The most basic answer to the question in the title of this post is that you establish trust with the reader by making promises with your magic/story and then keeping them.  If you promise a harrowing ride with death-defying leaps, it doesn’t really work out if the safety net below your characters is too obvious.


In the simplest terms, a believable magic system is one where the reader can believe what you tell them about it and one where they can believe that the story and the world it’s in really would turn out like this given what they know of how the magic works.  I haven’t addressed the latter point quite as thoroughly as I did the former in this post.  But it is a very important point from a world-building perspective rather than the story perspective through which we looked at the first point.  I hope to address it better in a later post.

I hope this time I’ve done a better job of answering your question.  For more concrete or specific suggestions for creating a sense of trust in the reader and then living up to it, please check out the “Magicology” page which links to all my posts on magic systems.

Original Post:

For the last two posts, I took a break from discussing magic to lay some basic groundwork on how stories function. To sum up:

Stories are kept interesting through conflict and suspense. These are created through tensionSuspense is built through external “story” tension, and conflict is built through internal “character” tension.

If you haven’t read those posts, I suggest you do. But if you understand what I just said, you’re good to go.

How do you create a believable magic system?

The first step is to decide on your goals for the magic. Ask yourself these basic questions:

  1. Does it create suspense? Perhaps the Dark Lord has the power to turn all the seasons to winter, and your characters are on the verge of starvation. Or maybe he can’t. But you as the writer must know which.
  2. Does it create conflict? You know vampires? And all the angst that fantasy has decided comes with being one? That’s magic-derived internal conflict. But magical conflict isn’t only about whether Louis wants to drink blood or not. How would you feel if you couldn’t give your daughter a proper burial because that bitch Carnival had sucked her dry? Or what if the dragons are taking back their country dammit, and themselves take whoever is getting in their way.
  3. Does it resolve suspense or conflict? For example, are your characters allowed to escape a situation by using magic? This is fireball country, people. Brutes or brains? Or both? Lavan Firestorm burned up an entire invading army that seemed destined to overrun Valdemar. And Dirk Proven saved the world by figuring out when the next eclipse would occur—and lying about it.
  4. Does it create a sense of wonder? Who wasn’t impressed by the Nazgul, or Shelob? But I bet you don’t know where they came from, or how their power works. Good thing it didn’t matter. Now, Lackey’s ley-lines were fun, and you might even have wanted to be able to use them, but were they mysterious and awe-inspiring? No. Just a way to move along the plot. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But is it what you—as an author—want?
  5. What themes will your magic express or explore? Yes, themes. I know you had enough of analyzing literature in high school. Or not. But whichever it was, this is still something you need to think about. Maybe you’re a panster, and you only know the themes after you’ve written the book. But they’re there all along, and it can be much simpler to follow them if you know what they are in the first place. Maybe you’re an environmentalist. Would you prefer a story about ghosts or trees that would rather not be cut down? What about the pollution of sacred sites? Ursula K. Leguin tackles this with the story of how one of the great cities used the Lips of Paor as a garbage dump. I bet they were really willing to help when our friend the Mender needed his powers temporarily removed.

Now that we’ve gone over choosing goals, maybe we should talk about how to achieve them. There are several things you need to do to make your magic meet your goals:

  1. Know what your magic is and what it can do. Yes, flying is cool, but if your character is a water mage, there’s not much they can do about it. Making them a wind mage is not the solution, folks. The solution is to make compromises. Your character needs to part the sea in chapter 4? Then they can’t fly over the Mountains of a Million Trolls in chapter eight. If your character can do anything, we aren’t going to have much of a story.
  2. Know what your magic is and what it costs. Maybe you can part seas and fly. But it’ll cost you your first-born child. And you’ve already got one. Maybe you know the character will pay for this later. But the reader has a much shorter attention span. The more you can do, the more—and sooner—it should cost you. Physically or mentally, it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s permanent at some point. You can trade the cost as many times as you want, as long as you don’t trade it out of existence.
  3. Make it hard to learn. If your hero can learn the equivalent of a bible’s worth of spells in four weeks, why isn’t everyone and their pet hydra killing bandits and enjoying the magical equivalent of total climate control? If they are, then why does a prophecy about a fire-flingin’ half-elf princess so incredible to them? You’ve got to work out all the consequences. After that, it’s okay to indulge in some judicious ignorance.

Those are the basics, guys. There are way too any ways to create magic systems for me to fill out every little nook and cranny of magic-making theory. Later, I’m going to do some in-depth critiques of various magic systems, pointing out all the places things went right, and all the places they went wrong. And maybe I’ll even make up a magic system just for the Chimney, to really show you how the process looks. Field-work is fun, but “show don’t tell” is a real pain. Why do you think we writers don’t do it?


Posted by on October 29, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Themes, Writing


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Tension; Or, How Stories Work (And a Little on Suspense)

I know that, last time, I promised I would explain consistency in magic systems. And I will.

But before we get to that, we need to understand why consistency is important. And to understand that, we need to understand how a story works. This post is applicable to almost any post about writing that you will find on my blog. This may be the single most important post you will ever read on the art of writing a good story—in any genre. I’m not trying to say I’m the only person who knows how stories work, or how to a write a good story. But I have yet to read anything that actually breaks down the concept, in simple terms, of reader-writer interaction.  And reader-writer interaction is the foundation of story-telling.

Reader-writer interaction is the basis of tension. And tension is the basis of a good story. You can have a story without tension, but it will be boring. You will hear from a lot of people that conflict is the basis of a story. That is false. Tension is the basis of conflict, and—being more basic—it is thus more important to a good story than conflict. There can be conflict without tension. And again, it will be boring. Now refer back to the first sentence in this paragraph. You should now understand why reader-writer interaction is the basis of good story-telling.

So, you are probably wondering what I mean by reader-writer interaction, and you are also wondering how it works. It’s pretty simple. Tension is built on the reader’s understanding of the way the world works. The reader knows (or thinks they know) what can and can’t happen, and thus they know whether the characters are in a tough spot—or not. Their understanding of the world is based on their knowledge of the real world, genre conventions and tropes, and what the author tells them. These three legs support their world model. What does the reader model have to do with how stories work? Stories are made up of “scenes (and sequels)” Each scene is like a miniature story. To understand how a story works, we need to know how scenes work. So, what is a “scene” how do scenes work?

A scene is a sub-section of the story consisting of a set of closely related and chronologically sequential events. It is the writer’s input into the reader’s world model.

Scenes work like this:

The reader starts with a model of the real world. They then modify it to fit the genre of the story—and thus, the scene. Since this scene is the beginning of a larger story, they may further modify it to fit what they learned about the story from a) the back cover blurb and b) the little excerpt that often comes after the glowing recommendations from other (popular) authors. This is called a “primary (world) model”. The reader then proceeds through these steps:

  1. The reader loads their primary model.
  2. The story provides the first scene. The reader reads this scene and then runs it through their world model to determine the most likely outcomes. At the beginning, the reader’s model is likely to be rather generic. They don’t know enough about the story yet to generate a specific, complex and realistic model. (This modeling occurs in real time, re-modeling every time the reader learns/discovers something new.)
  3. The reader looks at all possible outcomes. If the writer is good, there are a few, prominent outcomes that over-shadow all the rest. If they are really good, there is one of these that is not only the most likely, but also the most horrible. Alternatively, there may be a small group of bad outcomes.

Tension is created in the third step, as the reader begins to question the inevitability of these horrible outcomes: Is this what will really happen? Can the characters avoid this? If so, how? The more horrible the outcomes are—and the less chance the characters have of avoiding it—the greater the tension. If there is no tension, the reader has no reason to care about the scene, and thus no reason to care about the story. This is bad.

But wait, you may be thinking… what happens next?

Next, the writer must resolve the tension. How do they do that?

This goes back to the idea of the world model. A writer will have a complete world model, where the reader only has a partial model. In order to resolve the tension, the writer must apply this model to the scene. Unlike the reader, they know exactly which outcome will occur, and why. They just apply their complete model, and the outcome is obvious.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong. To keep the reader interested in the story, the writer must maintain suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t matter whether they choose to surprise the reader, or conform to their expectations. (The first resolves tension by saving the heroes from the undesirable outcome; the second by getting the pain over with. Both are powerful methods and do much to shape the course and feel of the story.) The reader must not be allowed to question the inevitability of the writer’s chosen outcome. They must eventually accept it as the right one.

  1. Writers achieve this goal by completing three basic tasks: They must make sure their complete world model allows for the outcome.
  2. They must make sure the reader’s primary model allows for the outcome, but doesn’t exclude others
  3.  They must retroactively exclude other possible outcomes with as little conflict with the reader’s primary model as possible.

At the end of a scene, the reader has formed a slightly different model of the world, a secondary world model. The goal of a story is to slowly guide the reader’s model towards becoming consistent with the writer’s model by repeating the above process so that the two are identical at the end. Not every scene has to bring the reader closer, but there must be an average shift towards the writer’s model. That’s why the writer’s model must be consistent with itself, or they’ll never bring the reader into the fold. (But that’s next post.)

To sum up: Tension is created by differences between the reader’s model of the story world and the writer’s model of the story world. These differences are not a matter of fundamental differences, but of the reader’s model not being as complete. The goal of the story is to slowly complete the reader’s model in a way that does not push them out of the story.  (This post also touches on “suspense” quite a bit, even though I don’t call it that.  But I’m going to do a post on using suspense later, so I didn’t want to spoil it.)


Posted by on October 24, 2009 in How To, Ideas, Writing


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