As I try to navigate this business of bringing about a story that has fantastical elements — I’ve discovered that there are a great many techniques in speculative fiction that simply aren’t covered in a typical creative writing class, ones that I am having to learn on my own without very much guidance. The main issue seems to be the communication of magic and magic systems — supernatural dynamics. They’re essentially the revisions to the rules of the universe that are naturally assumed in a “normal” story. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.
What a character can do, and what he can’t… I have noticed that trying to introduce too many abilities at once is sloppy technique. While the urge to go anywhere and everywhere with the aid of the imagination is intense, the effects you can create are only as powerful as they end up being communicated to the reader, succinctly and elegantly. As writers of fantasy, science fiction and horror know — this requires a careful balance of both mechanistic physical description and metaphor, presented in a manner that is not so wordy and long-winded as to interrupt the flow of the plot action, but not so scarce as to leave the reader with only a vague sense of what is truly happening. With each new effect, the reader needs a moment to reflect on his/her own interpretation of it.
Take Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, for example; Will learns to “feel out the tiny gaps between atoms ” — he pulls his mind outward along his arm, fingers, and into the very tip of the blade to cut between worlds. Lyra moves her mind along down a chain of meanings, like a ladder, looking for the next rung, for the level where the truth lies in her interpretation of the alethiometer’s symbols. Here, the author is taking supernatural abilities and breaking them down into their real fundamental components, so they can be pictured and conceived by a reader.
Even if your story is only altered by one rule — the addition of time travel, alternate dimensions, elemental powers… You should know that it is not simply enough to say “and then he did a spell.” We need to know what it feels like to do so, how the discipline works in the character’s thoughts and actions; we need to know what it looks like — the absolute physical effects it creates, and/or the mental and visceral aberrations it imposes on the character’s perception of reality. How skillfully, innovatively, and clearly this is done contributes greatly to the overall ability of the work to move, fascinate, and engross a reader. This is a particularly tall order, an ability that fantasy writers in particular need that is not necessarily addressed in a general creative writing class.
Because it is so taxing, this might be one of the reasons that the fantasy genre is often accused of lacking character development and interpersonal complexity. It may be that the writer’s mental energies are simply too exhausted from giving birth to new dimensions; whereas normal fiction splits inward to find its complexity, dissecting normal reality to look for undercurrents, fantasy expands outwards, creating new avenues entirely to explore. Whew. I am tired.