A few weeks ago I came across Brandon Sanderson’s First and Second Laws (of magic) at his blog and they sparked a great deal of thinking.

The two laws are:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Sanderson’s Second Law of Magics: Limitations > Powers

Sanderson goes into detail explaining each law and how it affects his writing. His first law is pretty simple. If the reader doesn’t understand how magic works in your world it will be harder for them to believe you when you use it to save the hero/heroine. He likes magic systems with clear rules and boundaries. So do I. But if you don’t, and your magic system has no rules (which makes it hard to call a system) then you need to make sure the reader understands this as well – again, so they will buy into your use of magic to save the day. (The same can easily be said for technology in sci-fi).

His second law is a little more intriguing. He’s essentially saying that what makes a character interesting (and the magic system interesting) is not what they can do with magic, but what they cannot accomplish. The power of their magic will help save them, but the limitations of their magic will put them in peril – and it is the peril what will help readers identify with the character and keep turning pages.

I thought those were both great observations. Reading them made me wonder not just how they can positively affect my own writing, but what other rules about magic I might find helpful.

I did a lot of research on creating magic systems before constructing the ones in The Wizard of Time and The Young Sorcerers Guild series. Both have similarities, but they are very different, each with clear rules about what the magic can do and what is required to accomplish it. For me the interesting thing about magic is not how it can help the characters, but how its use can cause problems. Magic is basically breaking the laws of physics in different ways, so I think when you break the law, there should be some consequences. Maybe not all the time, but certainly when a character uses magic in a big way there should be some big repercussions that play out in the plot and directly affect the character in question, as well as other characters that might get caught up in the ripple effects of the magic.

This is all useful thinking right now because I am in the process of figuring out how Gabriel’s use of magic can cause problems in The Wizard of Time Book 2. But it is also thinking that brings other laws and rules to mind.

The first is obvious – Arthur Clarke’s 3rd Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Which leads to Larry Niven’s corollary law: “Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

The third popped into my head because I was thinking of it in relation to plot the other day – the Pareto Principle, usually called the 80/20 rule. A few business examples (from Wikipedia) illustrate the point:

  • 80% of your profits come from 20% of your customers
  • 80% of your complaints come from 20% of your customers
  • 80% of your profits come from 20% of the time you spend
  • 80% of your sales come from 20% of your products
  • 80% of your sales are made by 20% of your sales staff


This gets translated to all kinds of things, like 80% of your enjoyment comes from 20% of what you do. So that got me thinking about how the 80/20 rule might relate to novels. I’m not sure that it does really, but I suspect it might. I can certainly see how it relates to most non-fiction. In nearly every case of a non-fiction book I’ve read, 20% of the text provides 80% of the meaning and importance. Most writers don’t have that much to say, but they still need to fill 300 pages to get published.

So, if the 80/20 rule does relate to novels, does that mean that 80% of a reader’s enjoyment comes from only 20% of the novel?  Since I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about plot these days, as I revise the plot outline for WOT #2, I’m wondering if 80% of the story and action is found in 20% of the plot?

Again, I’m not sure if that holds true for most novels, and this is mostly a thought experiment, but I can see how keeping that rule in mind when plotting and writing might help to bend those numbers in your favor. When you think about a story and the plot that tells it, how much of it is essential? Sure there is a beginning, a middle, and an end (supposedly you’re not supposed to allow new beginnings, multiple middles, and double endings), but how much plot can you cut out of a story and still have the essence of the story present? In many cases – a lot.

How many times have you read a novel and thought that things were happening to the characters just to have things happening to the characters?  How many times have you thought to yourself the so-so novel your were reading might have made a great short story? Or that the film you were watching should have been a TV episode?

I think both films and novels can get trapped by a self impose structure that actually works against the story that is being told. Romantic comedies are a perfect example of this. Valentines was a few days ago and there was an article about why so many romantic comedy films fail to satisfy audiences.

The article was amusing, but I think the real problem with romantic comedies (and many films and novels) is a slavish adherence to a formulaic conception of three act structure. It usually goes like this:

Act 1 – Girl (because nearly all romantic comedies these days are from the perspective of a woman) meets Boy; Girl (who is somewhat neurotic because apparently slight neurotic women are supposed to be funny) and Boy (who is generally a bit of a jerk – I call this the Mr. Darcy syndrome) are initially repelled by each other, but secretly somewhat attracted (I suspect because she has daddy issues and he spends too much time watching porn to understand women as people); we spend some time learning inconsequential things about individual backgrounds of Girl and Boy, at the climax of Act 1, Girl and Boy are thrust together in some, hopefully, interesting way.

Act 2 – Girl and Boy spend the next hour getting to know each other. Girl realizes Boy is not as big a jerk as she thought he was. Boy sees that Girl’s neurosis is actually quite charming, Girl and Boy realize they like one another (but usually not enough to actually kiss – unless they have sex – it’s usually one or the other), and at the climactic moment of Act 2 – forced by the Iron Law of Three Act Structure – one of them (usually the Boy being a jerk again – unless it’s the Girl playing out her daddy issues in reverse) does something completely out of character and against all common sense, to sabotage the relationship and break the couple apart so that…

Act 3 – Girl and Boy spend the next 20 minutes realizing what an awful mistake he/she/they have made and finally reunite for that climactic movie-ending, all-questions-answering, no-more-problem-creating kiss. Roll credits.

For me, at least, I think the application of the Iron Law of Three Act Structure is the main reason why my general reaction to romantic comedies (and action films, and now that I think of it, almost all films) is blah! Treating three act structure like an iron law and forcing formulaic formatting on to the plot of stories makes them blandly predictable. Everything is telegraphed. The reader or viewer knows what is going to happen because they have seen the same thing happen at the same moment in countless other novels and films. For instance, why are so few romantic comedies about married couples (and I don’t mean the ones where the characters spend the whole story either cheating on each other or thinking about cheating on each other)? Why is it that no one seems to believe that people in a loving and committed relationship can be funny? The only exception to this seems to be when children are added to the married couple comedy. Apparently, kids are always funny.

So, wait, where was I before I started this diatribe against the misuse of three act structure? Right. The 80/20 rule.

If we can accept the proposition that in general 80% of the enjoyment of a story comes from 20% of the plot, how can we change that? With good, multi-layered structure. The sort of thing that most books on writing (whether for film or stage or novels) tell you. Each section, chapter, or scene of the story should either expand our understandinf of the characters, advance the plot, or resonate thematically in some significant way – preferably the chapter or scene should do all three.

For myself, I need to examine why each part of a story is there and how it can advance those three things (character, plot, and theme). If a scene or chapter doesn’t do those things, I need to figure out how to change it, or I should probably get rid of it. Sometimes a scene can only be about plot or character. If plot and character are the things we tend to enjoy most about a story (and I’m assuming we tend to enjoy them more than descriptions of settings), then by careful plotting and writing we can hopefully get to a point where the reader is getting 80% of their enjoyment from 80% of the story.

I think I’ll call this the 80/80 Goal. It’s clearly not a rule or a law – just an aspiration. And I think you can’t really ask the reader to enjoy 100% of your story. Everyone has different tastes and the average reader is bound to find 20% of the story they don’t really connect with.

Now let me propose something else, based on this discussion of the 80/20 rule, but thinking of Sanderson’s two laws of magic: A character’s use of magic should only solve 20% of the problems in the story but this same use of magic should create 80% of the new problems the character will face. I think I’ll call that the 80/20 Law of Magic.

Not only does this restrict how I can use magic to get out of situations that put the characters in danger, it also means that each significant use of magic has consequences that will reverberate throughout the plot, creating new difficulties and conflicts to be overcome. It will also mean that characters will (hopefully) restrain themselves in the use of magic – because, like violence, it leads to more of the same.

Maybe this will be a corollary to the 80/20 Law of Magic – Magic only leads to more magic.

I’m not sure about that, but it’s a fun idea to play with. In fact, I can’t say that I’m sure about any of what I wrote above. Maybe I’m 80% sure about 20% of what I wrote. Or am I 20% sure about 80% of what I wrote? Regardless, I now that 100% of the time I spend blogging is time I’m not working on the next novel. So…Time to break some rules.

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