Making Magic feel Real
About a year ago a young writer handed me her baby, and asked for some feedback. Her first novel and a NaNo child, I had no idea what to expect when I clicked on the link.
From the first sentence I was immersed into a poignant modern tragedy of a woman struggling with not only the pain of infertility but also the need to justify her value as a woman against her religion’s explanation for her existence. The writing was beautiful, painful, and truthful. By the end of the first chapter, I was hooked.
And then a tree knocked on the door.
Yes, you read that right, a tree.
All the preparation from the first chapter dissipated in one line, and I was left dumbfounded. After that moment the writing completely fell apart.
Whatever beauty had been grown in the first chapter, the second one killed it.
So what went wrong?
Clearly there are times, in magical realism especially, where the MC will be surprised to find that things in the world are not exactly as they seem. “Grimm,” “Sleepy Hollow,” and “Once Upon a Time” are three examples of shows where magic exists secretly in the contemporary world. In all these shows, the MC begins in the ordinary world but soon discovers the magical one. So why does it work in these shows and this particular MS fell short?
The original story failed because it did nothing to prepare the reader for the supernatural. Instead the author set the reader up for an entirely different story, (one about infertility and religious repression) so when the supernatural element arrived, the reader felt blindsided and ultimately betrayed.
Establish normal then violate it.
The first job of any storyteller is to establish normal. This is the second function of your opening, (behind introducing your MC) Take the opportunity to establish that normal, perhaps really isn’t.
a few techniques:
1. Over emphasize character’s denial of strange.
In the first chapter of Harry Potter, Rowling emphasizes repeatedly that Mr. Dursley never has anything to do with any “funny business.” She goes to so much trouble to make certain that everyone knows this, that we are all guaranteed to make the opposite assumption. We are so grounded in this assumption that by the time Mr. Dursley begins to see people dressed as wizards we know exactly what is going on.
2. Show your hand
Another technique is to show the supernatural element right away in a prologue, then introduce your MC. This technique is used much more frequently in TV and film, but is usually frowned on in books, and is impossible to do if your MS is in first person POV. Proceed with caution.
3. Drop hints
A third possibility is to introduce the supernatural element in small doses. A few dashes of “What was that? and “That was strange.” will prepare your audience for the bombshell. Tone will help these little seeds take hold. A glimpse of a ghost will feel more appropriate with darker prose. It would be ridiculous in the middle of comic banter. (Unless the ghost is a comedian, of course.)
4. Start with a bang
The exact opposite of little hints is to start with the inciting incident, (the moment where the MC is forced to acknowledge the supernatural) and then establish normal through his/her reaction to the event.
These are only a few ideas, but should give you a place to start.
Once you have established normal and introduced your supernatural element, don’t forget to have your characters react in a meaningful way. In the tree story our MC invited the tree into her house and sat quietly while it talked to her for what I could only assume was the better part of an afternoon. The author gave the reason the MC just sat there and let the tree chatter away as “she was stunned.” The real reason seemed more likely that the author needed the tree to dump some backstory. In any case it was neither believable nor effective storytelling.
What to do instead:
1. Knee jerk reaction.
This is the first gut response to something. If the MC is stunned, fine, but a knee jerk reaction is the one the MC makes without thinking. After a few seconds, or perhaps a minute, the MC’s brain will begin to work again. Time to move on.
2. Initial plan.
After the shock has worn off, its time to start thinking. While the tree was chartering away, the MC could have been sliding across the far wall, mentally calculating the number of steps between her and the shotgun, trying to remember if the bullets were still locked up. Something. A more timid MC might be planning some means of escape, or even cowering in terror. Make sure the reaction matches the characterization you built in your opening.
3. The aftermath
Once the encounter is over the MC will have to spend some time digesting the new information and integrating it into a new world view. Do not ignore this important element. Not only will this enrich your character arc, but it will make the encounter feel more believable. Even someone who has believed in ghosts their entire life with have to process the experience of finally seeing one. There is a difference between believing and knowing.
Make certain the tone of your opening matches with the rest of the book. The tree book began with a somber women’s fiction feel and in the second chapter changed into a contemporary paranormal adventure. These are completely different genres making the chapters feel as if they had come from two different books. Introducing the paranormal should change the life of your MC, not the tone of the MS. Take the time to prepare your readers, lead them through your character’s discovery and response, then they too, will believe in magic.