When Magic Tricks Fail

[— Karen Myers —]

As fiction writers, we are the magicians who mesmerize our audience and keep them from remarking on the improbability of finding a rabbit in the hat, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Far too often, the rabbit ends up in the wrong place and everyone notices.

When I read a work of fiction, the primary trigger for (metaphorical or real) book-flung-at-wall is being broken out of my reader’s trance. I consider that the most significant craft sin a writer can commit. To tell a story is to entrance the reader/listener, and if you can’t do that, nothing else matters. You could have a wonderful tale to unfold, with a lovely message, demonstrated by appealing characters, but if you can’t keep the reader in your story, they’ll never make it to the end.

The typical situation for me is to find myself tooling along at high speed down the prose highway on a cheery summer day, when suddenly a dark, thunderous, and outraged voice rises from my depths and declares “That’s not how that works!” and I crash to the ground and skin the palms of my hands.

Considering that my reading genre of choice is SFF (among many others), I am trained to overlook all sorts of strangenesses as part of the “given” that we grant to the genre: given that we can travel faster than light; given that magic exists; given that the fair folk (or maybe vampires) are watching us; given that dragons can interbreed with humans; given that telepathy is real; given that aliens live among us; etc. The author gets a limited set of such “givens” of their choice, as part of the world they propose. No matter how impossible/improbable they may be, that’s the given framework for the story. Them’s the rules.

Everything else, however, has to adhere to quotidian reality or internal story logic. And that’s where all the reading trance disasters occur.

Here’s my (partial) list of impossible things that throw me right out of a story. Got some more you’d care to share in the comments?

Logic failures

  • You told us X about that character/situation just a little while ago, but you seem to have forgotten, because now it’s not-X.
  • The object the character is looking for isn’t where you thoughtfully explained a few chapters ago. No, now it’s turned up somewhere else (without any outside agency).
  • Wait — I thought he was dead! I mean, you threw him into a vat of acid and we heard him sizzle.
  • Wait — I thought he was alive! I mean, didn’t you just show him walking around after he missed the vat of acid?
  • Wait — I thought his name was _____?

Reality failures

  • Given that Heaven has Pearly Gatesโ„ข, I still have a problem with the notion that it has 24-karat gold hinges and pins. Gold’s not strong enough for that. (Yes, it could be “heavenly” super-gold, but that wasn’t given.)
  • You can’t postulate a river large enough for a boat on the top of a mountain. At least, not convincingly.
  • If you give your main character a prominent pet, you need to remember that it’s supposed to be alive. (The number of dogs that no author ever lets out until after a shower and breakfast is truly staggering…)
  • If you’re going to use a Regency setting, you should consider that perhaps young women don’t live all by themselves in their gentry-or-better family homes without relatives or servants. Any servants.
  • In a detective-procedural sort of book, I recommend not having the knowledgeable main character refer to the sight of a cartridge as a “glimpse of bronze” (vs brass).
  • Knitting is not actually done on a single needle. (Yes, yes, I know, but not by conventional beginners in conventional settings not making anything circular.)
  • If you set your story in a real historical period, you might want to remember that:
    — Textiles are not cheap and abundant like T-shirts.
    — Horses can’t be parked and forgotten.
    — Saddles can’t just “fall” off without any mention of girths.
    — Getting on a horse bareback from the ground is not a trivial matter, especially for the height-challenged.
    — A small woman can’t pick up a military longbow and pull it to full draw.
    — Not all dances are for couples and the waltz has not been around forever.

Got your own lists? Have at it in the comments!

66 thoughts on “When Magic Tricks Fail

  1. I got seriously annoyed with, “The Clan of the Cave Bear,” when the Neanderthal midwife, in Europe, went out to look for, “rattlesnake weed.” I was enjoying the story, though it also had a touch of Mary Sue syndrome, up to that point.

  2. Magic and Showmanship by Henning Nelms is in fact an excellent book for tips on writing.

    I have literally read people who think fantasy fans are not entitled to grouse about worldbuilding….

  3. No doubt.
    But my immediate thought was, “The author didn’t do her research,” which kills the story. Though I fid finish it, it was mostly duty.

    1. That book was one of my more memorable moments of “flung book”. The mass market paperback was quite substantial, and when I literally threw it against a wall in exasperation over defective worldbuilding in my hotel room at night on a business trip, the person next door complained.

      1. And I don’t think of it as “research”. Research is for esoteric or specialized knowledge (by some standard). Cartridges made of brass (not bronze) and rattlesnakes (and their co-named plants) being New World are the sorts of things that should be common knowledge.

        People with insufficient “common knowledge” haven’t failed in research; they’ve failed in fundamental education and haven’t read very much. They’re not reliable as guides in a work of fiction because they don’t have an adequate grasp on the world they’re presenting.

        Now, I could read a tale told all day by a conjure-woman, whose presented world is a blend of magic, etc., because it would have internal psychological and magic-operation consistency in its world. But failures of the “rattlesnake weed” variety violate the world outside the bubble of the tale and burst it wide open.

        1. Mind you, research can fail, too, in the hands of inept authors.

          C. J. Box (Joe Pickett series) has several worldbuilding failures (both the knitting needle & brass/bronze ones I mentioned are his). Those are failures of common knowledge.

          But he has one (spectacular to the specialist) failure in explicit research — he doesn’t understand some fundamental things about the Middle Ages, so when he looks up details about hunting birds and wants to sound knowledgeable, he misinterprets the standard Wikipedia-level (accurate) material. You see, in falconry, different species of birds are reserved to different ranks as a sort of sumptuary/privilege practice — e.g., Emperors got to use eagles, while Priests had to settle for sparrowhawks. So Box carefully read his research and rendered it as “The eagle is the Emperor of falcons.”, etc. Mind you, an “eagle” isn’t any kind of “falcon”, so this mistake is a twofer.

          But wait — there’s more… https://hollowlands.com/2016/08/why-inconsistencies-in-fiction-matter/

          1. Research can fail due to bad reference material, too. Dorothy Dunnett got jumped on for having people eating maize in pre-Columbus Asia Minor, in book 2 of her second series. She said she’d looked it up in … I think it was “Chambers”. She normally got stuff right, so I’ll believe her reference was wrong, but that’s a much harder thing to check. I don’t think authors ought to be on the hook for not double checking stuff from supposedly reliable sources.

            (Although I thought everyone knew maize was a New World plant. ) I think the thing to try is double and triple check if it’s something you have ‘common knowledge’ about, and the reference contradicts.

            1. The problem is that English at that time used “corn” as a catchall for any grain. See “Corn Laws”, “John Barleycorn”, etc. Thus, the term for maize became “Indian Corn”…. and then it shrunk.

              1. Only on this side of the pond. On that one, it became, as they do, attached to the commonest form of grain, namely wheat.

                Like “cattle”, which once meant “domesticated animal,” came to mean “kine” so thoroughly that for many readers, that’s probably the first time you’ve encountered “kine.”

                1. But the plural of “kine,” when used north of The Border, is “kye,” isn’t it? Or is that just the plural of the Scots’ “coo”?

                  As in a splendid Scottish folk-song mentioned in James Buchan’s Mr. Standfast, arranged at one point by Robert Louis Stevenson, and recorded by the Tannahill Weavers and others:

  4. “โ€” A small woman canโ€™t pick up a military longbow and pull it to full draw.”

    For that matter, neither can a man unless he’s been doing it for a while. Certainly for not very long. And a lot of bows have to be customized to the user with indeterminate results for “using one I found”.

      1. Bows, probably because they are distance weapons, have gotten a reputation in various fiction as “women’s weapons.” You would be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t) at how many discussions I’ve seen where people blithely assert that bows don’t require any physical strength to use.

    1. If I may pick a small nit, she can if she braces the bow with her feet and pulls back with both hands. Otherwise, no. Arms too short, and probably can’t one-arm 120lbs.

      If she can do that and then hit anything, that’s how you know it’s a fantasy. ~:D

  5. You said dances and I flashed back to various SCA events where we danced the galliard. Which looks, to an observer, a lot like what happens when you scatter water droplets across a hot skillet. It’s fun, but it’s every dancer for himself, or it was at those events.

    1. Yep. I fiddle for one genre of dancing (Scandie) so I avert my eyes at SCA events. On the other hand, I tend to give the SCA a pass on this sort of thing, on the grounds of the “C” in the “Society for Creative Anachronism”. In that sense, who’s to say they can be actually wrong about any take on what they’re doing? Bizarro, maybe, but wrong?

  6. Technical stuff doesn’t really bother me usually, possibly because I’ve run into so much flat out weird in the real world that running into a technical system that behaves insane isn’t unexpected.

    (I have it on good authority that there is, or at least was, a server farm that only worked if someone kept it company at night. Why? No-one knows. Haunted? Could be. Weird electrical interference with the coffee maker? Could be.

    Also, don’t run coax cable over fluorescent lights. They’re both capacitors and they influence each other for “such fun” debug problems.)

    The things that throw me are people behaving in impossible ways. The Mesan Alignment pretty much threw me for a loop when they were truly introduced. It made total sense that they would detonate one of their top researchers through treating humans like machines. What did not make sense was how they had managed to go for centuries without already doing that.

    1. I remember reading, many years ago, in a journal of computing history about a computer that was afraid of the dark. This was in the very early days of digital computing, and this particular computer used some now totally obsolete technology for memory (CRT circulating shift registers or some such thing). The components were starting to age, and it turned out that the additional energy received from the lights in the computer room was the only thing keeping the decayed memory elements working. If the lights were turned out, the memory stopped working and the computer crashed.

    2. Agreed on the Mesan Alignment, something that fundamentally broken can’t run for hundreds of years before outing itself. Suspension of disbelief strained to swallow that one.

      You know the one about the computer and the cleaning lady, right? Computer went down every Tuesday night. No one could figure it out. Finally they had somebody babysit the damn thing all night on a Tuesday. They sat and watched all night, until the cleaning lady came around. She calmly unplugged the computer, plugged in her vacuum and cleaned the carpet. When finished she plugged the computer back in and went on her merry way.

      1. That’s similar to the CRT monitor with wiggling image problem that ended when the PC tech removed an oscillating fan from the desk on the other side of the partition.

        1. I had a cellphone that had a strong enough field that it would cause goofy stuff on the TV if I Ieft it sitting next to it.

          Apparently it was checking in with the local cell towers every hour on the hour.

      2. Got that in real life, except it was a heavy duty floor buffer, and it was plugged into the same dual outlet so the computer was just being —- disturbed, with non smooth power. Only reason we found it was that the schedule got disrupted when she was out and her replacement was cleaning during the day.

        Owner of client company: “Computer’s down again.”
        Us: “What’s that noise, we can barely hear you.”
        Light bulbs click on both ends of the call.

  7. Continuity errors are a big one for me. You can tell me pretty much any nonsense as part of your premise, and I’ll believe it, but it must be consistent nonsense. You tell me your vampires sparkle in the sun? A little different but fine. You then have your vampire flying on a plane in the middle of the day, sitting in the window seat with the shade open, and not attracting any attention for being a living disco ball? Fail. Marion Zimmer Bradley was one of the worst offenders in this category for me. She would do things like start out a chapter by making a big deal about how a character was not a slave but a freewoman who chose to serve the main character of her own will, then for the rest of the chapter refer to the character as “the slave woman.” It got so bad that I ended up counting all the times she contradicted herself.

    The worst “throw me out of the story” that I ever encountered, though, wasn’t precisely an error: it was Stephen King’s inserting himself in The Dark Tower stories not only as an author living in Maine, but specifically as the author of The Dark Tower series. Maybe the weird recursion worked for some people, but for me, every time I read about Stephen King talking about himself and how he wrote the book I was reading, it knocked me out of the world and reminded me, “Hey, you’re not exploring the surreal landscape of Midworld with Roland the Gunslinger and his ka-tet, you’re just sitting in your bedroom with a bunch of words written by a guy who can’t stop talking about himself.” I had to mentally quarantine those parts of the story in order to get to the end, and by the time I did get to the end, I was left wondering why I’d bothered.

  8. I don’t like it when the author acts like he’s entitled to have me buy into the story– any time that the tone is broken to take a jab at someone, even if I agree with the author, it throws me out of the story.

    If I was interested in someone’s modern socio, political, or philosophical views– I’d be reading that!

    Now, tone does matter; Narnia is rather famously different than Middle Earth, and they had very different approaches to world-building– but there wasn’t a point where it didn’t make sense for the characters to do as they did, considering the world they were set in. Even Gandalf and they shall not pass is an easter egg, rather than pulling you out of the story– and even when you understand the historical allusion, it only goes in to support the genera story. Or the Riders/Winged Hussars, or Tolkien having TWO TOTALLY DIFFERENT “no man of woman born” characters. ๐Ÿ˜€

  9. Lack of servants. The time it takes to cook and do the washing up, especially if you’re starting with a live chicken and parsnips still in the garden.

    Gardening! I got thrown out completely when a writer insisted that our heroine had snowdrops and foxglove in bloom at the same time. And they were growing camellias on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago.

    I also get hung up on bus schedules. Didn’t that trek across the continent on foot take, you know, a few months instead of a few days?

    1. Many of these people have never had to do most of the work that is required to sustain themselves, and it shows.

      It wasn’t until the 1920s that large-scale electrification and consumer appliances meant it was possible to keep a single-family middle-class household without at least one or two part-time servants, even with family members chipping in to help. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that people didn’t have to shop every single day for perishable groceries.

      It wasn’t until the middle 1800’s that quality fabrics of all kinds were available, and people were lucky to have a set of working clothes and a set of “Sunday” clothes if they weren’t very rich. Or needed a source of power that wasn’t human, animal, mechanical, wind, or water.

      It wasn’t until the 1500’s that books could be printed in enough quantities that the middle class could afford to buy large quantities of books. Enough that a decently sized library would be a sign of epic wealth.

      The world right now isn’t perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than most of human history.

      1. So true! IIRC Megan McArdle — who cooks — worked out that up until the 50’s and the miracle of convenience foods, a woman could expect to spend five or six hours daily in the kitchen cooking from scratch and doing the washing up.

        We’re almost done with the Agatha Christie project and it is MADDENING to see castles where all the work is done by invisible servants.

        A rare change was the French film “Family Murder Party” (2006). It reworks “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” removing Poirot. In addition to the family, there are fifteen servants (at least). The butler, the valet, the housekeeper, four parlor maids, the chef and her four kitchen maids, the all-purpose dogsbody, the gardener, at least one groom, and a gamekeeper. The lady’s maid isn’t shown but I know she’s there too.

        This film acknowledged just how much work goes into keeping a chรขteau up to snuff.

        1. For a lot of these people, the servants are invisible or might as well should be. I’m remembering several stories (Harry Potter is one of the biggest ones) where a “modern” character learns of the Upstairs/Downstairs divide and is appalled at how the serving class is treated.

          (This actually is one of the characterization points in Solist At Large and the later books. Adelaide knows what her Servants are and hates the idea that they were made just to keep her life going. And they have zero autonomy in that respect.)

          “Guns protected women, electricity liberated women, computers freed women,” is a saying that one of my friends made on this subject. Technology makes it possible for people to do more with the time they have, and it is astonishing how many people forget this.

          1. I once read an essay that went through Austen and pointed out every reference to servants. They were just about as invisible as the servants — that is, you had to look.

        2. The pressure cooker (a HUGE time saver) was invented in, IIRC, the last half of the 17th Century – but didn’t even start appearing in home kitchens until after the 1939 World’s Fair. Widespread adoption was interrupted by the steel and rubber shortages of WW2.

          I would be quite lost these days without my modern crock pot / pressure cooker. Half an hour to put a soup or stew together, push the button, and I’m done. Even less to plop in a pot roast and some veggies plus spices.

      2. In the 19th century — and not the early decades — a man studied the classes in London. He put hiring servants as the difference between the poor — and the very poor.

        1. I’ve thrown some steampunk books across the room because they were set in Victorian-era London…and never explained the lack of servants in even the houses of the most rich and powerful.

          (If I ever do write the story bunny that I have, one of the solutions to this problem is…extremely, extremely creepy. And terrifying. And a direct line thought of how the upper classes would have “solved the problem” if their conscience had atrophied enough.)

      3. The 1400s-1500s also saw the development of glasses for correcting far-sightedness, so that now, the people who had the money and time to read could also see close up to do so.

    2. Yeah. There’s a reason I never mentioned a single thing the gardener character actually grew, save for that she had had a spider plant and a Christmas cactus when she was living in an apartment.

      1. When mentioning flowers, remember they are seasonal. Do not give us daffodils and roses in bloom at once. (Unless of course your point of view character can comment that they are growing, along with, oh, asters, in defiance of the seasons.)

        And do not make the shifting of flowers in bloom a clue to the passage of time. Most readers won’t notice.

        1. Yeah. I cheated a bit there. Indoor Christmas Cactuses you can actually push them to bloom if you want them to go off at a certain time, which she had.

          Beyond that I tried hard to be really really vague about how much time passed between events. Unless it absolutely needed specifying, I left it to the readers’ to figure it out, and just made sure there was enough space between major events that there weren’t any “how did they sail from Australia to England in 2 days?” problems.

  10. Throw me out of the story… such a long list. The older I get the crankier I become. My top three.

    Breaking the characters is my least favorite. Example, the Strong, Independent Whamen/GirlBoss who goes around making comments about “bimbos picking the Bad Boy” and then, faced with the choice, she picks the bad boy? I’m sorry, she would never pick that guy, you’re a lazy author.

    Second least favorite, characters who are pre-broken. You know the ones. The incompetent hero/heroine who only survives because of dumb luck and the help of amazingly tolerant strangers. The character who consistently makes stupid choices and consistently gets saved. (Like the brat that wanders off in EVERY EPISODE and they lose a crew member or two rescuing the the little shit.) As Captain Kirk said, “LET them die!”

    Third least favorite, modern sensibilities/morals/fashions in the mouths of non-modern characters. Anybody remember what they did to Galileo? And he was a famous guy. Some not-important guy yammering inconvenient ideas would last as long as the guy denouncing Stalin in Red Square circa 1950. Same principle, same result.

    See them all the time these days. It’s like a plague, I tells ya! ~:D

  11. You can tell an author that hasn’t done the research. Or worse, doesn’t care enough about the research the subject that they’re writing about.

    I’ve read far too many novels where gun-handling is terrible. Where police procedure is done in such a way as to make a DA cringe at the idea of bringing charges against the subject due to so many rights violations. Characters have no natural flow to where they start from to where they finish. And stories are written with a “just because” mentality that has the author filling in holes that they haven’t planned for with “just because.”

    It doesn’t help when you can tell what particular personal issues the author has, and doesn’t have a problem sharing…

    1. “Where police procedure is done in such a way as to make a DA cringe at the idea of bringing charges against the subject due to so many rights violations. ”

      Well…. now we know who’s old. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Today, they make it the office procedure manual.

      1. More like the reverse-nobody in most PDs or DA offices wants to get caught getting in the sort of trouble that can get shared on YouTube.


        Lawsuits my friends-cities have deep pockets and there have been far too many times where thirty-minute chase has been narrowed down to fifteen seconds of “police brutality” that nice, polite Karen suburban housewives can’t help but think that all police are racist, sexist assholes. And the city is now on the hook for a seven-figure payday.

        There’s a whole lot of other reasons, but this is one of the biggest ones.

  12. A few years back, some author set his story in Saint Louis Missouri and it was terribly obvious that he had never been in Saint Louis and never researched Saint Louis.

    He wrote Saint Louis like it was a very small town.

    Oh, the author was also very annoyed at people who tried to tell him what the Real Saint Louis was like. IE He didn’t give a sh*t about reality.

  13. A cozy mystery with supposedly a botanist as MC, where petunias were being grafted onto rose bushes.

  14. Stephen R. Donaldson’s Seventh Decimate opens with the main character using ancient blueprints to craft fairly advanced rifles in a medieval setting in order to fight wizards, but during all his years of work it never occurs to him that he could take the basic principles and use it to start off with simpler firearms, or even try and invent cannons.

    1. Actually, that’s kind of believable if he doesn’t really understand the principles of what he’s building.

      Forgotten Weapons has a fascination with what he calls Chinese Mystery Pistols. Those are some truly strange guns. And the workmanship ranges from abysmal to exquisite, without ever once betraying any real understanding of how a firearm works.

      I suspect they could be used as a really good basis for how people would approach a magic system or technology they could use, but did not really understand.

      1. In Spells In Secret, there are spells you learn by rote. And then there are branches of magic that you study.

        No wizard can really devise a new spell after learning a spell by rote. You have to study the branch. (Indeed, merely learning rote spells doesn’t really qualify you as a wizard.)

  15. Historical inaccuracies…it depends on how serious. I saw a movie not so long where the leading man was wearing knit ties in a late 19th c. setting, roughly 20-30 years before they became fashionable. I shrugged. But jarringly modern language or bad, clunky imitations of period language will throw me, and if I feel like you have an axe to grind against people or things of the period that I respect, your book or film will get bounced.

    I’m more bothered by psychological improbabilities, like the end of Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer, where the final twist reveals the killer as someone who has motive, opportunity, and physical means, but just doesn’t come off as having the mental horsepower or the nerve necessary for the murder (which is a complicated, touch-and-go affair dependent on him having figured out some criminal stuff the victim was involved in).

    Lore changes…if it’s in a long, enough messy enough book series, I might not notice LOL. Logistics I personally am bad at; Tolkien and Jane Austen sweated over calendar and travel time details that largely pass me by when I read their books. In my own work, I just try to not be super-specific about things I can’t check easily.

  16. Once got jolted out of a story because a king was addressed as “Your Grace.”

    Alas, before I knew that “Your Majesty” for kings, rather than emperors, was mostly Renaissance and later. (A few medieval instances, because kings signing treaties with the Holy Roman Emperor insisted on being his equal.)

  17. Something that is supposed to be very rare, is treated like it is very rare for a while, and then suddenly… isn’t anymore. That happened in Dune for me, with water. Maybe it wasn’t in the first book, maybe it happened in some of the others. But Frank Herbert went into such exquisite detail describing the Fremen culture and water conserving suits that when we got to a rich person’s house with, I think it was a fountain, it really had impact. Like Dorothy landing in OZ. And that was great. But then later on, the water scarcity seemed to no longer be a factor. It’s been a long time since I’ve read that, so maybe there was an explanation I don’t remember.

    1. I cannot recall the name he gave the critter, but it was the immature form of the sand worms. Anyway, they supposedly lived in the subsurface, and blocked all of the underground water from reaching the surface. I also don’t recall how he got rid of them, but it was something that Paul Muad’dib did.

      (The first book was mildly interesting to me. All of the ones after that just went into way too much psychological hangups for every last damn character for me to not launch them.)

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