On Writing: Magic Systems (part 2)

Previous post

While I stand by my points, I feel like there was some element of cop out. At least in the sense that I had one major point that I threw out there as the one and only point for consideration when it came to magic and its rules.

The reality is that post was probably more accurate as a major consideration for then MCs or major characters use magic but didn’t really cover the other side of magical systems, that being creating a coherent setting that contains magic.

For example, in classic stories such as The Chronicles of Narnia, or Alice in Wonderland  both the settings are seeped in magic (and in quite different manners as well) the main characters don’t use magic exactly, although are affected by it creating an important bridge between character and setting and magic.

So today’s post is more around my observations around how to introduce and build a magical setting, I still stand by my points in ‘part 1’ that use of magic should still be intimately bound with character development, however this section is more generally what is important in a magical system.

A checklist.

Technically there are an infinite options for how to include magic in your writing, we are after all, talking about a supernatural phenomenon. However realistically there are a few basic points that are always going to be a certain way that are worth considering.

The nature of the world – will your world and its magic be:

  • A mystical world seeped in magic (e.g. Narnia, Oz)
  • A fantasy land that includes magic but is somewhat ‘realistic’ (Middle Earth, Westeros)
  • A world where magic is common place and ‘runs’ on it e.g. magic is essentially like physics (Harry Potter, Discworld)

One of the risks of magic is the assumption that its all make-believe so anything goes, however readers will balk at violations to expectations. If you create a world like Narnia then readers will accept unexplained and wild magic, however they won’t be happy if you start treating magic like a tool as it is in Hogworts, and visa versa. In Harry Potter magic is treated as a school subject and while of course it contains randomness and some unexplained aspects (well most books end with explanations from DD) it wouldn’t fit to have a Narnia like Aslan character simply inciting old magic and doing whatever he will.

The issue isn’t so much what aspect you choose, as all options are viable, but making sure you stick with what you pick, and that choice works for your characters. The politicking of the Discworld and Game of Thrones have elements in common, yet wouldn’t quite work in each respective universe.

The next element to consider is your MC or MC’s orientation to magic, are they:

  • Naive but going to learn (Harry Potter)
  • Aware of magic but not going to use themselves (Children in Narnia)
  • Naive and essentially overwhelmed (Oz, Alice in Wonderland)
  • A ‘magic-user’ themselves (including whether the character is going to be a novice, or is or going to be a legendary powerhouse of magic)

The importance about choosing this is selling the status of the characters to the audience. Naive characters are great for introducing magic to the character and the reader simultaneously, however can be hard to pull off if there isn’t much reason for said naivety OR you do want your MC to be super powerful.

Speaking of power – this is s a good tangent to discuss powerful magic characters and ultra-powerful characters in general. It’s actually devilishly hard to create powerful characters in fiction, its actually far easier to write flawed, weak individuals because tensions come easier and readers fear for them. There are essentially two main tricks to pulling off a powerful character, one is to make said power hard earned and/or exist mostly as a cathartic element, this is the typical storyline where the MC only gains said power right at the end of the story using it to finish off the enemies and save the day. This can be a satisfying (if cheesy) finale. The second trick is to make none of the tension resolvable via said power. For example making the powerful MC unlucky in love, bad at politics or have some form of downside to using their great power. This can be difficult to pull off as it will create a strange sense in the reader as even though we don’t want life to be too easy for protagonists we also don’t want details like superpowerful magic to go unused, so there is a tension in writing there.

My final checklist point is a strange one – how does magic actually work?

This one requires a bit of discussion, as in a way its the most superfluous question. In many stories there isn’t really a requirement to explain how magic works BUT in my opinion the author having some idea or plan for it helps create a sense of coherence. Much in the same way planning backstory for characters that isn’t even included in the manuscript helps an author keep the characters consistent.

Some typical ways magic ‘works’ are:

  • People are born with magic or not
  • Some form of ritual is required
  • Magic comes from some source (Gods, dragons, wellsprings) and can be harnessed
  • Is simply an integral part of the world
  • If people believe in it enough it happens

Or some mixture of the above, again the point isn’t so much around explaining magic to the reader, but creating a sense of coherence for them.

The two biggest risks of magic are Deux Ex Machina (rescuing character with unearned magical intervention) and snapping a reader’s disbelief. It’s important to realize that most readers will be pretty keen on magic so its not panic-stations for having to meticulously explain or introduce the magic, it’s just avoiding starkly out of place spells (e.g. In Game of Thrones it’ll be pretty weird if a talking lion showed up)

The last consideration is how magic is introduced to the reader, I already mentioned that naive characters are a bit of a bonus as magic can be introduced to them and the reader as one. However not all characters are going to work that way. some common techniques are:

  • Using mentor characters to explain
  • Setting up demonstration scenes (don’t be too obvious)
  • Mythology
  • Character explanation (a huge risk of boring exposition)

It’s generally advised to introduce fantastical elements gradually, but my advice is to introduce magic in the way that fits with the tone or style of the story. For example if you do want your story to be taken seriously then you probably do want a gradual introduction to magic to help this, however if you want a story to be more out there, then throwing magical elements at the reader is ideal!



On Writing: Magic Systems (part 1)

Carrying on a theme of ‘magic’ I saw an interesting question on Twitter the other day about what was important for Magic Systems


Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.  ~Maya Angelou

For those that aren’t somewhat immersed in Fantasy, Magic Systems is essentially referring to the magical elements of world-building, how magic works, who can cast spells, what spells, where the limits etc.

It’s a super interesting question, and even more interesting to try and answer coherently.

I’m not expert, so I’m going to draw on a couple of (IMO) very different Fantasy works to make sense of it – Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. I’ve reflected on these three works because I believe they each have quite a different approach to magic and how it works with the stories within.

Firstly I think there is a bit of a risk focusing too much on the ‘system’ part of magic. This is going to sound counter-intuitive, and maybe even controversial. But I don’t think that the ‘rules’ of any magic system are that important.


The reason I saw this is controversial is most writing forums will focus heavily on issues of consistency, logic, proper setup, avoiding dues ex machina with magic and so forth. Yet my stance is that some of the most popular and successful fantasy worlds aren’t that well setup, at least in the sense of having a logical treatise on their magic.

For a really popular example, Harry Potter. I’m sorry team if this is upsetting to read, but the world of Harry Potter despite an incredible amount of magical material is anything but logically coherent. There’s time travel, weird rules about house-elves and clothes, giants – it’s not even explained where the heck magic actually originates from (well AFAIK).

BUT my point is not to diss HP, far from it. What is coherent and masterful about the magic system of Harry Potter, is that it ties in with character and story. Throughout the story there is any number of magical spells, or artifacts or whatever revealed and explained, have you noticed that the significant ones often require something of character to interact with? Whether its Harry getting brave to use a patronus, or Dumbledore making a sacrifice to destroy a Horecrux, pretty much everything Snape does.

The point yes there is an elaborate, I’d say even eloquent, magical world portrayed by Rowling. But the key isn’t writing a textbook of spells and rules that fit together and prevent nit-pickers from finding errors, it’s leveraging that magic to truly test the characters.

In Lord of the Rings an almost opposite approach is made in terms of how magic is presented. Barely a thing is explained in LoTR (I’m not included all the other world-building tomes) other than a few rules of say the actually Ring and maybe a Palentir or two. Gandalf isn’t even really explained. Again though, magic is largely used to test character, or to flesh it out.

So in some respects the issue isn’t to have enough world-building or design of the magic system to prevent bad-story telling, its to ensure that its entrenched in character. I think were many writers fail, is to view fantasy writing as a bit of a video games, wanting a character to level up and learn new spells and eventually vanquish the enemy. The key difference between a book and game is that the reader isn’t in the drivers seat and ready to enjoy magic first hand they need a character to relate to first.

So for me I think that’s the crux of magical systems, not what the lore says on whether elves can beat Balrogs or whether HP should have used the time-travel spell at several other points – it’s how character challenges translate into magical ones.

In saying all that I think this topic deserves a part II (or more honestly I have to go to work now) to discuss how to ‘sell’ or suspend disbelief re: magic, because I don’t think that character driven magic systems is an automatic pass to do whatever one wants!

On Writing: ‘good’ and ‘bad’ powers

You’re to have to forgive me if some of this theorizing is obvious to others!


"... dunnest smoke of hell... nor heaven..." Shakespeare uses the references of heaven and hell in the same section as he tries to show the distinct line between what is good and what is bad, and that Lady Macbeth's plans are bad.

I came to an odd realization watching the recent Captain Marvel, for those that don’t know (and don’t mind the spoil) in the movie the shape-shifting Skrulls are originally portrayed as the villains, only for a mid-movie switcharoo that reveals the Skrulls as refugees and victims.

The realization was nothing in particular to do with the film, but more how easily the Skrulls were presented as baddies, due to their shape-shifting abilities there is a natural tendency to see the aliens as deceptive and somewhat creepy.

This got me to thinking about how ‘powers’ tend to fall along good and evil lines. That probably isn’t news to many fans of fantasy and sci-fi, at least the more obvious ‘powers’ but digging a little deeper I find it quite interesting to examine this.

For example ‘good’ powers tend to fall along the lines of nature – I’m looking at you Captain Planet – which is intended to overtly to be so, in general though harnessing or powers based on nature and ‘elements’ are commonly associated with good-guys. On the converse ‘bad’ powers tend to harness either the noxious parts of nature – e.g. poison, decay, illness OR pervert nature somehow.

In a related vein, ‘good’ powers tend to be enhancements or exceptionalism on basic attributes. Super-strength, speed and so forth. Now bad-guys often have similar powers but are presented as a twist or malfunction on nature. For example in Captain America both The Red Skull and Cap’n used the same super-soldier serum, but Red Skull obviously suffered a terrible consequence.

I’ve also noticed that like the shape-shifting mentioned above certain powers tend to fall into evil hands and visa versa. Telekinesis tends to be an evil power, common among villains, and in my opinion this is in part that it has undertones of cowardice. Similar to telepathy and mind control unless its portrayed as more a natural empathy as opposed to outright mind reading.

[ now some of you might mention Jean-Gray and Xavier from X-men, to which I would rebut both become villainous at times throughout the plot arcs of the team. Also X-men in part tends to subvert some superpower tropes, e.g. the character Beast being a ‘beast’ but a compassionate genius  ]

Other powers spring to mind, invisibility typically is bad – Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth is of course ‘good.’

Broadening the scope a little, I also wondered about the ‘mindless army’ trope in many books and films (you know the one I mean, whether its orcs, robots, zombies, aliens) where the enemy is typically presented in mass amounts. This is usually assumed to a. dehumanize the enemy so the audience/reader doesn’t mind the casual slaughter, and b. to demonstrate the epic power of the heroes and finally c. to emphasize the individual clash of hero vs villain.

But I think there is a different reason too, having small groups of elite enemies is somewhat too heroic, too elite – mass production is seen as a ‘bad’ thing and more fitting for the baddies. Even in say Lord of the Rings where the trolls are plenty powerful, individually they are also huge and grotesque, another trope often used for ‘bad’ guys, basically saying that the villains are not exceptional they are just unnaturally huge (see the end of Iron Man 1 where Stark faces off against Iron Monger).

Now I’m not saying that powers are locked in, and that one must follow certain conventions, after all one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal is the power to subvert expectations. Of course giving heroes potentially evil powers is a great source of tension.

What I am saying is that our perceptions of powers seems to suffer from naturalistic and elitist fallacies. Powers that deceive, manipulate or pervert nature are automatically seen as evil. This is important to consider in our plotting and world-building.


What are your thoughts on powers – do you have any examples of exceptions to the theory?

On Writing: Having a Message without being “on the nose”

One of the particular struggles I have with writing is that I feel like I want to have much more significant messages, but other than crossing my fingers and hoping the individual story carries some sort of emergent theme organically any of my attempts to write with a message either comes across as preachy nonsense or really contrived characterizations.

And as we know such writing tends to put readers off. I don’t think people like to be preached to as a general rule, even if the message is an agreeable one I think it breaks the spell of fiction, there is too much of the authors belief seeping through the story for a reader to enjoy.

So I’ve been scrounging around some resources and reflecting on the topic and come up with some ideas for how to have message without being ‘on the nose’

Here are 15 of our favorite memes from this week!

Using secondary characters

One of the subtle but invaluable tips from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is to use secondary characters’ dialogue to communicate the MCs lessons and changes, a simple example being rather than have an MC state “I’m a selfish pig” get another character to do it!

While it seems like a bit of a cheaty McCheat way of inserting themes or messages into a work I think the strength of using secondary characters to communicate is the reader naturally sees their input differently to a Main Character. An MC who spouts off is typically hard to relate to, and as mentioned above can be very obvious is just expressing the authors opinions.

Secondary characters however can be presented as a less is more approach. Now there is still a risk of being ‘on the nose’ with secondary characters, a rather obvious technique is to have characters whose views are meant to be WRONG have terrible things happen to them and/or get paired with ugly character traits, for example if you want to express to your reader that environmentalists are bad its pretty obvious if you write a bunch of hippie dippie or terrorist characters with Green views.

What you can do however, if say you want to sneak in a message that lying is bad, is show a subplot were a well-rounded by lying secondary character does suffer the consequences of their behaviour. Probably a bad example because disception backfiring is a common character point that does actually work pretty well for MCs (see Shakespeare)

The Message Doesn’t have to be the Main Plot

This is rather counter-intuitive, after all, if you want to write a story with a message it kinda seems like you should be making that message a vital part of the plot and characterization right?

I’m not so sure.

In Lord of the Rings, (actually contradicting my earlier point a little) Frodo Baggins ends his character arc with a strong message of pacifism, which is kind of drowned out by Aragon, Pippin, Merry etc celebrated the defeat of the Dark Lord (oh Spoilers I suppose).

Also that message isn’t a major part of the conflict leading to the success of the heroes in the story, the main thrust of Sam and Frodo’s journey is their force of will and goodness to sacrifice all to get that ring destroyed. Frodo’s mercy does enter into the equation as he spares Smeagal, but ultimately there is a message there that isn’t inserted directly into the main story.

And of course Lord of the Rings is technically filled with messages and emergent themes, so is probably a bit overwhelming to try and study for advice on the subject!

My point is though that usually when it comes to a MC and their plot-long character progression we’re usually looking for a more personal struggle, something relatable and broad such as being brave, loyal, sacrificing oneself, putting love first, honesty, or you know, getting that serial killer before they get you. That’s what readers are really turning pages for, and its OK to have messages embedded throughout the story NOT the main conflict.

That might seem a little sneaky or even covert, but that’s not my intention to advocate. Particularly of novels, part of the purpose of fiction is to meander and explore widely, to make an imitation of life and sometimes in life our lessons aren’t paired with a storyesque conflict, its something quiet that we realize on the journey somewhere else.

My next to points kind of converge together so finally..

Showing not Telling

This cliche piece of writing advice is usually dolled out for character emotion and action, however its equally important for your messages as well. While the above advice is more in the ‘telling ‘ vein, its far more powerful (and subtle) to show a message rather than just tell or espouse it. This can get very tricky as you don’t want to overwhelm your scenes with action purposed towards your message, but I think it can be done. Let’s say you want to communicate that democracy is better than dictatorship, you can show that through some character’s group interaction style, selecting a couple of characters to represent the two ideas. You don’t need to show a country run by a dictator full on failing and a democratic one forever flourishing (not only is that on the nose its hard to demonstrate in a good story)

Which sort brings me to my convergent point Exploring not Preaching

I think ultimately even if you believe your points absolutely, there is a counter-intuitive process where messages that are presented and explored open-mindedly are often seen as more powerful than a absolutist presentation. This is reflected in real life too, where we are far more likely to resist and defend against hard-line arguments (even if technically the arguments are rational and true) and more likely to accept and consider softer presentations.

It’s because a softer approach allows us to toy with the idea in our heads before becoming more likely to accept them. As I mentioned above fiction is in part an attempt to imitate life, and in life we are bombarded with messages and opinions. Not saying we should attempt to bombard readers with even more messages! But rather we appreciate fiction that allows us the space to consider and process messages rather than having ideas thrust in our faces.

While it’s true that some successful writers have managed to have, in some cases extremely, overt and in-your-face thematic messages, for the vast majority of cases works that preach, or force ideas at people are rejected. Yet having important messages and themes is a key part of why stories are so important, so I think its an important topic to consider!

For me, I still struggle with the subject, and for most of my stories I “retcon” messages and themes based on what seems to happen with the personal stories of my characters, although I still hope to brainwash write stories with more significance in the future!


What are your thoughts on stories with messages?

Do you write with a message?

Writing Amnesia: a risky trope

After recently watching Captain Marvel, I’ve been reflecting on the relatively common fiction trope of amnesia. Specifically that is when main characters have a piece of or indeed their entire past wiped from their memory, and a significant if not entirely of their story is about trying to discover or rediscover their lost memory.

As a side note its a particularly at odds trope with reality, amnesia (as depicted in most fiction) is not a particularly common occurrence, especially not as a tidy difficulty where the ‘facts’ of one’s past are obscured yet much of the persons character is intact especially without any other neurological difficulties. Oddly the portrayal in the film Memento where the MC cannot form new long term memories, is closer to ‘real life’ amnesia, however because the trope of a characters losing their past is so common in fiction the story of Memento seems like the outlandish one.

View our entire collection of image quotes that you can save into your jar and share with your friends: Don't lend people money, it gives them amnesia.

Why is amnesia a popular trope?

I believe the trope is common and popular because its a bit of an instant mystery for the story, we automatically see a persons past as important for their character, and not knowing said past creates an immediate problem to be solved. Amnesia also creates a bit of a ‘blank-check’ for a writer and creating tension, because their is a gap in the established backstory for a character, you can always throw in something from their past, without much fear of inconsistency (although more on this later as I think its a double-edged technique)

So why is amnesia “risky”

On reflection I think there are some real writing risks with using amnesia as a plot device, which I will list out below. I’ve called these risks, because I don’t think they definitively cancel amnesia as a plot-point, they are more cautions.

Playing with the past

In general good fiction moves forwards – backstory and flashbacks are also tricky techniques that are generally best used sparingly and wisely to maintain a sense of forward momentum and a story happening in the ‘now.’ Having an amnesia missing past storyline almost guarantees that the story will be mired in the past. That’s not to say that readers don’t care about characters histories (they do) but its hard to make a characters past significant enough to drive a story forwards when intuitively backstory is something that flavours the current story as opposed to completely drive it.

Oddly unrelatable

As we writers all know, main characters are supposed to be relatable. Now this is totally my opinion, however amnesia story-lines are inherently difficult to relate to. Don’t get me wrong, I think that most people want to know their own past, and put in a situation of not remembered would want to. However for the most past, the sort of forgetfulness we suffer is trying to remember a name just before we introduce someone, or the answer to an obvious test question. It’s hard to really comprehend what it would be like to miss large chunks of one’s personal history, furthermore most amnesia story-lines involve a high level of motivation and effort on behalf of a MC either to find out their past and/or pursue the plot around them and there is a catch-22 in this: not knowing said past, its hard to get behind a motivation to discover it or act in spite of it.

Usually for MC’s we find ourselves rooting for them because they try and fight for good, or secure a relationship with their fated lover, or escape evil and so forth. Things that we can imagine ourselves doing. I’m sure most of us would be curious about a lost past, but not enough to risk life and limb (which most fictional characters do)

Also backstory/pasts are a powerful way of communicating character to a reader. With a gap readers often feel a little cheated or at risk settling on how they feel about a character. As I said above, while a blank slate of a past can be a useful tool in fiction its a double edged blade as the lack of backstory can leave a reader feeling like the character is equally lacking.

Hard to satisfy

I think we all know that writing is quite hard, particularly pulling together multiple plot and character points together in a satisfying conclusion. Using amnesia hamstrings a writer by forcing them to incorporate that lost past into the story. They need to make the reader not only care about the lost memories, said memories also have to be pretty relevant to the ongoing story, and while it may seem like an easy source of twists, the potential of simply annoying the reader is high. I think readers have a sense that the author does have a bit of a magic hat in the form of a forgotten past and feels cheated if anything about that past becomes a magic wand to fix the current tensions, feels too on the nose or just generally doesn’t deliver on the expectations setup by the story.

So can it be done right?

Personally I think this trope can be used really well, it’s just about avoiding the pitfalls and above and taking some things into consideration:

Who knows what: Most amnesia story lines force the reader/viewer to experience the discover of the past alongside the character, however careful use of dramatic irony (the reader knowing stuff the character does not) can actually strengthen the story.

For example letting the reader know a piece of information about the lost past first, and letting them see the MC flounder or make bad decisions can be a good source of tension (or a frustration, be careful).

My thoughts are that if the reader and MC discovers their past at the same time it needs to be well crafted to fit with the story, the reader will intuitively care more about story relevant elements not necessarily points that the MC will (e.g. who their best friend in school was)

Meshing with the story: One challenge is portraying amnesia in a way that doesn’t just seem convenient, but also is relevant. Even if the main thrust of a story is an MC trying to discover their past there needs to be some other motivations and goals in there too. E.g. let’s say a character feels they cannot commit to a marriage until they find out about their past, said past has got to in some way relate to their relationship goals. It seems like common sense as I write it but the reveal needs to have an impact – and preferably not just a melodramatic ‘oh I’ve done bad things in the past but have been a good person the entire novel so its actually pretty irrelevant’ type thing.

The Reveal: finally I think lost pasts need to be handled carefully, a readers suspension of disbelief can only go so far, memories rushing back when a person returns to a location, dream sequences, minor characters who are happy to explain in great detail are all common cliches that if not presented well can remind a reader that the author made all this up, and it actually wasn’t much of a challenge to thread it together because they just made it all up!


Anywho, need to go to work – what are your thoughts on amnesia tropes? Am I too harsh, do you like memory loss plot-points?

Let me know!

Captain Marvel


The iconic Captain Marvel

I’m not going to lie, a big part of me watching Captain Marvel was really just looking out for hints and links to Infinity War and Endgame.

The movie itself on its pure ownsome is actually really hard to review.

Captain Marvel was pretty damn awesome and epic enough to pull the movie along nicely.

On the other hand elements of chemistry felt a little forced, Fury and Marvel were instant sass buddies which happened all a bit quick, as did the not particularly unpredictable mid-point twist. I think part of the problem is the whole amnesia plotline thing. It’s always hard to pull off unless we’re attached to some elements of the character’s life outside of their current memory. Also the whole “she’s the weapon” thing didn’t sit well, would a relatively advanced Kree race really allow her such free reign and/or such a poor plot to track down the Skrulls?

The humour of the movie was pretty all over the show – for every great gag, there was another that undermined the action, or didn’t sit too well with the tension of the scene, sometimes the smart talk landed, other times it just felt out of place.

Unfortunately for my tie-in focus it didn’t really get that satisfied, the appearance of “Who?!?” and Ronan the Accuser really just made who the bad-guys were more obvious, and the credits scene started great but kind of ended with jump-awkward moment that didn’t really hype anything (IMHO)

Finally there has been complains of retconning the MCU, given all the events it feels difficult to believe that Thor showing up was the catalyst for the Phase II mentioned in the Avengers and Avengers one feeling like the first threat to Earth, the film felt a lot like a Men in Black episode with a sort of silly take on aliens etc, rather than the the more melodramatic MCU we’re used to.

I dunno, I’ll let the film percolate a little longer and see what other have to say…

On Writing: Stakes

Ok you guys have probably heard too much about Marvel Movies this year, so its time to get back into thoughts on writing.

4' Bamboo Stakes - Plant Support & Cages

Too much?

A helpful guide for preparing, cooking and serving steak. - Imgur

Ok I’ll stop now

Sorry, sorry its a been a week so my brain is getting silly (I can’t even remember which stake to write now)

Stakes is an area of writing that I feel is well known, but often neglected. We’ve all heard about raising the stakes, making the stakes real and so forth, but I feel there isn’t too much advice on how to really make a reader worry about whats going to happen in a story. Most advice around the place is more about how to make a scene tense, which is obviously an integral part of the subject, but also creating a sense of what might happen as an outcome of a scene is super-important. So I paid some attention to some books and movies and this is what I’ve noticed about stakes:

First of all some common mistakes, or tropes that miss the mark:

Genre confused stakes

This is a little tricky to explain, as one would think that most ‘stakes’ are fairly common, after all death, as an example, is dire in any genre of story right?

However I think this ties into suspension of disbelief – whatever style or genre of story one writes there is a kind of implicit contract with the reader to accept the story as real for the sake of enjoying it, part of that contract is that whatever threatens the characters or the story as a whole fits into that believable framework.

An example to make this less gobbledegook, in romance stories sometimes some sort of life-threatening situation arises for the hero or heroine. That can work just fine, however if the issue is that the writer hopes that fear of the MC’s death will raise the tension on its own they are likely to be wrong. Most readers know they they haven’t picked up a romance novel just to have a character randomly suffer and die 2/3 through.

The reason I called this genre-specific though, is that I’m not just talking about plot-armour making main characters feel invincible, but also that whatever ‘stake’ is proposed needs to fit with what fits with the story and genre that has been established otherwise it automatically feels like its not going to happen anyway!

Fake Stakes

The second thing I noticed about “miss-stakes” (can’t believe I only just thought of that one) is we are often ‘told’ some stakes not ‘shown’ them. An obvious example of this is B-grade horror where often a bunch of characters that are about to get slaughtered talk about their backstories to try and get some sense of empathy, the most obvious attempt for heart-strings being people with children at home or an expecting wife.

Interestingly I don’t think the problem with this sort of thing isn’t that we need to be ‘shown’ the stakes, because backstory is often pretty boring whether its just revealed in dialogue or shown in flashback or prologue, its actually an odd trait I noticed about reading (or watching) a story that as readers we are somewhat selfish or perhaps more accurately self-involved with a story, than affected by actual events. Which brings me onto my key example where I’ll flip into what makes stakes ‘real’ or not.

Melodrama and “in-story” stakes

The final error I see in stakes is a ubiquitous problem, that is having or threatening events that seem dramatic for the sheer quality of the event, death, dismemberment, divorce. As we should all hopefully know is what makes events significant and powerful in a story is the impact on the character(s) and their journey, but there is a subtle point about stakes I want to highlight.

The most powerful stakes are ones that will impact the story going forward. 

Now to some that will sound like a no-brainer, or seem like a simple point. But ultimately what is at threat at any scene or turning point is the reader’s experience of the story. The reason that backstory families, side-quest stakes or whatever often fail to worry a reader is what we are really thinking about is our own experience with the story coming up.

So really we don’t care about the MC’s love-interest getting kidnapped, unless we’ve been treated to some scenes earlier in the story that were a tonne of fun, and their death means no more scenes like that. Or even better there are some unresolved issues between them, again their death leading to those issues being unresolved.

Game of Thrones is well-known for being horribly fatal, but the truth is there are plenty of books filled with mortality, even of main characters, but GRR Martin’s deaths are hugely significant for the story, it’s not just “oh I like that guy” it’s “holy crap we’re not going to see X happen then are we?”

Now I’m not talking just about character death here though, break-ups, failure, loss, change there are multiple stakes to be held in stories and the most powerful are those that a. are likely to happen within the context of the story, and b. if they happen will change the story-world for the reader.

So I was going to waffle a little further about how perhaps to raise stakes, however I think my main insight of the day is this idea around including the reader in the stakes is my main point, so I will leave it at that for now…


How do you raise the stakes in your stories?


Do you have any other examples of common errors in “staking”?


Marvel Marathon: Ant Man and The Wasp



ant man & wasp fanart | ant man fan art | Tumblr

I’m not sure if I already said this – but back when I decided to work through this Marvel Marathon I thought I was perhaps being a bit greedy starting at Xmas, yet here we are just as Captain Marvel is about to come out, and I’ve only just caught up. It’s kind of hard to put all of that movie material into perspective.

Anyway so getting to Ant-man and The Wasp, I can’t work out whether this movie’s release was genius or a little contrived and tone-deaf. Released after the multiple gut punches of Infinity War Ant-Man is set a few smidgens prior to the War and the final credit scene brings us up to the ‘snap.’

On the one hand its a nice breath of humour after the dark romp, on the other its hard not to feel a little underwhelmed. There are plenty of good gags, some really good character tensions, for example Hank and Hope are really hacked off at Scott for his antics in Germany getting them into trouble. Ultimately it feels like a bit of a “side-quest” that sets up some world-building for Endgame (something something quantum realm although I hope its not really an integral part).

What it does bring into question is will the MCU stand up under its own pressure? Will any future movie stand up to the epic double event of Infinity War and Endgame?

Well I guess let’s get through Captain Marvel first! I’m interested to see whether jumping further back in time (the 90s was it really that long ago????) will create a similar problem of struggling to maintain tension – at any rate I guarantee the analysis will be extremely thorough and avoiding EndGame Youtube videos will become a full-time occupation.