I was recently working with a client on a fairly straightforward drama script when suddenly, late in the second act, the protagonist could hypnotize with a whisper. What? Where did this ability come from? If he can do it now, why didn’t he do it five scenes ago with the other baddie? Instead of following the action, now as the pages turned, I was distracted by so many questions.
Whatever genre of story you are writing, you must ground your world and your characters in their own rules of magic. Viewers will go with you to far-flung, outlandish places if they believe you have told the truth about how things work. We need to trust that you’re not just making it up as you go. Establishing your rules of magic early creates that trust. It shows the viewer that you have built your world thoughtfully and in detail. It tells us we can rely on you to take us on a journey that’s worth our time—whether that’s a two-hour movie or a series of episodes.
When I say “rules of magic,” I’m not talking about unicorns and invisibility cloaks. Characters without supernatural abilities must also behave consistently and believably throughout your story. Whatever their character traits are, you must set them up in your first act. Imagine if we hadn’t seen early in the story that Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting excelled at math. He would have just seemed like a witty, brooding janitor who was suddenly a math genius. If that had come out of nowhere, we wouldn’t have believed in his ability. Instead we see that in his rules of magic, he can solve anything as long as he’s given a chance and sometimes a push. This underpins the whole narrative. If you set up early the details of what makes your character function, you can use them to drive and turn the story.
At PageCraft, we talk a lot about “writer’s convenience” versus “character need.” The idea is that the best, most engaging narrative events arise from what characters need to do, rather than what the writer wants them to do. In our hypnosis example, if you didn’t show us your protagonist could hypnotize early in the story, when he does it at a crucial moment it will feel like writer’s convenience. Instead, if we see him trying earlier and failing, or even trying and then getting in trouble for succeeding, when he’s able to do it at the crucial moment, it will not only feel thoughtfully set up but satisfying. We will be rooting for him.
The same thing applies to stories that have nothing to do with fantasy, science fiction, or superheroes. For example, if your character who’s afraid of snakes suddenly has a snake for a pet, that will feel internally inconsistent with who you’ve told us this person is. It goes against their rules of magic. Conversely, if you set up a character to be afraid of cars who suddenly finds that the only way to save the day is to drive across town, you’ve effectively set up a huge challenge for them. You can use it to comedic and dramatic effect, with lots of tension as we watch them do this thing we believe is hard for them.
Sometimes, it can feel like a writer breaks their own rules of magic because they found themselves stuck without a clear way to resolve the story and finish the script. (Craft a solid outline first in our Concept to Pages workshop so that doesn’t happen!) Writing yourself into a corner can be a great thing. It forces you to create and innovate. Don’t let yourself or your characters off the hook. Always make things harder on them right up until they either succeed or fail (or a little of both) in the final challenge. This is how you earn your characters’ growth. If the audience thinks you’re just making up solutions out of left field, they’ll disengage. A notorious example is the eagles showing up to rescue Sam and Frodo in Mordor at the end of The Return of the King and bear them home. If the eagles could do that, then why didn’t our heroes use them to cross the mountains in The Fellowship of the Ring? (Just ask any Lord of the Rings nerd about the eagles and watch what unfolds.)
Rules of magic help you establish the parameters of your story and create tension. If you establish the rules of magic early in the script, you have defined your characters’ limitations and created a recipe for progressively bigger obstacles. If we know that Superman is super-strong, can fly, shoots lasers from his eyes, and so on, but we also learn about this kryptonite thing, then we worry about when the kryptonite is going to show up to make him vulnerable. We stay engaged. We want to know how he will save the day but how he’ll struggle for it, too.
And remember, it doesn’t have to be literal magic. What makes your world work? What makes your characters tick or come undone? How will they behave at critical junctures? What resources are available to them? Answering these questions is key to crafting a story with solid internal logic and satisfying obstacles and outcomes. Magic is what makes it go. How much it sparkles is up to you.