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  • Writer's pictureA.R. McNevin

Sanderson's No 1. rule... and why it's wrong #shorts

Updated: May 17, 2022

In case you have never encountered him or his work, Brandon Sanderson is an American writer of fantasy... science fiction... science fantasy... he writes genre fiction. He made a name for himself with the Mistborne series which has metaphorized into its own combined universe with a bunch of his other works.

Good for him. Truly. He found an audience of folks who like/admire/love his work. This is a good thing. More power to him.

He is also known to teach and has formed for himself a list of rules for magic and this is where we find the disagreement, both for the specifics of the rule itself and because he clearly breaks it in his first novel. Magic (or super-science/tech) is a fundamental part of world building, which is required before one can have character, plot, excitement, daring and do.

The first rule goeth thusly...

An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

First off, I'd like you to consider your favorite science fiction or fantasy novel. In this, magic in fantasy is just the same as the super-tech in science fiction. Got it in your head? Great. Now, when was the magic/super-science explained to you?

When did the writer deign to explain to you how the protagonist or antagonist or wizard or engineer do the things they do. At a guess (and educated one I may add), the explanation came after you saw them doing their thing for the first time. As such, the character was resolving conflict with their magic before the reader had a chance to understand it.

And this is fine. It is, likely quite boring to have the reader sit through exposition about how people can throw fireballs before the fireballs start to be thrown.

Indeed, there is a significant degree of assumption on the part of the reader about what the story they are reading is about, what genre it is in, what means what, who the characters are, what can they do, and the rest. They will have, likely, read the blurb on the back of the book or on the Amazon Kindle page and, hopefully, have a good idea about what they are about to read. It's about a detective who is also a magician. Great, but Jim Butcher didn't need to explain in intricate detail how Dresden could do what he can do before he did it. He could rely on the cover-all of "it's magic" before taking the time to go into detail about how his wizard does what he does. Often times, such explanations are juxtaposed against how others do their magic.

There is very much a show, don't tell philosophy which this rule is running directly contrary to. In a novel, you're pretty much telling all the time, sure, but there is a difference in how you tell and in what order you disclose the information. You let the reader know too soon and the reveal becomes boring or perfunctory. If you tell them too late, then it may end up confusing them.

The one who needs to know about the magic system, the one who needs to understand the magic system back-to-front is... the author. They need to know the extend and the limitations* of their system; what can be done, what is required to do is, who can do it and who can not. That way, by presenting a consistent magic system, the reader can pick up by example how the system works. And if you need to explain a bit more, then you end up filling in the blanks rather than explaining the whole system to the reader.


*It should be said that there are a lot of Sanderson's rules of magic and not all of them are bad. Some are very true. For examples, one of his rules states that limitations are more important than powers. This I would absolutely agree with, but this is also writing 101. All he did was phrase it in regards to magic.

So, why this article? Firstly, it's his first rule. You put your best foot forward and, in this, he put his foot straight into a pothole. Secondly, his rules which fall in the right/true/accurate category come from somewhere else. They are often a given, while this first rule comes off as an attempt to be profound.

It is the idea of finding something new that no one else has done which... unfortunately, he has not done. And, as intimated earlier, he breaks his own rule in his Mistborne series. He has a character show up, doing magical things, and doesn't explain what he does or how he does it until the following chapter. And why? Because mystery, that's why.


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