You don’t have to explain every element of the worldbuilding

Here at Book Riot, this post: BOOKS DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN THEMSELVES TO YOU

I was curious, and ready to be snarky, but actually I agree completely with the point the author of this post is making:

The Chosen and the Beautiful is [a retelling of The Great Gatsby] set in our world, but with the addition of magic (and demons). The magical elements are woven through the story, but they’re not the focus. It’s much more about the characters and plot of the original story with a new perspective. One of the things I enjoyed about the story was the mysterious fantastical elements. … I take issue with readers saying that not explaining the magic system in a book like this is a flaw or weakness of the storytelling. … Magical realist and fabulist stories do this particularly well: the fantastical elements are used to establish mood or to have metaphorical resonance. 

As I said, I agree.

One interesting tidbit I’ve gleaned over time from reading reviews is that some readers do want everything explained, with the rules of magic laid out and an appendix describing the history of the world. In other words, they literally do want infodumping, where the author pauses to explain things and then goes on with the plot.

This is fine, I guess, although I don’t really understand it. But the place it’s least fine is in magic, because there are fundamentally two kinds of magic:

a) Scientific magic, with rules that are clearly defined, and

b) Fairy-tale magic, with rules that are sometimes understood, but definitely not defined.

That is, in Patricia McKillip’s Song for the Basilisk, everyone knows that if you go to the magical land to get, for example, a dragon-bone pipe, then the rules are very different. Time and space are strange, and the people you meet may not be what they seem, and so on.

We all know that in fairy tales, if an animal stops you in the woods and asks for help, you should probably help it. But we also know this could be dangerous. We don’t need these rules spelled out; reading fairy tales as children makes these sorts of rules clear.

Also, the author of the Book Riot post is right again: unexplained magical elements that intrude into the “real world” are intrinsic to magical realism, and those elements give magical realism a lot of its charm.

This post tackles this subject from a couple different directions. It’s worth a look if you’ve got a minute.

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10 thoughts on “You don’t have to explain every element of the worldbuilding”

  1. Allan Shampine

    Completely agree. I like the distinction you draw between “science” magic and fairy-tale magic. I like both, but fairy-tale magic, by definition (in my opinion), is not fully explicable. I think that’s actually a defining feature of it, which distinguishes it from rules that are not fully spelled out. Fairy-tale magic cannot be fully spelled out. Broad strokes, yes, but part of the joy of such tales is the mystery. Spinning Silver did a good job on this, I think. When rules are spelled out in detail, one of the joys of those books is rules-lawyering–coming up with clever exploits of the detailed rules. Time travel is a good example.

    I think there is a middle ground where the genre flavor takes center stage and the rules are not fully spelled out because they just don’t matter to the plot, and I would guess the writer also doesn’t have the rules fully in mind. There’s a lot of fantasy and space opera that falls into this category. The “rules” can be flexible based on plot requirements, and any inconsistencies can just be shrugged off. “Eh, it’s magic / weird science.”

  2. I vacillate between enjoying figuring out the world by context and wanting “just a little more orientation here, please?” As a reader, I think it requires more patience and discipline to stick with a book when you are submerged fully in the world immediately and you have no map of the world, the culture or the rules. But those books, when done well, are so much more rewarding.

    I’m thinking of “The Hands of the Emperor”, for one. I also just finished the two book series by Arkady Martine – “A Memory Called Empire” and “A Desolation Called Peace.” I started the first book and then paused because I was not in the mental space to give it the concentration and attention it required (I was stupid tired.) I picked it up again because a friend whose recommendations are usually spot on had mentioned it to me. I’m so glad I did. Well worth the read, but it took some mental resetting to bring the worlds within the stories into focus.

  3. I remember a review of “Turtle in the Sea of Sand” that complained that I hadn’t explained why the sea existed. sigh.

  4. Mary Catelli, really?

    Well … why DID the sea exist?

    Mary Anderson, I also thought at once of The Hands of the Emperor. It’s interesting because that’s one where I felt drawn in the moment Cliopher extended that invitation to the Emperor, even though the world unfolded so slowly. I haven’t tried A Memory Called Empire largely because I know very well I don’t have the attention to spare for a story or world I’d have to figure out, but it’s on my radar — glad to know you liked it.

    Allan, you’re probably right. Three categories of magic, then: magic-as-science, fairy-tale magic, and handwavy magic that does whatever the story requires. If the author is pretty good and the pace is pretty fast, that can work fine, as the reader is drawn along by the story without having too much time to spare to wonder if the magic makes sense.

    Fairy-tale magic feels numinous, or … hmm. It’s something evocative, rather than something that can be defined.

  5. Allan Shampine

    Many years ago I was playing in an Amber RPG run by Cliff Winnig (who some people on here will probably know). My character was dancing with another character in Tir na Nog on the edge of a cliff. I told the GM that we were dancing off the cliff and into the clouds, which the GM ran with. The player of the other character was shocked and asked several times how that was possible under the rules. I explained that we were in a place of myth and fairy tales, and we were following the fairy tale. It was a nice contrast between rules-based magic and fairy-tale magic. With rules-based magic, the story conforms to the logic of the magic. With fairy-tale magic, the magic conforms to the logic of the story.

  6. I know, Mary, I was kidding! I think it’s a really funny question for someone to ask.

  7. I don’t mind fairy tale magic in general, but I do think “literary” style authors tend to abuse it, as the worst examples I’ve read were all books that pushed too hard into the literary genre. Those stories had poorly set-up magic that always did things convenient for the plot or main character, and it never had to make any sense because magic.

    Real fairy-tale magic should be wild, unpredictable, and at least sometimes a demerit to the people exposed to it.

  8. Megan, I agree. Fairy tale magic works the way it works, not the way that’s convenient for the characters. Actually, literary authors could do a lot worse than read Patricia McKillip to see how this kind of magic ought to work in the story and how it feels.

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