Random Magic

I went for a very long walk this morning.  I left in the cold, dark silence and as I walked the sun spilled yellow light in a golden haze over the grey clouds.  Early in the morning there is a hush that lingers in the air like a soft blanket.  You can wrap yourself in its stillness. As the washed out colors of night began to take on vividness with the dawn, small dark birds came to life and twittered in the trees.  I have heard the coyotes sing at dawn. Today I saw tracks in the softening earth.

While I was walking I was thinking about magic.  Last fall I began writing a series of poems about spells and magic.  I am still working on these.  Last November, I asked a smattering of friends why they thought people would do magic.

One friend said that he thought that fun was a good reason.  As in kids experimenting and it was fun. Like “Look, I can turn my hair green.  Now purple.”

Most people thought that wizards, mages, witches and those others who might practice magic would do it to have extraordinary power and/or for wish fulfillment.  Love spells are about having power over another person to force them to love the caster.  Seems to me that it kind of defeats the purpose.  Or spells to pull in great wealth.  The fantasy of great wealth is the ultimate panacea because supposedly with great wealth the person will get the beautiful women, luxury items, comfort, and happiness.  Power is just power.  Power to do anything and control all circumstance.

Magic is kind of the ultimate get out of jail free card, uber inter-dimensional free bus pass, bag of magical holding— i.e. whatever you want it to be.

Which leads me to my next thought.  In fantasy literature very often the magic appears very similar. Why?  It could be anything.  It’s magic.  It is a fantasy.  It could be done and conceived of in any way that the author imagines.  Too often it reads like neo-pagan literature.  Why? Who says that it has to follow the prescriptions of any particular religion?  As fantasy authors we can make up whatever we want.  There is no authority over my imagination.

Which leads to another thought.  For me, the magic in fantasy stories has to be tightly conceived, have relevance to the story, and not be a mere plot device to rescue the author from some unsolvable situation in which they have stuck their characters.  In the magical realities of a fantasy realm the magic has to be part of the reality and something that the characters could live with.  If the magic is not conceived of tightly enough or appears too random, it would be a very chaotic place.  The society of the characters would not be able to survive if the magic was some hideously random thing that could pop up and do whatever strange thing just happened to occur to the author.  It would be a lawless place because how do you create society and order when you have the ultimate and random power of an undifferentiated magic?

Anyway, just thoughts.  Probably have more later.

Nightwatch and Information in Stories

Nightwatch and Information in Stories

Some time ago I watched the movie “Nightwatch” which is based on the novel by the Russian novelist Sergei Lukyanenko. I made the mistake of watching “Daywatch” first which is really second in the series despite it was the first one released in the United States. However, watching these movies got me thinking about Nightwatch and Information in Stories.

Both movies are a little challenging to follow because nothing is dwelled upon or thoroughly explained, but this is not a bad thing. Actually, quite the opposite. The style of cinematography is a bit different than what Hollywood tends to produce and expects that the audience will make conclusions and draw assumptions.

It is not a movie for lazy viewing

It is riveting and the imagery is haunting. This movie made me think about two aspects of storytelling that I have been thinking about recently. The first one is the idea that information in a story must be judiciously provided. The second idea is a notion about how to construct characters.

Information in a Story Must be Judiciously Provided

Because I could ramble trying to figure out aspects of these two thoughts, this entry discusses only the first thought. And just enough to get people thinking because I would like to hear other people’s thoughts. However, if you have ideas on the second notion and want to share about how you construct characters—please write in the comments. I will consider your thoughts and maybe you’ll spur me onto something fantastic. I am stuck in my writing at the moment. So, with that said, let me get onto to my latest, very incomplete thinking about information in stories.

The Push Pull of Storytelling

I believe when an author is writing a story or novel they must give enough information to make the characters and setting come to life. They must also leave out enough information to draw in the reader and allow the reader to use their imagination and construct the story for themselves. Within their own minds. The reader then becomes both an observer and a participant/artist in the creation of their own entertainment.

When a visual artist is composing a painting or a drawing they draw on principals of perception to build up the context of their piece. A flat rectangular canvas awaiting expression is pregnant with promise. Each mark upon the white expanse alludes to a story that is within the understanding of the viewer.

An Exercise

Let’s try an exercise. Take a blank white piece of ordinary office paper and put it in front of you.

How did you orient the paper? Is the orientation such that it is taller than it is long? This is called a ‘portrait’ orientation and it is the ‘standard’. This is the orientation we are the most familiar with in our day to day lives. If you placed the page in this orientation without my explicit instruction to do so, you brought your own basic expectations of how to approach a page to this exercise.

Continuing the Exercise

For the next part of this exercise take a black marker and create a round dark circle in the very center of the page. Make the circle about an inch or three centimeters in diameter. Then sit back and look at the circle on the page. How does this central placement make you feel?

While the circle is in a placement of balance upon the page, it is not a compositional placement that feels peaceful. This placement reverberates with tension. Tension pulls from the edges into the center and out to the edges. There is tension along the long diagonals. Tension lives between the bisected top and bottom halves and between the bisected right and left halves.

But this is simply a darkened circle upon the page

Take another piece of paper and orient it so that the paper is in a horizontal orientation and is longer than it is tall. This time draw the darkened circle about two inches from the right edge and about an inch up from the bottom edge of the paper. Make the circle be in a position so it is not in alignment with either the diagonal from corner to corner or in alignment with one of the midpoints along the bottom or side edges. Consider how this placement of the darkened circle makes you feel. This is a much more ‘peaceful’ placement of the circle.

But the connotations of the placement of the circle come from inside the viewer. This is a composition exercise to illustrate that no composition is neutral. And the artist can draw from the mind of the viewer to engage them in the act of creating the piece.

Engaging the Mind

Just as visual artists can use the science of perception to draw upon ideas for how to engage the mind of the viewer, artists and writers can also use cultural connotations to engage the thinking of the viewer or reader. When I was a trained as a teacher, I learned if material is too easy then the students will disengage and if it is too hard they give up. The middle ground where the person is challenged and can get satisfaction from decoding the meaning of the material engages most completely.

So how does a writer do this in a story? Careful word choice so that the words fit the tone and connotation that is intended? Scaffolding of ideas so that each idea builds into the whole? Use of imagery that pulls from common experiences and draws out an emotional response from the reader? Dropping the reader into a fully realized and thought constructed reality without explanation beyond the contextual that is experienced by the characters? Hmmm. What do you think?