Oct 31 2009

Novel-Writing Tips of the Day: How to Deal With Supernatural Elements

Published by at 4:34 pm under Fantasy,Superpowers,Writing Articles

1.  Foreshadow the supernatural.  Introducing magic or vampires or over-the-top superpowers into a story that previously had seemed constrained to reality will probably disorient readers unless you have taken steps to prepare them.  In some cases, your title, backcover blurb and/or cover will do so.  Otherwise, you should probably suggest that something is not quite normal in this world you are showing us.  For example, before the protagonist discovers that there’s a dragon or a vampire in the basement, perhaps he could find  strange claw marks or woodsland animals that have been de-blooded. 

For example, many weird things happen to Harry Potter before he finds out he’s a wizard–a snake talks to him, he makes the glass disappear, he gets strange letters, his hair grows back, he has a weird scar, etc.  Foreshadowing can intrigue readers– we (and Harry) don’t know what’s in those letters, but we want to find out what his uncle is hiding from him.  In contrast, if the first indication that this is a story with magic is a hairy man shouting “yah’re a wizahd, ‘Arry!”, readers will probably think “what the hell?”  Don’t disorient your audience. 

2.  Be clear about what we’re seeing, particularly the first time we see something patently supernatural.  If all you show is a guy waving his hands and then something explodes, readers will probably not infer that the guy is a wizard that just cast a spell.  If readers don’t understand what’s going on (“wait, why did that wall just explode?”), they are more likely to feel confused than assume that something supernatural is happening.  So it pays to err on the side of explicitness the first time.  If a chanting guy in weird clothes starts waving his hand and then a fireball flies out of his hands into the wall, we’ll know what just happened.  After that, readers will know that otherwise inexplicable events in the story can be attributed to supernatural causes. 

3.  In most cases, I’d recommend introducing supernatural elements gradually, or at least giving us relatable characters to latch onto.  That gives readers more time to process how the world is different than ours.  This is one reason that stories often use an unknowledgeable character like Harry Potter, Frodo or Watson so that readers can find out what’s going on as he does.  However, sometimes that isn’t possible.  For example, if the story is a comedy about a mummy adopted by vampires that live next to a wight, there’s probably no way to avoid plunging your readers neck-deep into strangeness from page one.   (However, it’s worth noting that even The Munsters had human neighbors).

One response so far

One Response to “Novel-Writing Tips of the Day: How to Deal With Supernatural Elements”

  1. B. Macon 31 Oct 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I should probably add that this problem is less serious for readers than publisher’s assistants. In a bookstore, readers have many ways to know that the book has magic, vampires or whatever. For example, the cover, the backcover summary, the title, its location in the store, etc. But the publisher’s assistant or agent evaluating your manuscript may not have such information at her disposal. She may launch into the sample chapters without reading the query letter and synopsis first.

    Please see also Holly Lisle and the Case of the Exploding Cat, which covers a similar topic.

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