Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.11: Magic Without Rules

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

When we say “without rules” we’re talking about stories whose magic is not held under logical scrutiny for the reader. There are lots of reasons why you might do this, and in this episode we’ll talk about not just about the why, but also the how.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take a story with rule-based magic. Now have the rules all go wrong, the characters realize they don’t really understand the rules at all.

Thing of the week: Bookburners, by Max Gladstone, Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap, Andrea Phillips, Brian Slattery, and Amal el Mohtar.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Magic without rules, soft magic, numinous magic — what does it mean for the reader and the story? At least the characters don’t know the rules. Mysterious, scary, we don’t know what will happen! Sometimes it isn’t important to understand the rules. The story is about something else besides the mechanics. Handwavium! Sometimes there is internal logic, but it is not explained. Other times, the magic does not appear to have internal logic. This creates wonder and awe. Also, a sense of dread. It also saves pages and explanations! Save your infodump equity. As yourself, does the reader really need to know how this works? Be aware, people and characters will try to find patterns or rules, but you as writer can show that they don’t work consistently.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 11.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Magic without Rules.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Margaret] I’m Margaret.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We are going to be talking about non-rule-based magic systems in this podcast. The title is actually a little bit contentious…


[Brandon] I wanted to call it soft magic. If you Google soft magic, you will mostly find me…


[Brandon] Defining soft magic this way. It is a term… Lots of people like to use the term soft fantasy to mean different things. So we’re just going to say magic without rules. This is the definition we’re looking at.

[Howard] In terms… Talking about the term for a moment. Magic without rules gives us a nice level of specificity for why we are doing anything with magic, what it means to the reader, what it means for the story. Provided we understand what we mean by the words magic, without, and rules.


[Mary Robinette] Right. Yeah. One of the other terms that you will hear for talking about this kind of concept is numinous magic. Which is, again, magic in which the rules are not delineated.

[Brandon] Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean there are no rules. It can mean you’re just writing a story and there are no rules. Basically, when we talk about rule-based magic system, non-rule-based magic system, the idea is that the characters don’t know necessarily. Like, they are not… A rule-based magic system is often… The story is about or involves the characters coming to understand, manipulate, and use and control the world around them. That’s…

[Howard] It’s best understood, Brandon, through the example you use when you illustrate Sanderson’s First Law. The One Ring is hard magic. We know what happens when you put it on, we know how to break it, we know that nobody is able to willfully throw it into the lava.

[Brandon] Yeah.

[Howard] Gandalf is soft magic. Or Gandalf is a rule-less magic. There are no rules. We don’t know what Gandalf can do. Wizards are mysterious and scary, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the Balrog, we don’t know if he can wave his staff and make the bad guys go away. He’s a wizard.

[Brandon] Yep. Of course, there are Tolkien fans out there listening right now who are like, “No, no. I can list off the powers of a wizard.” That’s fine. That’s from appendix material, you’ve dug into it. We’re just talking about the general effect on the characters, specifically hear the hobbits. Or the reader not really knowing and not needing to know.

[Mary Robinette] That is the thing that I was going to say, is that when we’re talking about this, it’s okay to not have rules unless it is important to the story for the character to under… For the reader to understand. But when we’re talking about rule-ba… Magic in which there are no rules, we’re talking about a story in which it’s not important to understand the rules.

[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. In fact, the goal of the story is that you don’t.

[Howard] Or where it is important to not have a full understanding of how this works.

[Mary Robinette] Or just that it’s not important. You just don’t need to know.

[Margaret] The story is about something other than the mechanics of how this works.

[Brandon] Exactly. Some of these… Sometimes, like, it’s for ambiance reasons, but, Margaret, you just reminded me, there’s lots of times that if you take one step into the explaining the magic realm, suddenly you are raising a whole host of questions, that if you don’t address and answer can really make the story feel off. If you never take that first step, if you tell the reader from the get-go, “No, this is not relevant. Accept it.” This is your bye as we talked about last month, and then go forward. Your story is free to focus on this other thing, without getting caught in the weeds of having to explain this level of magic and this level of magic and this magic stone and that sort of thing.

[Howard] The science fiction concept here is handwavium. This is not the… I’m waving my hand like these are not the droids you’re looking for. Except it’s this is not the physics you’re looking for. Below a certain point, we’re not going to go into the physics, we’re not gonna talk about the neutrino output of this, we’re just going to let this slide, because the moment we commit to math at that level, everything starts to unravel and we’re no longer telling the story we want to tell.

[Mary Robinette] Well, like… One of the examples that I actually think of is King Arthur. Like, how exactly does that sword stay in the stone? Like, how does it know? Is there… Is it a DNA test? Like, what is the rule system for keeping the sword in the stone and identifying the one true king? We don’t know, we don’t care.

[Brandon] Right. The one…

[Margaret] I was thinking, as we were talking, of the water that falls on you from nowhere. Nobody knows where the water comes from, it just falls on you when you lie. It’s never explained, and we never want to know how it’s explained, because that’s not what it’s about.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Why does Pinocchio’s nose grow? [I don’t know]

[Margaret] it just does.

[Mary Robinette] He lied.

[Brandon] Now, I do also want us to say, when we’re talking about this, there is a distinction, to me, between… There’s several different ways to do this. One is to have internal logic and never explain it, which is where we’re getting here. But there is another way, which is magic that doesn’t seem to have internal logic. Which can be really cool. This is the magic that you not only don’t understand how it works, you don’t understand what the consequences will be if you use this magic. A classic example of this would be like the monkey’s paw, where you are given some little bit of information. Hey, this thing will grant you wishes. But the wishes… you’ll have no understanding of the consequences. Often, they will go far beyond your expectations. Where the story becomes less about the magic or even what the magic can do, it becomes about the terrible things that happen when you can use forces you can’t comprehend.

[Howard] For me, the whole… The story… The point of the story of the monkey’s paw is attempting to understand the rules by which this thing works is going to result in you being betrayed even worse by your use of this thing. The more conditions you try to place on it, the more disastrous this will be.

[Brandon] So, why would you write a story like this? What are some of the things you gain from it?

[Mary Robinette] Often, you gain a sense of wonder. A lot of times when we do start putting rules in, it makes something feel mundane and ordinary. Sometimes, what you want is something that is numinous, that there is a sense of wonder, a sense of awe to it. So one of the things that you can do is to take some of the explanation away, and just let this magical thing happen.

[Brandon] Okay. I would say a sense of wonder can also be replaced by a sense of dread.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Brandon] They can go very hand in hand. This is one of the things I see from really great rule-less magic systems sometimes is that the main character feels so small. They are presented with a world in which like… Howard, you were telling a story about a gun?

[Howard] The lazy gun. The… I quoted… Referenced Iain Banks last month. I’m going to do it again. Iain Banks, Against A Dark Background. The whole story is… It’s a MacGuffin story. We’re trying to find the lazy gun. The only things we know about the lazy gun are if you turn it upside down, it weighs about 3 pounds more, and, if you point it at something and pull the trigger, whatever you’ve pointed it at, will die. The method of death, at one point, it gets fired and a monster mouth appears out of nowhere and munches the guy in half and he’s dead. The result, for me, I’m going to come back to Mary with the sense of wonder, the numinous magic concept. It’s a MacGuffin whose rules we don’t need to understand. What’s important is that the fact that no one understands it and the fact that it is so magical and powerful, now everybody wants it. That’s what drives the story. It’s the wanting of the thing, it has nothing to do with how the thing works.

[Brandon] I love that example of… If you pull the trigger, you expect them to explode. But something comes out of another dimension and eats them… It leaves you with a sense of… Again, this is something beyond my comprehension currently. I have no idea how this thing is working. That’s scary. This is… This whole kind of eldritch Lovecraftian idea that we are actually very small is a really interesting and frightening emotion that fiction can evoke.

[Margaret] I think the other thing that you get when you have magic without set rules, is, just in terms of resource allocation, which we were talking about last month, the page weight or the word count that you’re not using for explaining how magic works or for having characters who are masters of it. You get to apply it to other things. If that’s not what your story is about, even if you worked out the rules for how magic works, your story might not need it.

[Brandon] Right. That’s a really good point, because one thing when newer writers are talking about info don’t send things like this, one thing they don’t seem to get, and it’s been hard for me to explain sometimes, is that when a reader is really curious about something, you gain infodump equity. Right? That as soon as you start to infodump on something there really interested in, then that paragraph kind of blurs away and the world comes to them. That same paragraph describing something else might be really frustrating to them. That’s often whether you’ve used your cues correctly, leading them to questions and curiosity, whether… I read a lot of books where I’m really interested in this world element they brought up, and instead I get an infodump on a different one.

[Oh, yeah]

[Brandon] Oh, I get so bored so quickly. Or I’m really interested in this character’s conflict and we stopped for the worldbuilding infodump. You gotta put these in places… 

[Margaret] You gotta prime the pump for us.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I say, and I think this gets to the heart of what Margaret was talking about with the focus, that you can buy time basically, is that unless this… That the… Unless the information… This is true for all exposition, but in less it affects why we care about something, unless it affects our understanding of what the character wants or if it affects… If it doesn’t affect our understanding of how they will achieve their goal, we don’t… The reader doesn’t actually need to know it. A lot of times, people are like, “Well, let me explain my magic system.” Like, do we actually need to know? Do I actually need to know how the spaceship works? That’s kind of one of the other things that you can do when you’re looking at this soft magic, is… It’s like I know that when I pick up my phone, I can take pictures with it and occasionally make phone calls. I can tell you well, it works with a computer inside. That’s about as far as I can go. I think that you can do that with magic, too.

[Howard] I’m reminded of the… I think it was a comedy clip about the airline attendant telling everybody to turn their devices off.


[Howard] They’re arguing with her about the devices. She finally collapses and says, “Okay, look, people. Airplanes are magic. We don’t know how it works.”


[Howard] “You guys just need to turn that stuff off, because if you break the magic, we fall out of the sky.”


[Howard] It’s kind of beautiful, because honestly, that’s sort of how all of us feel about airplanes.


[Howard] I see a dichotomy here in the magic without rules, and it is that there is magic without rules that the reader can see, and there is magic that is explicitly… There is an absence of rules so that what the reader sees is an inconsistency, or an absence of any sorts of sense. The lazy gun is that inconsistency. I don’t know… Well, there is one consistency. It’s going to kill you. But beyond that, I don’t see any rules to it.

[Brandon] Very, very infrequently do you write a magic with no rules. It can happen. But usually, if were talking about magic without rules, it’s magic where the characters can’t… Don’t understand usually what will happen, or at least the consequences of what they’re using.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for the book of the week, though, which is actually Bookburners.

[Margaret] It is. Bookburners is… It’s going to sound like television when I talk about it, because we discuss it in terms of season and episodes, but it is a series of novelettes that are released in e-book and audio form. Written by Max Gladstone, Mur Lafferty, Andrea Phillips, Brian Francis Slattery, and also by me. We chose Bookburners for this particular episode, because this is a series about a group that works for a black budget arm of the Vatican, charged with keeping encroaching magic, which seems to be coming more and more into our world, and it is their job to try to hold back the tide and keep it out. The justification that the organization that they work for has always given for this is the fact that we have no idea how this works. Anybody who has ever tried to use magic constructively or productively ends up being like a toddler with a machine gun. Things go wrong very, very quickly. It is Season Four is out now. Season Five will be released episodically at some point this summer. You get to see over the arc how well they do that job, and how they have to change their attitudes towards how magic is.

[Howard] By way of clarification, when you say this summer, summer of…

[Margaret] 2019. Thank you.

[Brandon] So let me ask you, specifically, Margaret, how did you go about writing a story where the magic doesn’t have rules? Or, if it… How did you do this?

[Margaret] It started out… Because we are writing it collectively and we’re sort of building on things and we’re building the characters, it did start… There was a certain amount of okay, try weird things, and if it seemed to fit the right tone for the broad strokes of what we thought magic would do, all right, we’ll go with it. In the first season, Mur did an episode where you have a restaurant kitchen that is made out of meat, where people are cutting pieces off the walls and frying it to their customers and everyone is obsessed with this one restaurant in Scotland. We have episodes where an entire apartment… This is one of Brian’s episodes. It transforms into this strange mutant… Mutable magical landscape, and a guy opens the wrong book and gets kind of sucked into it, and becomes part of his apartment. As we went forward, we were like, “Okay. If this is what we have established…” Eventually, we reached the point where it’s like, “Okay. Let’s come up with some guidelines,” as the story is progressing and our arc plot is going on. What is actually going on behind the scenes, and what do we think is the cause of what they call the rising tide?

[Brandon] Okay. So you kind of just like… You’re discovery writing and kind of doing that classic discovery writing thing, where you’re waiting to see what connections the kind of group hive mind comes up with that you will then push forward with.

[Margaret] There is a certain amount of building the bridge as you are crossing the river going on, yeah.

[Brandon] That’s awesome. What about the rest of you? How do you write something… Now, I have a lot of trouble with this. I’ll be perfectly frank. Writing something where I don’t start explaining the rules… I just, ah… I don’t do that very often. If I do, it doesn’t go very well. So, how do you approach it?

[Howard] Well, I don’t outline the rules, but I generate the rules.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Howard] We’re going to talk about constructed languages at some point. I created a language because I needed a code in which someone knew what the code meant and knew how to find a thing and it needed to feel like this is a thing that will actually work. It needed to feel as if there was a consistency behind it. But I absolutely didn’t have time to explain all of the things that went into it. Pages and pages of numerology creation went into two lines of dialogue. That’s what happens when I try to build magic without rules.

[Mary Robinette] So what I find is that… Like, I’ve got a story that’s coming out in the last… Or that came out in the last issue of Shimmer. It is ruleless magic. Except there are a couple of things that we know. That you don’t want to make Gramma say something three times. What I find with the ruleless magic, when I work with it, is that because people are pattern seeking creatures, that even if the magic, even if I just free write the magic and things are just weird and stuff just happens, that the characters within that world are still going to try to find patterns to it, and that there’s usually one thing that they will still kind of hang onto. So, like we all know that if you walk away from a bus stop, the bus will come. If there is a chance of rain and you leave the house without your umbrella, it will definitely rain on you. Absolutely, 100%. We know this. Even though that is clearly not actually how this magic system on Earth works. Nora Jemisen’s 100,000 Kingdoms, the magic is a written form of magic. So we know that, but the rest of it is clueless. So what I tend to do is say, “Well, people are going to try to apply stuff to this. They’re just wrong, so it doesn’t work consistently, because it is a rule that they have put on it in a desperate attempt to understand it.

[Brandon] I like that idea a lot. That’s very helpful. In fact, I think I’m going to assign homework along those lines. Because I’ve been thinking, take a story that has… That you’ve worked on or that you been planning that has a very rule-based magic. Where you think you know the rules. Have the rules all go wrong intentionally. Like, you have control of the story, but have the characters realize they don’t know the rules, and deal with the ramifications of that.

[Mary Robinette] While you’re working on that, I’m going to tell you a secret. There are rules in the Glamorous Histories that Jane and Vincent are completely wrong about.

[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.