Being a Better Writer: Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic

Apologies for the delay. Once again I had a Monday morning shift. I am considering moving future Being a Better Writer posts to Tuesdays for the time being as a result. I’ll keep you updated!

This post was bound to happen. Sanderson’s Three Laws have been a frequently requested topic since the very beginning of this blog, and it’s a staple of a lot of writing education these days (especially fantasy), so I knew there would come a day when I had to write about it. Of course, I wanted to ease into the topic first, which I did two weeks ago when I wrote a post about creating magic systems. During that post, I referenced the Three Laws, saying I’d talk about them later. You see, before I got into talking about the Three Laws, which are more about how to use magic in a story, I did want to dedicate some time to the subject of creating magic first, so that there would be a basis for Sanderson’s Laws to dig into.

Now, with that post behind us, the time has come to look at Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic.

What Are They?
First, let’s have a bit of background. Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic are not, as some have called them, a guide to creating magic or a magic system for your book. Or rather, they’re not a governing process for creating a magic system. Maybe they started out that way, but since then, over the years as Sanderson has refined them and distilled them, they’ve come to be guidelines for writing about magic more than creating it. While they work in a manner to serve as guidelines for creating magic, they really only do so in a broad manner, serving as reminders or perhaps large guideposts that identify the general direction one should go.

Again, this is why I wanted to talk about creating a magic system first. To me, while Sanderson’s Laws can certainly be a nice boost in the right direction (after all, I my steps for creating magic eventually intersect with them, as pointed out when I posted about it), the creation of a magic system follows some different trains of thought. Once you have a magic system in place or mostly thought out, however, then the time comes to look at the Laws and ask yourself how you’re going to implement them in your story.

So, what are Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic? Guideposts for writing about magic, designed to help your thought process develop the system you’ve already created and make better use of it in your story. In a manner similar to Show VS Tell, these guideposts are measuring implements in your toolbox that you can hold up to your writing to check on progress or force yourself to think critically about the direction you’re taking.

So let’s talk writing.

Rule One: An Author’s Ability to Solve Conflict Satisfactorily with Magic Is Directly Proportional to How Well the Reader Understands Said Magic.
Whew! That’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it! The first is the longest of Sanderson’s Laws (thankfully), but it’s also one of the most important. Let me pose to you a question: Have you ever read a book or seen a movie where it’s obvious that something important and climatic is happened onscreen, but you’re not certain what’s going on, so it doesn’t really feel that way? Sort of like you’ve walked into a tense thriller halfway through and have no idea what’s going on or who the characters are. Who you should be rooting for, who you should be feeling worry for, etc.

It’s hard, isn’t it. If you’re not sure what’s going on, or who is on whose side, the tension of a climactic moment can be ruined. Sands, it can be ruined by something as simple as a piece of the plot not being properly explained, or worse, an actual plot hole that makes everything you see irrelevant.

Magic is the same way. The mention of a magic power should thrill our reader, fill them with a sense of wonder, dread, or amazement. But if our reader doesn’t understand that magic, even in its most simple form such as the cost, suddenly magic becomes less of a thrilling or wondrous moment because, like the scenes above that are supposed to be tense, they don’t understand enough about it to know what they should and shouldn’t be impressed by.

Suppose for example, we have a fantasy book with a character who is a generic, ordinary wizard, who says that magic comes at a great cost. A pivotal, danger-filled moment comes in the story and the reader sees this character use magic to save them all … but then that’s it. They’re never told the cost, nor the consequence. As far as they are concerned, there was a moment of danger … and them BAM! Magic saved the day.

Sure, it’s cool that magic can do that. But you have to admit, that’s a bit flat.

Now, suppose we talk about that cost. Pretend instead that when the wizard character was introduced, they explained that their magic came at a great cost, and then codified that cost as years from their own life. Each time they cast magic, they’re becoming a bit older, a bit more weathered. Until eventually their “age” catches up with them.

This? This is a basic bit of understanding for our reader. Age=Magic. Now suppose we define it further for the reader, and early on, in a less tense but important moment, the wizard performs something like levitation only to explain how many months those few seconds sucked away from them. Then later, when we reach the pivotal moment and the wizard is thinking of using their magic on a grand scale, the reader is aware of what the cost will be, and the sense of tension is heightened.

This applies to more than just cost, however. The idea is that your reader should understand the magic you present to them, otherwise any sort of resolution the magic is used for can fall flat. A bit like a Deus Ex Machina, actually.

So, what does this mean for your writing? It means that you need to make sure that your reader understand the general limitations, capabilities, and the like that you’ve established for your magic system so that they can understand how they can be put to good use later in the story. A story where the magic is never explained can still be fun, but the more “solutions” pop out of said magic, the less impactful everything will seem. A writer needs to make sure the reader understands what their magic system brings to the table—what it’s capable of, what it can’t do, what it’s cost is, how it can be used, etc. A writer can use foreshadowing, exposition, or even light examples early on in order to teach the reader elements of the system (and even, in advanced usage, give them clues to figuring out more advanced usage) so that when the time comes to make full use of them, the reader nods and says “Ah, that makes sense! Clever” rather than “Oh, huh. I guess they can do that now.”

I actually just got done reading a book that did the later all the way through and quite honestly found myself fantastically nonplussed. There was never any attempt to explain how something worked, or even really why past the occasional handwave. Without any sense of logic or reason to attach to the magic system, any time it was used I, as a reader, was left completely in the dark as far as understanding anything that was going on. I had no grasp of the cost, how it was accessed … none of it. Magic was simply “there” with no preamble or system to understand. Which left me confused, more than a little puzzled, and ultimately unimpressed. Conflicts that were resolved with magic had no impact, as they might as well have been the author saying “And then this happened for some reason.”

Don’t do that. However complex or simple your magic system is, your readers need to understand it on some level for it to be an effective solution to elements of the story.

Want a good, simple example of this? Read a Harry Potter book. Potter‘s magic may be odd and strange, but what few rules are given to the reader (such as practice and proper pronunciation) are held solidly and explained in detail to the reader. Who of you remembers the troll scene from The Sorcerer’s Stone? Part of what made that scene so satisfying was the character’s successful use of magic they had, until that point, really struggled with in their classes—but we knew they had it and were working at it. The resolution of that scene is very satisfying as a result, rather than just a case of “And the character waved their wand, and poof! Victory!”

Teach your reader the rules of your magic system, enough that they can understand what’s going on. Your conflicts will be the better for it.

Rule Two: Limitations > Powers
So, this one is actually treading very close to a topic I’ve devoted a whole post to before. But, for the sake of the discussion, I will retread it here.

Basically? Giving a character limited abilities is much better than giving them flashy, powerful powers. A character with flashy, powerful capabilities? They walk through trials without cause for fear or alarm … on their part or on the part of the reader. There’s little to no tension. No expectations other than “This character will triumph.”

But a limited character? A limited character must be clever. They can’t just wave their hand and solve the problem—or if they do, there’s likely a catch behind it that catches everyone off-guard. But they don’t generally have the great powers they need to make things a cake-walk. They have struggles. They have to think. They have to figure out how to use what skills they do have in unique ways in order to overcome.

And this? It builds tension. Even in a grand adventure story where we as readers know the protagonist is going to overcome, we don’t know how, and that single question can keep us turning pages until the moment that out character does something clever, unexpected, or surprising to resolve things.

Not only does it keep the reader engaged, but it forces us to plumb the hidden depths of our protagonists’ character. What solution will they stumble upon? Will it come with sacrifice? A gamble? A clever application of their lone magic skill we’ve never considered before? How do they reach that idea?

See? Limiting a character rather than granting them great powers forces us to dive into the character’s skillset, forces us to make the most of them. To push them, while at the same time granting our reader a deeper look into what makes that character tick … as well as keeping the tension high.

Right, as pointed out, I wrote a whole post on this topic, so if you want more, go read about underpowered and underpowered characters. Suffice to say I agree wholly: Limitations should be greater than powers. Which leaves us with—

Rule Three: Expand What You Already Have Before You Add Something New
So I already mentioned a book that performed poorly in regards to the first law. Well, it turns out, it actually fared even worse with the third law. How bad was it, you may ask? Bad enough that by halfway into the book, when a new threat would arise, I would literally ask “So what new power will the protagonists develop this time?”

Oh yes, it was that bad (the book ended up getting one-star from me). Every single time the characters faced a new challenge … Bam. New magic power. Like clockwork.

It really ruined the tension.

Sanderson’s Third Law, on the other hand, suggests the opposite. Before we start adding new things … expand fully on what we have.

This almost goes hand in hand with the Second Law. Basically, consider as many options and uses for your magic as possible before simply adding in more magic. Use what you have.

Passing out powers whenever your character faces a hardship is akin to simply making them too powerful to start with. And, as pointed out, there’s simply no tension or satisfaction to it.

Instead, use what you have. To the end. Wring it out. If you recall from my post on creating a magic system, I mentioned that many worldbuilders often create magic without considering the far-reaching implications (such as the destruction of a global market of some kind). Well, if you’ve considered many of those ramifications by the time you reach this law in story, you’ll be well equipped to heed it because you’ll already have much of that expansion already performed. It’ll be there, waiting for you to use it. And rather than dropping in a new magic macguffin/power/whatever, you’ll draw on what you’ve already developed (and what your reader already understands) to further what you already have.

Expanding on what you already have also helps keep cohesion. By continuing to develop what the reader already has the pieces of, you keep the world and its magic interconnected. Rather than throwing new powers or types of magic at them, you reinforce what you’ve already given them, drawing them deeper into the world you’ve built. This helps keep the world consistent and can also help them identify the pieces to learn the ropes (helping with Law number one).

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t unveil something new. Just … when you do, make sure you’ve already plotted and accounted for the limit of your current tool set. Use what you have to its fullest before you start to expand out, and you’ll get the most out of your magic and your writing.

End
So, that’s that. A little bit on Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic. Like I said near the start, I consider them guideposts—wonderful guideposts—to helping direct a magic system—and a connected world—to its fullest potential. They might seem simple, and perhaps a bit blunt. But in practice, they’re great at pointing a writer in the direction they should look before leaping forward with something that could potentially drag a reader’s attention away.

So, sitting down to write your story with it’s nifty magic system? Do yourself a favor and make sure Sanderson’s Three Laws are in your toolbox, then pull them out and see how they guide your story.

Good luck. Now go get writing.

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