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 Post subject: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Mon Mar 03, 2014 7:57 pm 
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I read this article yesterday on Brandon Sanderson's blog. For those of you who do not know, Sanderson is a hugo award winning fantasy and science fiction author, most commonly known for his epic (in every sense of the word) series "Mistborn." For the less epically inclined he has also written several novellas and most recently he took my premise and came out with an amazing scifi action and adventure YA novel: Steelheart.

Enough about the accolades: onto the point. Sanderson approaches magic systems the way magazine editors approach scifi: dividing it into much needed "soft" and "hard" categories, providing some structure to what is a pretty much rule-less genre convention. He sums up the result of this categorization in what he has labeled as his first law:
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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.


Read and discuss!

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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Fri Mar 07, 2014 5:02 am 
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I would say that Sanderson's First Law (which I assume is an Asimov reference), or Sanderson's Dictum, as I would call it if I had the luxury of naming it, is true, but not for the reasons Sanderson thinks.

Sanderson's intended meaning seems to be about craft. The assumption is that using unexplained magic to solve narrative problems is cheap. The truth is that it's absolutely no different than using any other device to solve a narrative problem.

The real issue is the severity with which the solution challenges the reader's suspension of disbelief. Regardless of whether the device used is magic, or some other narrative trick, like the reappearance of a character from a previous novel, or a circumstantial intervention by the forces of nature. Good authors make the device acceptable to the reader so that the suspension of disbelief isn't broken. Bad authors apply a solution with to much force, and shock the reader out of engagement with the story.

Sanderson's First Law is really an intentional restatement of another law, which most readers and few authors know:

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An author's ability to solve narrative conflict is directly proportional to the reader's sense of plausibility.


Suspension of disbelief is all about balancing escapism of plausibility. We know the characters and events in a novel aren't real. We are willing to accept them as long as they are reasonable. If the author introduces earlier in the story, as an aside, the magic device they use to solve a problem later, then the reader has already extended their suspension of disbelief to include it. If the author introduces a new magic, especially a dramatic one, at the moment when it becomes necessary to the plot, the reader doesn't accept it as plausible because it violates their suspension of disbelief.

Sanderson's notion that this has to do with the degree to which the magic is explained is absolutely wrong. You can do this with any degree or style of magic. The key is simply to introduce the solution incidentally, well before it is actually used to solve a problem. It's a narrative technique called shelving. Good authors shelve. It has nothing to do with whether the system of magic is "hard" or "soft" magic. You can shelve soft magic as well as you can shelve hard magic.

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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Fri Apr 04, 2014 3:20 pm 
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I think the only time where a logical, explained magic system is really applicable for making solutions plausible aside from what you described, Neil, is when you describe the system of magic to such a degree that when some use of it is used as a solution that use is a logical consequence of the system even if that particular use has not been used or mentioned before, essentially making shelving unnecessary.

I just read over that sentence I just wrote, and my brain started to hurt. * blinks * Er... if you need me to rephrase that, tell me, and I'll make an attempt.

Actually, though, I disagree with both of you, to a degree. :D I agree with you, Neil, in your rephrasing of the law, however I don't necessarily agree with you about your description of the way to apply it. I don't think rules or shelving are the only ways to make sure the reader's sense of plausibility is high enough for the author's solving of narrative conflict.

To give an example, the one that started me on my thoughts about this, there is a Japanese movie called Seven Samurai that I've watched several times (with English sub titles, of course). One of the samurai is a man named Kambei, who serves as leader of the group. He knows a lot, and he can do a lot. At the end of the movie, he picks up a bow and takes down several enemies in the climactic battle, despite the fact that he had never been shown to be skilled in the use of a bow before, and that it had never been mentioned either. But I noticed that it didn't make me feel cheated to have him do that.

I think it was because the story had previously gotten across such an idea of the man, his almost mysterious talents, his wisdom, his huge experience, that, in a way, I was expecting him to surprise me, if that makes any sense. I was elated and excited when I discovered he could use a bow, not upset with the story, because to me it was perfectly plausible that he might have that skill.

I think that is one reason why the magic in LotR worked for me, even though it had no visible 'system'. When Gandalf did awesome things, I felt it was perfectly plausible, because I expected him to do the unexpected and the unknown. Same with Galadriel.

If Tolkien had made Gandalf completely powerful and able to do everything and solve all the story problems, then I would have had a problem, of course, because that would have meant no conflict at all. But he wasn't. He failed a dozen times, other people could do some things better than he could, and there were more powerful people than he.

The point, though, is that I think it is possible to make a 'system of mystery', or utilize 'placeholder shelving', or whatever you want to call it, when creating the plausibility aspect of your story.


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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Fri Apr 11, 2014 4:33 am 
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Another way to rephrase the rule is: try to make your reader say, "Yes! That's it!" instead of "How convenient."

In the Chronicles of Narnia, would you say it is hard or soft, or what percentage?

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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Tue May 06, 2014 6:50 pm 
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Umm...What's the difference between hard and soft magic? Is one good? Is one bad?

I think I missed something essential...

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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2014 3:12 pm 
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It's explained in Sanderson's article that Katie linked to. :D But I think the basics is that he calls magic that cannot solve major plot problems without hurting the quality of the story, magic that the reader doesn't understand, 'soft magic'; and magic that can, magic that has some sort of system and that the reader understands, 'hard magic'.


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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Tue Dec 09, 2014 2:12 am 
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Mistress Rwebhu Kidh wrote:
It's explained in Sanderson's article that Katie linked to. :D But I think the basics is that he calls magic that cannot solve major plot problems without hurting the quality of the story, magic that the reader doesn't understand, 'soft magic'; and magic that can, magic that has some sort of system and that the reader understands, 'hard magic'.


Not necessarily. From my understanding, it works much like hard sf and soft sf. Hard sf makes it a point to describe how its postulated developments work and when they don't work, and then explore the consequences of those.

Soft sf, like Star Wars doesn't explain how its inventions work (The Force, lightsabers, hyperspace, the Death Star, etc.) because those elements aren't quite as important as in hard sf. The story uses them as props, McGuffins, and dramatic elements, but that's not what the stories are about. They aren't characters, in the way Sanderson's magic systems could be (In the Stormlight system, literally so), or technology would be some sf works.

The main part of your post I disagree is the idea is that soft magic is magic that can't solve major plot problems without hurting the quality of the story. That's not really what he's saying. It is completely possible to use soft magic to solve major plot problems, the way Luke used the Force to make sure his proton torpedo went into the exhaust vent. Were the laws of the Force explained? No. Were set limitations given? Did we understand what it was? Nope, but it was still capable of solving the main plot problem of the movie without viewers feeling cheated.

Soft magic might be what is also called ambiguous magic. It's there and powerful, but it isn't concrete or well-understood. My own system would fall under this category. Does that make sense?

He added two more articles on the subject as well.
http://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-second-law/
http://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons- ... -of-magic/

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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Tue Dec 09, 2014 8:14 am 
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Hm. Maybe I have missed something. But I thought that was the point of his law: that hard magic was magic that could be understood and had a system to it, soft magic was not so understandable and did not have a system that was present in the story, and that hard magic could be used for solving major plot points without disappointing the reader, while soft magic couldn't really.

To quote: "An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic."

Soft magic: "On one side of the continuum, we have books where the magic is included in order to establish a sense of wonder and give the setting a fantastical feel. ... a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t. I call this a “Soft Magic” system, and it has a long, established tradition in fantasy. I would argue that Tolkien himself is on this side of the continuum. In his books, you rarely understand the capabilities of Wizards and their ilk. ... The really good writers of soft magic systems very, very rarely use their magic to solve problems in their books." (This is the same as what you described as soft magic. Ambiguous, not really concrete or well understood.)

Hard magic: "On the other side of the continuum, we have hard magic. This is the side where the authors explicitly describes the rules of magic. This is done so that the reader can have the fun of feeling like they themselves are part of the magic, and so that the author can show clever twists and turns in the way the magic works. ... If the reader understands how the magic works, then you can use the magic (or, rather, the characters using the magic) to solve problems."

I totally agree with you that soft magic can solve major plot points without hurting the story. (I actually talked about that in my post before last, I think.) I just don't think Brandon Sanderson thinks that.


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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Tue Dec 09, 2014 2:49 pm 
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I don't think Sanderson is arguing for the superiority of hard magic over soft magic. I think he's just pointing out a necessary difference in the way different types of magic must be used in a story.
Soft magic, or magic that is amorphous and little understood (by the POV and thus by extension the reader) cannot be used to solve major plot problems without the use of a deus ex machina. Think of Tolkien's soft magic system. Think of one instance where the reader (thru the characters) learned an important aspect of the magic system that came into play in order to solve a problem. I can't.
Soft magic is there. A part of the world. The rules aren't distinct (at least to the reader), and relative knowledge or ignorance regarding the system has little or nothing to do with how the plot is resolved. Again, case in point is tLotR. No important plot point (which Sanderson calls problems) is solved directly because of knowledge of the magic system. That's just the way Tolkien wrote his story. It wasn't about the magic system, it was about the magic. And even then,he kept his distance from the magic by telling the story almost entirely through the eyes of hobbits, who have and want nothing to do with making magic happen. They are the ordinaries, the lenses through which elves become more high, Aragorn more kingly, Gandalf more enigmatic, Gollum more sympathetic, than if we were to delve into their respective minds. In the same way, the magic system preserves it's highness, incomprehensibility, and otherness because of this normal lens through which it is seen...and therefore it remains a soft system.
On the complete other hand, a perfect example of a hard magic system is Sanderson's Elantris. The MC's discoveries about and knowledge of the magic system are hugely integral to the plot, and it is used to resolve problems that arise within the plot. It is not a deus ex machina because the character is learning, struggling to understand the system, and when he finally does, problems begin to be solved.

So I think Sanderson is just trying to point out that the type of magic system you use completely changes the type of story you can tell with that system. Soft magic isn't what the story is about.Hard magic is the core of the plot's development and resolution. Soft magic is already there as a whole. Hard magic is to be explored and discovered throughout the story.
So you use magic to solve plot problems? It's hard. You don't use it to solve plot problems? It's soft.
It's not really two different types of magic, it's more two different ways of using magic within your books. Not so much totally different in character as much as radically different in function in regards to the development and conclusion of the story.
You must treat and develop your system much differently depending on how you use it within the story, and Sanderson's first law tells us how exactly we need to develop it if we're going to use it within a story: in direct proportion to the the reader's knowledge of the magic system is the author's ability to use said system to resolve conflict. This has everything to do with suspension of disbelief and avoiding deus ex machina.

I've talked long enough. ;) I hope that was kindasorta helpful to someone. Just my five cents (no matter how hard I try, I can never keep it at two.... :beg: )

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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Tue Feb 03, 2015 10:04 pm 
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Karthmin wrote:
It is not a deus ex machina because the character is learning, struggling to understand the system, and when he finally does, problems begin to be solved.

I haven't read Elantris, but I'd like to raise the point that this does not necessarily follow. The "deus ex machina" "aha!" moment of revelation is always a danger in stories in which the Problem has a Magical Solution (whether this is "magic" in a fantasy setting or a new technology in a science fiction setting) that the main character is trying and failing to develop, or needs to discover, etc. One of the most obvious examples of this is in the first Pern stories by Anne McCaffrey (which I hesitate to recommend on this forum because of "content" issues): the Problem begins to be solved when the Protagonist realizes what has to have happened to explain the mystery that she's been puzzling over, and what "magical" (except that McCaffrey has always maintained that Pern is Science Fiction, not unreasonably especially because the editor of Analog, in which the story first appeared, at the time was not alone in being convinced that "psi" phenomena were well-documented science) effect has to be possible to explain that explanation. The story is (as I recall) pretty good despite being more than a little "deus ex machina." (And umpteen books later McCaffrey did essentially the same thing again ...)

When my dad first discussed that problem with that McCaffrey story with me, years ago, the guideline for authors of fiction for avoiding "dii ex machinis" that he quoted to me was something like "Avoid magical solutions to magical problems." Human solutions to magical problems are generally fine, magical solutions to human problems are often fine (or are at least more obviously problematic when they aren't), human solutions to human problems are of course fine (on these grounds), but magical solutions to magical problems require a great deal of care.

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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Tue Feb 17, 2015 9:07 pm 
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kingjon wrote:
"Avoid magical solutions to magical problems." Human solutions to magical problems are generally fine, magical solutions to human problems are often fine (or are at least more obviously problematic when they aren't), human solutions to human problems are of course fine (on these grounds), but magical solutions to magical problems require a great deal of care.
Is this why mage v. mage battles often feel so unsatisfying, or at least are very hard to write excitingly? I recognize that I am extrapolating this principle outside of the deus ex machina context, but this rule might just be of general applicability to all good fantasy writing.
Also, what constitutes a "magical problem?" Does that mean that having a boy wizard defeat an evil king is cool, and having a warrior defeat a sorcerer is cool, but wizard boy defeats sorcerer is bad? And does it similarly apply that human solutions to human problems are troublesome?

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 Post subject: Re: Sanderson's First Law
PostPosted: Tue Feb 17, 2015 9:25 pm 
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Reiyen wrote:
kingjon wrote:
"Avoid magical solutions to magical problems." Human solutions to magical problems are generally fine, magical solutions to human problems are often fine (or are at least more obviously problematic when they aren't), human solutions to human problems are of course fine (on these grounds), but magical solutions to magical problems require a great deal of care.
Is this why mage v. mage battles often feel so unsatisfying, or at least are very hard to write excitingly? I recognize that I am extrapolating this principle outside of the deus ex machina context, but this rule might just be of general applicability to all good fantasy writing.

Oh, yes. I know it as a fairly general principle; "deus ex machina" is merely the problem to which it most clearly applies.
Reiyen wrote:
Also, what constitutes a "magical problem?" Does that mean that having a boy wizard defeat an evil king is cool, and having a warrior defeat a sorcerer is cool, but wizard boy defeats sorcerer is bad?

Actually, taken simply, none of those is a "magical solution" to a "magical problem." An example of a "magical problem" might be a plague of some kind (set by magic in a fantasy story, or genetically engineered in SF, or even a known disease in a sufficiently old historical setting---so long as it's not something the characters would have a good understanding of). A "magical solution" to that problem would be a character inventing a spell or potion to cure the plague; a "human solution" could be (if it's established early on that spells end when their caster dies) finding and killing the wizard who set the plague. Even if the method of killing the wizard is through a magical duel, or even by some magical gimmick so long as it's been properly foreshadowed.
Reiyen wrote:
And does it similarly apply that human solutions to human problems are troublesome?

No. I think that the reason "magical solutions to magical problems" is problematic is because as authors we can assume the reader will grant us one area of suspension of disbelief without too much argument, and after using that to set up the Problem, we then are asking the reader to trust our hand-waving on the Solution too.

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