Brandon Sanderson’s first law of magic (which I’ve blogged about before) is that “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” Lately I’ve been wondering if that works the opposite way: does the ability to make the conflict unsolvable require the reader to understand magic? Like a horror story where the magic is all evil, and all on the bad guys’ side?
I’m inclined to say yes. It doesn’t have to be hard magic (Sanderson’s term for a system of magic with clearly defined rules) but it does have to have internal logic. Though neither readers nor the protagonist may understand the logic until the protagonist gets it in the neck.
For example there was an episode of an anthology series on VH-1 some years ago in which the devil (Roger Daltrey) traps the protagonist into playing a magic guitar. The strings cut his fingers, the blood forms the notes but if he survives to the end of the song he gets to keep the guitar. Only when he reaches the end, it’s some musical symbol that says “go back to the beginning and repeat.” He’s doomed.
That story was definitely soft magic. We have no idea what rules bind Lucifer, other than being obligated to honor the letter of whatever pact he makes (a staple of any “deal with the devil” story). If the protagonist won and Satan killed him anyway, that would make sort-of sense (he’s the Devil, after all) but dramatically it falls flat.
Or consider a movie from 2009, Drag Me To Hell. Protagonist refuses an old woman a loan; woman places curse on protagonist that threatens to destroy her life. We eventually learn some of the rules by which the curse can be broken because that gives the protagonist her endgame: follow the rules, save herself. It doesn’t work but providing the rules provides the suspense.
For a story where magic has no rules, there’s the classic Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life. Billy Mumy (above) plays a little kid with the reality warping power of the Infinity Gauntlet. He wishes it, it happens. Why no, a small child having that power doesn’t end well for anyone around him, how did you guess?
We get no explanation how Mumy got his power or how it works. But for the purpose of this story, that’s okay. We know going on that he has absolute power, so again, we have a clear understanding of the rules.
Victoria Feistner’s excellent Melanie in the Underworld in Love, Time, Space, Magic (the anthology with my short story Leave the World to Darkness) seems like an exception. It involves an Orpheus-like quest to free someone from the netherworld, but even though Melanie follows the rules, she loses. That works because the story ultimately isn’t about freeing her lover, it’s about accepting that he’s gone and dealing with the loss. All of which is foreshadowed early in the story so it doesn’t come out of the blue.
So I guess Sanderson’s law applies here too.
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