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Tag: Brandon Sanderson

Magic as a Storytelling Tool

As someone who deeply loves magic, be it in fantasy, or Science Fiction, I have always been excited by different systems and the ways in which they are integrated within the story. Brandon Sanderson — a huge inspiration on various axes — has an entire theory about how magic should be used. I greatly recommend reading his First Law article, which sets down a strong correlation between magic systems and plotting. The entire thing is worth the time, but the law itself reads:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

On the surface of it, this makes a ton of sense — the less explicable your supernatural forces are, the more unsatisfying it is when they resolve a problem. Gandalf can wave his hands and divert storms. He can win willpower battles against gods and ancient spirits. But do we understand what the parameters and limitations of his magic are? We do not. Would we like it if, after three books of toil and strife, he shows up and just solves all problems? We would not. We are barely ok with the Gandalf Ex Machina already present in the trilogy!

But magic is not binary. Sure, prophecies, totemic and symbolic powers, and destiny are lazy ways to solve a problem. But they are certainly awesome at creating one. A world can be governed by laws far different from the reality we inhabit, and its heroes can still fight against those different laws. Magic doesn’t need to be systematically defined, in order to be part of a satisfying story. It just can’t solve that story’s main problems.

However, I think those two ways of approaching supernatural powers aren’t mutually exclusive. “Soft” magic can be your inciting incident. It can fully govern the world of your story and create all its problems. “Hard” magic can save the day. Because it is bound by rules and limitations which the reader understands, it is perceived as just another skill in the characters’ toolbox, and as such, it does not break the ability of the story to put them through the grinder.

Of course, this is all relative. Rules exist to be broken. Your story can be about the inevitability of failure in the face of overwhelming powers. Or it can be about a godlike being and their awesome abilities that we understand fully, but which no one can stand against. Or your “soft” magic can be a higher form of a hard system that you have just not revealed to the reader yet.

Still, to break a rule, you have to understand it. And I believe that Sanderson’s First Law is a unique attempt at discovering how the tropes of speculative fiction actually apply to literary structures. Magic is a great tool we have. But unless you are writing a role-playing system, or do not care about structure in your story, you have to use that tool in a way that enhances your work, rather than breaks it.

Reading Update 05/06/20 – Audiobook Developments, and Brandon Sanderson Book Porn

Listening to Books, and How It Can Go Wrong

My adventures with audiobooks continue. After the awesome experience with John Scalzi’s Redshirts, I decided to try Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera next.

The result was horrific.

Don’t get me wrong. The book is adorable. But my body was not ready for a slow-reading Brit doing accents and dialects. My body was particularly unprepared for an entire chapter in the voice of a southern diner waitress. I think I will have to stay away from works that include dialects and “funny voices”. For my own sanity, you understand.

Next, I started Dune, because Denis Villeneuve’s movie is OBVIOUSLY going to be the greatest work of science fiction ever made. And also because I have been meaning to reread it for years. So far, it is going splendidly, and the production is really impressive, with multiple voice actors and even some background music.

As an aside, it seems that audiobooks might be a solution to a problem. Since they have the dubious honor of occupying my “at night, while playing video-games” time, I think they can help me with getting back to works I’ve already read. A solution to the constant struggle of feeling like re-reading is a waste of time when there are so many new books to experience. Vorkossigan Saga, here I come!

Mistborn Goodness

In unrelated news, I wanted to brag about finally completing my set of Mistborn collector hardcovers. Guest featuring, the newest Dragonsteel HC — Warbreaker. Now all that’s left is Elantris, once I have the resources for it, and whatever Brandon Sanderson decides to tempt me with in the future.

The quality of binding of these editions is absurd, and the artwork galleries are stunning. And for fans of Sanderson’s Cosmere, it should be criminal that the books contain charts with information on Scadrial’s magic systems not actually in the stories themselves…

All in all, if one is about that collector’s life, these editions are a must. Of course, if you are a normal human with normal human priorities, there is no justification for spending the amount each of them costs. (Not a criticism to Brandon, his agreement with Tor does not allow him to sell them for less. And frankly — the quality justifies it). But if you are like me, I cannot recommend them enough.

The Dumping of Info in Secondary World Fiction

This one is narrowly focused on writing a specific type of science fiction and fantasy, but it’s a fairly prevalent issue, so I figured I would drop my two cents in that particular slot.

Something I had to deal with from pretty much the first paragraph of my current book, was how to naturally insert the necessary information, so that readers would have any chance of understanding what the F is going on. I believe I have overcome this issue with some level of competence (courtesy of obsessing over it for literal years), but it did make me evaluate the role of infodumps in secondary world fantasy and science fiction.

First of all, the terms, for that one person who potentially doesn’t know what I am talking about:

Infodumps are compressed chunks of information about the story, world, or characters in fiction. It is, by definition, something to avoid, as it stops the narrative in its tracks. Rather than the reader submerging themselves into your work, they are taken out of the story in order to read a glossary.

Secondary worlds, on the other hand, are locales that exist outside of our present day world or its known past. Your Middle Earths, Narnias, Westeroses, and Roshars, for sure. But just as much your Cultures, Dunes, Urths, and Foundations, because whether an alternate reality, or a distant future, the further away you get from the reader’s point of origin, the more terminology and circumstance they will have to learn, in order to become part of your worlds.

So, with that said, it is staggering how many ways there are to present information poorly. Talking heads (which I’ve heard described as “Maid and Butler dialogue” and “As you know, Bob…” as well) that spout exposition when they have no reason to be having such conversations. Farm boys or fresh-out-of-the-portal/cryochamber earthers who need everything explained to them. Students in magical/SF military schools who supposedly know a lot, but get to still give the reader tutorials through their daily experiences.

And of course, the old faithful – the omniscient point of view in which the author’s voice itself stops everything to explain to us what we are reading and how it works.

The types of infodumping are infinite, but what struck me, as I was thinking of how best to reveal my own worldbuilding to the reader, was that when it comes to secondary worlds, not all in-depth explanations are infodumps. And the delivery of information is not a binary, but a spectrum.

To give examples, on one end you have a Brandon Sanderson. He likes everything neatly explained and structured, from the magic to the workings of the world, to cosmology and theology. And if something is a mystery, the reader knows it is a matter of time for it to be revealed. However, he rarely falls into the trap of artificial explanations. He worldbuilds with the reader, but he does it organically, and this approach to writing is at the core of his work.

On the other end, you have someone like Steven Erikson, who — in Gardens of the Moon — parachutes the reader into the middle of a war in an unknown land, right as some kind of dark elf on a flying mountain has a chaotic magic battle with a group of humans. Names, titles, factions, and plot points fly around and bounce off of each other, and none of it is explained. You are left to slowly build your own picture of the Malazan world, if you have the patience for it.

I tend to prefer understanding a world by myself, absorbing it through the eyes of characters who are part of it. As I empathize with them, I can empathize with their reality and circumstances, and it is my favorite type of “learning curve”. However, I still need some core principles and terminology to be if not explained, then immediately obvious (and there are many naming conventions that help with that). Otherwise, curiosity turns to confused frustration.

Meanwhile, the opposite approach has great merit as well. A gem like Mistborn does not work if Kelsier is not around to explain allomancy to Vin. The glorious battle scenes of that book only impress because we understand the “science” of what the characters are doing. Some stories need the reader to have a firm grasp on their setting in order to tell the story they want to tell.

Both extremes, and anything in-between can be done well, or poorly. But I have come to realize that whether you want drop the reader in the middle of your world, or introduce them slowly to it, some measure of infodumping is unavoidable, at least for larger works of secondary world speculative fiction. In this aspect, SFF is fairly unique in comparison to any other genre, which can lean on the real world for support in its narrative. We don’t have that luxury, and so we must use tricks and shortcuts to give the reader enough to work with.

Ultimately, I don’t mind some direct infodumps in the books I read. If the world, magic, space-faring tech, or the complicated relationships between characters and factions, are key to understanding the plot, but not the point of the plot, I’d rather know enough about them from the get go, rather than trying to piece them together, while figuring out where the story is going. Some of my all-time favorite authors are able to do that seamlessly enough that I don’t even notice information has been dumped on me.

And so, this is what I aspire to as well. Because, really, you try telling a space fantasy story comped as “Final Fantasy meets Mistborn on a terraformed gas giant” without some infodumps!