Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Magic Should Always Be in the Past or Present, Never the Future

A while ago, I talked about the opening card of Star Wars and how it set the tone for the movie. As I read manuscripts, another reason for that card has become clear: Star Wars has to be set “Long, Long Ago” because it has magic in it, and magic must always be set in the past or the present.

Usually, magic and science fiction don’t mix, but Star Wars pulled it off, and that title card had a lot to do with it. Even if your story has no traditional sci-fi elements, if it’s set in the future we will expect it to have no magic.

As I understand it, in the early books of the Shannara Chronicles, author Terry Brooks played up the fact that his Tolkien-ian fantasy actually took place on a post-apocalyptic Earth, but as the series continued, that element completely fell away. Nevertheless, when MTV adapted the series for TV, they brought that element back. I suspect that was one reason for the show’s lack of success.

A key element of magic is that it’s constantly receding: “The Magic is gone”. When we are children, the world seems magical, but when we become adults, cold reason replaces it, and it is never to return. The notion that one day in the future magical elves will walk the world again, or “old wizards” will work magic in outer space, seems inherently wrong.


James Kennedy said...


Matt Bird said...

Whoops, the original title was poorly phrased. It's fixed now.

Brian Malbon said...

...unless it's a post-apocalyptic future in which the "magic" is actually rediscovered tech from our present.

Brian Malbon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

>When we are children, the world seems magical, but when we become adults, cold reason replaces it

Religious/esoteric people still believe in magic as adults.
And that shows in esoteric movies: invariably every problem is solved by deus ex machina. Because that’s magic, while good “magic” systems, whether past present or future, are actually alternative technology(*)--which by convention are called “magic” in past and “technology” in future settings, despite being equally impossible.

(*)either that or it’s hardly relevant for the plot.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

There are two ways to handle magic in stories: either it's a known part of the world or it's being discovered by the characters. Set your story in the past, when people really did believe in magic, and magic feels apt. Even a story about the discovery of magic works in the past, because again, the olden tymes expected that stuff to be real. Set it in the present and you can get a "world behind the world" story wherein magic is revealed or you can have the world we know but skewed by the presence of magic.

The future, however, can't work either way. If the story is about the discovery of magic but set in the future, then there’s a resentment in the reader: they get to live in the future and discover magic? Why can’t we do it now? Why does it have to be the future?

If the story has magic as a known part of the world, we've been cheated out of the big story: the arrival of magic. Even if the future is terrible, say you have a post-apocalyptic Shannara-style fantasy world with magic, again, you have to explain why the future is magical and the present is not and make that explanation satisfying. As you point out, “the magic is leaving or gone” is an easy emotional sell; “the magic is going to come (possibly after nuclear war)” is not.

If you set a story in the future but have magic as a constant presence in history, so there’s no “discovery” period, then it feels indulgent. Crazy future super-tech and magic? Jerky, pick one.

James Kennedy said...

When Harvey talked about "the arrival of magic," it reminded me of 1970s movies about the arrival of magic, or the re-enchantment of the world.

In the first STAR WARS movie, Luke doesn't know about the Force until Ben tells him; indeed, nobody seems to really know about the Force at all other than Ben and Darth Vader. The movie turns upon the re-introduction of magic into a sci-fi world that is otherwise junky technology and gleaming fascist edifices. It's about Luke learning to respect the old hidden magic that has come back into the world.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the theme is again the re-enchantment of the world: Indy doesn't believe in magic, and the plot proceeds without magic, but at the very end magic comes back into the world and zaps all the Nazis. It's about Indy learning to respect the old magic that has come back into the world.

In CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, the kitchen-sink realism of the 1970s American is disrupted by an alien magic that flips over cars, causes disparate people to coordinate their movements and spontaneously produce representations of where the aliens will land, etc. And these aliens have visited us before. It's about people coming to terms with the old hidden magic that has come back into the world.

All of these seem to be about the arrival of magic, about the re-enchantment of the world. And they all came out around the same time. I wonder what was culturally in the air at the time that caused this theme to resonate so strongly.

(And I guess there are corresponding tales about dis-enchantment, the disappearance of magic. LORD OF THE RINGS would be one of them, because at the end the elves and other magical beings sail away to the Grey Havens. But I wonder if the trend of "gritty reboots" of superheroes, etc. is part of a dis-enchanting theme that we've seen in the culture for the past 8-10 years... Are we due for more re-enchantment narratives now?)


Harvey Jerkwater said...

All of these seem to be about the arrival of magic, about the re-enchantment of the world. And they all came out around the same time. I wonder what was culturally in the air at the time that caused this theme to resonate so strongly.

Ah, the late Seventies/early Eighties. The post-Cold War era had been intense with ideology, fear, and hope. By the end of Watergate and the Vietnam War a lot of that had crashed into a heap of exhaustion and polyester. The boom times ended around 1973 and crime rates skyrocketed.

The "yay America" crowd had to accept that the post-war order was no longer holding and that future peace and prosperity were in doubt. The "all you need is love" children had grown up to discover that nope, you need a lot more than that, and it still might not be enough. The "America: love it or leave it" crowd found out that there were limits to America's might and its cohesion. And of course there were all the people who were exhausted, frustrated, or disappointed already.

In rolls Lucas and Spielberg, who deliver popcorn entertainment with the message that "this is not all there is." A farm boy into fixing cars becomes a knight's squire and saves a princess from an evil king. A cynical treasure hunter finds out that God is real. A father finds out that the universe is much larger than his back yard. And in all three cases, the expansion of the character's world is a positive. The world isn't just bigger and more magical than they thought, it's better. Don't fear the future, don't fear the universe, it has great treasures for us and fabulous wonders if we dare to look. (Turn this message into a kids' movie and you get E.T. Add Bill Murray and you get Ghostbusters.)

James Kennedy said...

@Harvey So, since we seem to be in a similar cultural moment, savvy storytellers should probably polish up their "this is not all there is" screenplays and manuscripts, right?

And, in the way, those optimists weren't all wrong, weren't they? The future might not have given those 1970s people the Force, religious transcendence, or aliens, but we did get the fall of the Soviets, the rise of hip-hop, and the advent of the Internet. Some good things were indeed right around the corner. (And also: the absolute immiseration of the working class. But you have to admit, coffee is so much better now!)

McL said...

Counterpoint: Adventure Time is pretty successful for a story about magic in the future.

Matt Bird said...

I've never seen "Adventure Time"! I should tackle that with my daughter soon. She's crazy about "Steven Universe" and apparently if you like one you'll like the other.