Believe it or not, when it comes to magic in Fantasy, the prevailing wisdom was to keep it mystical and mysterious. To spell it all out in a concrete rules system was considered gauche. Brandon Sanderson changed the conversation on magic systems, and now when I go to conventions, the script is flipped. It seems a lot of Fantasy writers focus heavily on the magic system as a major part of their world building.
Here are the Sanderson’s Laws:
The First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
The Second Law: Limitations are greater than Powers.
The Third Law: Expand what you already have before you add something new.
There are videos on it. There are videos of Sanderson talking about it himself. I see them more as guidelines than laws, and I think they’re fine.
I have read a bunch of Sanderson books, and I think he’s a good writer. I enjoy his stories. I have talked with a lot of his fans, and I have spoken with a few people that are critical of his work. A common criticism goes along the lines of, “When I read [insert Sanderson title here], it’s like I can see the mana bars over the character’s head.”
If you have been following my posts, you may recall that I said that is specifically something I want to avoid when people read my stories, especially The Repossessed Ghost. So, it will come as no surprise to you that I don’t strictly follow Sanderson’s laws.
I suppose I have my own law which I follow, which I’m only just now putting into words. I didn’t come up with it while thinking about Sanderson’s laws, but it could be considered a simplification on his, and it is this:
Buhl’s Law: Anything in your story which is load-bearing must be established and clear.
I think that’s relatively easy to understand, but just to be sure, I will spell out the three different parts so that it makes even more sense.
What I mean by Load-Bearing: This fits with Sanderson’s First Law with regards to solving problems, but it’s not limited to that. If a villain changes their mind because of a thing, that is load-bearing. If it is part of the problem that the heroes are trying to solve, that is load-bearing. If it is pivotal in the reader’s experience, causing surprise or fear or delight or remorse, it is load-bearing.
Load-bearing story elements are foundational, so it should make sense why these parts of your story should be both established and clear. But what do I mean when I say that?
What I mean by Established: If something is established, it does not feel like it’s coming completely out of left field. A writer establishes a piece of their story through any number of means, and it doesn’t have to be glaring like a neon sign. It just has to be present enough in the reader’s mind so that when that story element comes back into focus is not jarring.
This is part of the solution to the deus ex machina problem.
Let’s try an example.
Sam and Frodo are in Mordor, and the weight of The One Ring has pulled Frodo down. He’s collapsed, completely exhausted, and Sam says, “I may not be able to carry the ring, but I can carry you.”
Before Sam can sling Frodo over his shoulders, Tom Bombadil pops out from behind a rock and says, “Bless you, wee lads. It looks like you’re in a bit of a pickle. Let me give you a hand.”
Tom then takes the ring from around Frodo’s neck, and with a little dance and a jig, skips up to the fire pit and lobs the ring in. Problem solved. The end.
This… this is not a satisfying end to this story. While it can be argued that Tom Bombadil was established earlier in the trilogy as being unaffected by the magic of The One Ring, and while it is also established that Tom is a magical creature able to pop in when you least expect it, Tom is not established as having any part in this conflict. As a reader, we haven’t seen Tom struggle with our heroes, evading orcs and giant spiders and all of the evils Middle Earth has dished out to our heroes.
To establish a story element is to not only present it, but weave it into the plot so that it is present in the reader’s mind at the right time.
What I mean by Clear: Again, Sanderson’s first law refers to the reader’s ability to understand the magic, and that can be part of this. But clarity does not have to mean complete, functional understanding. The people of the modern world do not have to know how electricity works in order to activate a light switch. They don’t have to know how the internal combustion engine of their car works in order to go for a drive. However, the functions of these objects is clear to us, just as we do not have to know how a gun functions, Chekov’s or otherwise.
Clarity can simply mean trust. When Gandalf performs magic, we don’t know how the magic works, but Gandalf is established as a character that is wise and powerful, and when the writer tells us that Gandalf is doing something mystical, we trust that Gandalf can do it.
If Sanderson’s laws help you craft a compelling story that is satisfying and coherent, and if you enjoying using his laws, then keep doing that! If you like my simplification, try using that, too.
The goal is to create escapism, entertainment, tell a story, move an emotion, teach a lesson… there are as many reasons for us to write our stories as there are for us to read those written by other people. If what you’re writing is delighting you and you’re readers, keep doing what’s working.
If you’re struggling to create the intellectual or emotional experience you imagine your story should deliver, you might want to look at how well you have established the most important parts of your story. And you should check to make sure those items are very clear and easy to understand.