How to fill your plot holes with magic
One of the great things about writing fantasy and sci-fi is that if you can’t think of a way to solve a problem with the plot, you can just use magic! Right? Right!
Wrong. (I guess you saw that coming).
Much too often I see magic – and the high-tech science that is indistinguishable from it – used to fill plot holes. A fantastic world is used as a carte blanche to break all of the rules: logic, the laws of physics, the rules of writing, and common sense. Need some romance? Add a love potion! Need your character to get somewhere fast? They can use the previously unmentioned teleportation capacity in their combat suit! These examples are over the top to make a point (although not made up), but I stumble across this narrative panic button wherever I go. It’s lazy.
I like to call this the skeleton key fallacy: when you need a solution to a problem, you just invent the appropriate key. But you do not stop to consider what other parts of your narrative it might unlock or what parts of the world it just made illogical. Later on, you find yourself making up convoluted reasons to why your skeleton key should not change your entire world. Now, the more engaging your story is, the more your readers will be willing to suspend their disbelief in your poor choices. But great imaginative writing has both a good story and a believable setting.
I believe it boils down to that a story should always first be told through the characters. The realm of Tyrakia and its magocracy, the megacity of Metropolis and the robotic enforcers which patrol its streets, the powerful destiny of your main character who has been chosen by ancient powers; these are not the important parts of your story. They are the backdrop, the window dressing, the fluff and glitter. They may enable your story, and they may steer it, but they do not define it.
I know you are happy that you made up a new species of faeries who feed on the despair of the mushroom people. I know that you are especially proud of the way your FTL engines are based on existing scientific principles. But I do not need to see that pride shine through in your writing. On the contrary, the more off-hand and everyday the descriptions of your magic are, the more likely I am to accept them as a credible part of your world. I can tell if you quickly tacked another idea onto your story because it sounded cool, and so can discerning readers. A good idea works with the story and the setting. And if it doesn’t work in the context, you have to let it go. Kill your darlings and start over. If you hope to write well then it’s something you’ll have to do many times over, so you might as well get used to it. And guess what? It means you will have an ever-expanding stockpile of ideas to draw from for your future projects.
To avoid these issues, you need to think about the implications of introducing your particular brand of magic to the world. What sociological effects would it have? How would it affect the life of the average citizen? How would it affect the economy? Who would have power as a result of this magic, and who would lack it? How can it be abused?
If you can make your magic a believable part of the world then you are on your way to writing great fiction. Because the imagination required for coming up with jaw-dropping spells and amazing new technology is not as impressive as the creativity required for credible speculation on how that magic or technology would affect the world.