?

How much explanation do you need for magic or technology?

  1. Needs a Tolkien-level of explanation behind it. If I still have one question, I'm closing the book.

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  2. Willing to accept that something like time-travel or magic exists; I want to know there are rules.

    69.6%
  3. It's okay if there are some contradictions if it's because there's still more to learn about it.

    21.7%
  4. No explanation at all.

    8.7%
  1. jim onion

    jim onion New Member

    Joined:
    Oct 7, 2016
    Messages:
    2,913
    Likes Received:
    3,643

    How Much Explaining Do You Need? (a poll)

    Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by jim onion, Nov 11, 2019.

    I figured I'd do a little "research".

    Many of my favorite shows have fantastical elements that are never really explained. They just are. I believe this is largely thanks to the simple fact that the shows are not necessarily "about" these aforementioned elements, but about the interactions with the characters and the story that takes place within their context.

    For example, Your Name has a comet that's the inexplicable reason for why the two main characters swap bodies and time-travel as a consequence. It's not about how this is possible, but it does explore what *is* and *isn't* possible as a result.

    Sword Art Online, another anime, has technology that transports people into a video game world that in many ways cannot be distinguished from "real life". The technology that allows for this is not gone into in any great detail.

    In Steins; Gate, there is time allotted to showing the characters developing a time machine-- writing incomprehensible equations on chalk-boards and discussing fictional / popular sci-fi theories. But the ultimate "science" behind it is kept vague, and instead the audience is only explained the rules and theory by which time travel operates in this universe.

    This is something that is true of western media as well. The Star Wars movies don't explain how lightsabers work, and I think many would agree that it was easier to suspend disbelief around The Force without explanation rather than something about mitochondria midichlorians.

    Magic in the Lord of the Rings movies almost exclusively concerns itself with what it does, and the theory behind it is almost entirely unexplored. For example, the One Ring rules them all, but there's no in-depth explanation. (I guess that's why it's magic, right?)

    In my own WIP, I'm a little caught up on how exactly all these "souls" end up in this plane of existence. I have a good idea about why, but not how. But the point of the story isn't about discovering "how" because in medias res, so I'm trying to figure out what the audience will theoretically suspend their disbelief for.

    So in essence I am wondering about suspension of disbelief. Assuming that magic or technology operates by rules (in other words, at the very least it doesn't contradict itself, and there's demonstrable consistency) how much explanation do you need as to how magic or technology works? Are you going to stop reading because you don't know how all these human beings ended up in this "other world", and because you don't know if they're dead and this is actually an afterlife, if there is a reality they can go back to, if this is the only reality there ever was, if it's Bosch-esque surrealism, etc.? Or when you're experiencing a work of fiction, are you willing to accept that the questions you still have won't be answered because they technically don't matter?

    If my provided answers aren't sufficient, or you have more you'd like to add, please comment.

    I guess what I might be a little confused about myself, is the differentiation between "this is a thing in this fictional world, and I'm alright with that" versus "this is a fictional thing but the fictional thing doesn't make sense".
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2019
  2. WNP

    WNP Member

    Joined:
    Oct 19, 2016
    Messages:
    83
    Likes Received:
    47
    Maybe not directly related to your WIP, but Brandon Sanderson's 1st law of magic: "An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic"

    For example, in LotR, there is no explanation of the magic or what powers Gandalf actually has, but it doesn't matter because his magic is never actually used to solve the conflicts in the story.

    With something like Harry Potter, magic is used to solve most of the issues, so it's important that there are rules in place, and that the reader knows (to a degree atleast) the rules and limits of that magic.

    Relating that to your WIP, I don't think you'd need to explain how the souls ended up in a plane of existence, unless it's going to have an impact on conflict resolution (e.g. are they suddenly going to be able to pop back to an alternate plane of existence at crucial moment to save the day? If so then that ability needs to be explained in advance IMO, or it appears like a cop out).
     
  3. jim onion

    jim onion New Member

    Joined:
    Oct 7, 2016
    Messages:
    2,913
    Likes Received:
    3,643
    I understand the basic points you're making, but for some reason I don't feel like LotR is the best example. I mean, just the fact of him (spoiler alert) coming back as Gandalf the White, or him using his staff on King Theoden and banishing Sauron or whatever. Significant problems that needed solving, and are resolved through magic. Or in The Hobbit, if I recall correctly, Gandalf uses his staff to split a massive boulder and turn the giants into stone.

    Like I said though, I do appreciate your core point, which seems to be: the less that the story is *about* the "plane of existence" or about "the magic" or "the technology", the less I need to worry about explaining the inner-workings. Harry Potter is a good example in how integral magic is to the way that characters solve problems. With Gandalf it's much less frequent, and at the end of the day the main quest - the destruction of The Ring - is not achieved by Gandalf merely casting a spell on it.

    Tl;dr - Readers don't need to know the scientific components making up an herb. They just don't want an herb healing somebody in one scene and poisoning somebody in the next, unless there's a really good explanation for it.

    Or with my WIP, it would appear that unless knowing how they got there is integral to the story, readers will suspend their disbelief if it's well written and grabs their interest.
     
  4. AnimalAsLeader

    AnimalAsLeader Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2019
    Messages:
    110
    Likes Received:
    81
    I would say, in a fantasy and sci-fi setting, there's a lot that readers should just accept. If I read a novel and someone conjures some fire spell, I think to myself "Alrighty, seems like magic is quite popular here". It is never a problem for me, unless something that comes later contradicts it. A recent example would be the a D&D movie I watched recently where at the start it'S said that the knights are all but forgotten, and those few who know about them just laugh at them. That's all good and well, but then the movie shows you that the main character - a knight - hides his armor and his insignia and the first person he talks to knows about the knights and helps him just because he is one.
     
    The_Joker and jim onion like this.
  5. WNP

    WNP Member

    Joined:
    Oct 19, 2016
    Messages:
    83
    Likes Received:
    47
    Yeah fair point about a few of the things Gandalf does resolve with magic, maybe not the best example (though I think in the book version of the Hobbit, Gandalf just tricks the trolls into arguing all night rather than splitting the rock like he does in the movie).

    I think the bottom line is that you don't want the characters to reach their goal/survive in a way that seems like the author is just relying on magic to dig themselves out of a hole they've dug themselves into. Basically we want to avoid Deus ex machina.

    The best endings I've read are the ones that are resolved in such a way where I put the book down and think 'I should have seen that coming', because all the necessary rules of the magic system or whatever were given in the book, and hints to suggest it, yet it was still disguised enough to not be obvious until you read it. Brandon Sanderson is great at doing this in my opinion.
     
    Stormburn and jim onion like this.
  6. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 30, 2015
    Messages:
    1,667
    Likes Received:
    1,527
    Outlander is based on standing stones that somehow transport a person back and forth in time. There is no explanation for how these work, and the first transport is totally unexpected. A twentieth century women finds herself in 1743 Scotland, seeing Redcoats firing at fleeing Scots. She thinks she has stumbled onto a movie set, but then splinters of bark from a near miss convince her that this is real, whatever it is. Obviously a successful example of suspension of disbelief. As the series evolves characters come to know a bit more about the transport, such as that jewels somehow make the trip less traumatic, but there is no attempt to explain, and in fact, no one knows how to explain them or who built them, they just are, and in more places around the world.

    My one issue is with the first book in which the woman decides to return to the 20th century. How did she know it was a two-way transport, and not a one-way trip to 200 years further in the past? But then I am an engineer.
     
    jim onion likes this.
  7. Malisky

    Malisky Malkatorean Contributor

    Joined:
    Apr 11, 2012
    Messages:
    2,606
    Likes Received:
    4,823
    Location:
    Recalculating...
    That's usually the case. They won't care about it if you don't centralize the solution of any mystery around this topic, as it merely works as a "what if one day I woke up and realised I could walk on the ceiling"?

    Maybe everyone can, but haven't yet noticed, which would deal upon this happening as a basic mystery itself and since it has to do with the rest of the world as well, it would have to be explained at some point. When did this start happening? Could we all walk on the ceiling all along or not? How come nobody noticed it before? How come the MC just noticed it?

    Maybe, just the MC, or a few can, but this happening works in this case as an axiom itself, since the character him/herself even if he/she desires to, doesn't get any clues upon how this came to be or why in this scenario, and things just keep happening that need her/his immediate attention. Both these cases work if you distract the attention well. What is more important is knowing what kind of story you wish to tell.

    What I hate is convenient damage control methods (ex: Deus X Machina) and complete irrationality. There has to be some kind of rule around how something works or to which extend. Whatsoever, I'm rarely 100% satisfied with any story although overall I might love this story. At times, in a page turner I might find specific elements that are just too over-the-top or too damn unrealistic that make my teeth grind. Out of proportions in order to make sure that the scene is dramatic.

    I might digress, but I need to say this. There's just so many arrows a strong, brave warrior might get impaled with before dying. Actually: ONE! A thing that I detest and it's not relevant with fantasy or magic, but gets illustrated as such due to the fucking unnecessary, overblown proportions of it, is the survival of the brave warrior. I understand that the writer wants to make him suffer. Highlight his determination. Make us bleed with him, but! Come on writer! Throughout your story, this poor character has been stabbed, beaten senseless, impaled, hung and I don't know what else and you've reached a point where you dare write, and I quote, "... when he wakes up". Nope, no, nah! You just killed him. Wanna know why? Because it's the 11th century and medicine is just not there yet and a plant in a realistic setting hasn't got godly healing qualities. Furthermore, in the beginning of his sufferings at least you showed him suffer indeed. Like he was on the brink of death. How come suddenly he gets even more fatal wounds and he just sleeps them off and he's fine? Makes no sense! End of rant.

    Deus X Machina is misused and can work great in a story if used properly. There are no hard rules in storytelling indeed. Depends on when and why this element makes an entrance and how discreet it is.

    Even complete irrationality might work wonders, but only if you are writing comedy. The writer admits to the stupidity and the reader understands the nature of the story he's reading and its point.

    In a serious story though, magical elements have their limits and their rules. The rules don't need to be explained to the reader. Sometimes they are understood in the context of the story and that's great writing. The writer though has to know the rules, even if he chooses not to explain them. That's my preference.
     
    SolZephyr and jim onion like this.
  8. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 10, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    6,782
    Location:
    San Diego, California
    Thank you so much for that mini rant. The same has been running through mind for quite some time now, and has been a bit of a turn-off towards fantasy reading for me.
     
    jim onion and Malisky like this.
  9. SolZephyr

    SolZephyr Member Supporter

    Joined:
    Jun 4, 2018
    Messages:
    330
    Likes Received:
    405
    I'm with a couple of the opinions already mentioned. The writer doesn't have to explain everything, but for me two things should be there:
    1. The writer should have definite rules that they follow even if they aren't explained
    2. Enough of those rules should be revealed to the reader for them to understand magic's capabilities/limitations
    I often enjoy fantastical elements, but I can't stand inconsistencies, and don't usually like "magic could do this all along!" resolutions to major conflicts. I should have been given enough hints earlier on to see any magic-involved resolutions as a possibility, even if I wouldn't have thought of them on my own.
     
    jim onion likes this.
  10. GrJs

    GrJs Active Member

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2018
    Messages:
    185
    Likes Received:
    125
    Often times you'll find that things in fantasy worlds stop making sense once you try to explain them. Because the author will explain different parts of a subject or mechanic at different points in the story, even at different points in a series and create plot holes or contradict what they've already laid out.

    Think of John Wick. The universe doesn't give you the tutorial on what everything means so you understand the film. It just drops you right in the thick of it and it enriches their world. There's no room for contradictions to be made because nothing has been stated about the world. World mechanics are only mentioned when they effect the plot and they never explain the history of the mechanic or how it works, only that the mechanic exists.

    Use this as a reference unless your characters need to know more than it exists or your character is new to the world and is learning along with the audience. As far as John Wick goes, the character is an old member of the world they're reentering, he knows how it works and thus doesn't need the exposition.
     
    jim onion likes this.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice