Learn how to preserve the magic in your story using two traits of magical storytelling: a sense of mystery and remembering the world exists beyond the plot.
THE BEST NOVELS—THE STORIES ENSHRINED FOREVER ON OUR BOOKSHELVES—ARE THE ONES THAT FEEL TRULY MAGICAL.
This magic is what makes a story seem alive and real, and sets our minds alight with theories, ideas, and a deep curiosity. Of course, it’s no easy task to capture this sense of fascination. Many authors struggle for decades to achieve this kind of compelling storytelling, and some never succeed.
However, while there is no single trick to creating magic in your stories, there are some ways to improve your odds. By understanding what creates this sense of wonder for your reader, you can learn how to craft a novel readers will feel enchanted by!
THE TWO KEY TRAITS OF MAGICAL STORYTELLING
When you look at the kinds of stories that linger in readers minds, you’ll consistently find a few common elements…
A Sense of Mystery
More than anything else, having a sense of mystery in your story will keep your readers engaged long after your novel is over.
Unfortunately, creating this sense that parts of the story are still unknown can be hard for many writers to pull off—as writers, we know our stories inside and out, and we want to share that knowledge with our reader. However, sometimes the best thing you can do is to leave bits of information out or only hint at things, even at the risk of your reader coming to their own, perhaps non-canon conclusions.
This is a trap even writing veterans fall into.
Take J. K. Rowling for example—her recent follow-up to the Harry Potter series came in the form of a prequel, The Crimes of Grindelwald. Yet, in creating this movie she robbed both this story and, in some ways, the original series of a bit of their magic.
You see, this prequel takes an obscure line about Dumbledore’s potential romance with Grindelwald from the original Harry Potter series and turns it into a standalone film. That may seem innocent, but it ruins much of Dumbledore’s mystery. This line was a huge unknown for readers and was a mystery fans felt deeply engaged with. It made the story feel more alive because, in the real world, we can never know all the information—something will always be left a mystery.
Ultimately, it’s hard to argue against Rowling’s desire to tell her canon version of events, but in doing so we lost some magic of the original series.
While it’s not easy to deny the desire to tell your entire story, keeping some answers a secret is one of the most important ways writers can preserve the magic of their stories.
A World Beyond the Plot
Alongside a sense of mystery, the most magical stories hint at a world beyond the confines of the novel itself.
This is a huge factor in making a story feel real and engaging—in the real world, life goes on outside of our immediate experiences. The stranger we walk by on the street has their own complex history, their own set of friends and loved ones, and their own dreams, desires, and wishes. By recreating this deep, complex world for your story, you’ll create a novel with limitless potential for your reader—and in the process will capture a bit of the magic that can set your story apart.
Of course, this is difficult to pull off and—much like leaving behind some mysteries—largely comes down to what you don’t say rather than what you do.
For instance, characters may know each other well before your story begins, but never fully explain their shared history. Likewise, they could mention past events or occurrences in passing, never elaborating on what those are. They could exchange knowing glances with a stranger, or recognize a place they visited long ago.
The key here is to let your reader wonder about these occurrences.
Let them imagine what these events mean, what stories these characters might have to tell, and what secret histories these locations hold. A character’s backstory is something you should dole out sparingly and only ever with a purpose.
If you can hold back these secrets, only sharing the information critical to the story and leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination, you’re far more likely to capture that spark that sets great adventures like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: A New Hope, and The Great Gatsby apart.
HOW TO PRESERVE THE MAGIC IN YOUR OWN NOVELS
No author can cover every aspect of their story’s world or history in a single book, nor should they try to. By letting your reader fill in the blanks, you create a story that’s not only more magical, but more engaging and emotionally impactful for your reader.
If you’re hoping to create this same effect in your own novel, keep these four methods in mind…
1) Leave Some Mysteries Unanswered
While it’s important to tie up any loose ends and reveal the most important pieces of your story’s plot by the Climax of your novel, most stories have smaller questions they you can safely leave unanswered.
When deciding what secrets and mysteries to leave behind in your story, consider these questions:
- Is this information integral to the plot of my story?
- Will my character arcs be incomplete if I don’t reveal this information?
If you can confidently answer both of these questions with “no,” then you may be looking at a piece of your story you can leave unanswered—or at least vague.
2) Treat Backstory with Care
Backstory can be a huge trap for writers. We dream up these amazing histories for our characters, and we naturally want to share them. However, backstory can often do more harm than good.
Here are some rules of thumb for writing character backstory:
- Only reveal backstory when it serves a purpose, even if it was previously mentioned in passing.
- Spread backstory out throughout your novel, never front-loading it at the beginning or rushing it at the end.
- A character’s backstory must respect the main story—meaning it supplements the story instead of dominating it.
3) Look Forwards; Not Backwards
When telling your story, focus more on what will happen next versus what has already happened.
For instance, instead of a character wondering how another character thought of them in the past, make them wonder what that character will say next time they meet. Encourage your story to look to the future, both to engage your readers and to discourage yourself from getting so caught up in the history of your story that you accidentally reveal too much.
4) Create a Trail of Breadcrumbs
Finally, leave hints throughout your story of something bigger.
This is a great way to create intrigue for your reader, even if you’re only hinting at small aspects of your story’s culture or history (a popular tactic in fantasy and science fiction). In fact, you don’t even need to know where these breadcrumbs may lead—by dropping hints and comments in passing, you might be surprised what fascinating theories readers come up with.
The only danger of this method is that you may drop a hint that conflicts with the information you’ve already given.
To help prevent this, take some time to work on your story’s world-building. If you have an intimate enough understanding of your story’s world, then you’re less likely to create breadcrumbs that lead to dead ends or contradictions.
As you can see, creating a truly magical novel is no easy task.
There’s a lot of restraint involved for you as the writer, but if you can trust your reader and open yourself up to their imagination, you can create a novel that captures their hearts and minds. While it’s a bit of extra work, the results are well worth it!
About the Author:
Lewis Jorstad is an author, book coach, and certifiable history nerd who teaches others how to tell compelling, memorable stories over at The Novel Smithy. When he isn’t working on the next book in his Ten Day Novelist series, you can find him playing old Gameboy games or trying to explain the nuances of Feudal Japan.
You can also check out his free ebook, The Character Creation Workbook, and grab a copy for yourself.