I originally started planning/writing a short story that was more or less based on a few popular trends in YA/Sci-Fi writing (interstellar travel, superpowers, etc) just as an exercise to force myself out of a particularly nasty bout of writer's block - I was very much okay with it having common cliches or tropes. After working on it for a while though, I decided I wanted to try fleshing it out into a longer, more complex work for young adults, so I went back to the original outlines to do a bit of editing.

One thing I had spent some time developing was a system of superpowers exhibited by a portion of the populace within the text. On the lower end of the spectrum, things like telepathy were present and on the higher end there were more complex, dramatic powers, such as electrokinesis or something.

Although they do serve a narrative purpose, I could eliminate the high spectrum abilities and the plot would still be relatively intact, save for some details that would need to be rewritten; the only real value they have is being showy, or cool, abilities. If anything, big dramatic powers like that can remove some of the work's believability. Keeping them in would simply be for the sake of 'coolness,' and to appeal to the reader - which isn't an inherently bad thing.

So, if an aspect of the narrative is easily replaceable/removable, should I do so? Or is the value those details add, though somewhat superficial, worth retaining?

  • There is no general answer to this. You need to define who you are writing for.
    – user5645
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 21:25
  • I noticed I wasn't clear on that as well and made the necessary edit; this will most likely be for young adults. Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 21:28
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    If you like these superpowers so much, then make them relevant to the plot. It could provide another twist or plot point to make your story more interesting (and longer, if you needed that).
    – Nicole
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 0:11
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    That's my point. Make them indispensable to the plot. That way, you get to keep the cool stuff :)
    – Nicole
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 1:37
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    I was thinking about the recent movie "Looper" in relationship to this question. It features both time travel and psychic powers. The time travel is essential to the story --the powers, in my opinion, were extraneous and detracted from my immersion in the story. It's easier to suspend disbelief for one major departure from standard experience than two... Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 14:00

6 Answers 6


Answering more from a reader's perspective than a writer's, I'd prefer the version without the "cool for cool" powers --whenever I read something like that, it just seems like the writer being self-indulgent.

You also run the risk of introducing plotholes. For instance, in the Harry Potter series, there are a number of over-powered magical devices (the "time turners" which allow a limited form of time travel being the best example) which seem as though they could have been used to easily solve many of the series' main problems. Obviously it wasn't a fatal problem for HP, and might not be for you either, but it is an avoidable risk.

One final argument for dropping the SUPER-super powers --you don't want them to lower the cool factor of the normal superpowers.


In the strongest writing, everything that's been included by the author has a reason to be there -- adds something relevant to the theme, moves the plot forward, develops a character, etc.

If you're already suspecting that an item is superficial, then you should probably remove it.

You wouldn't want an unnecessary element to accidentally remove the reader from his or her immersion in the story. The reading experience should be seamless and smooth.


Ensuring relevance/believability are key to stories/characters and magic/superpowers. When reading, I become fully immersed in the fictional world that if a power/ability appears 'just for show', the book's credibility weakens to me and I am cautious/fearful any new aspect that is introduced will also end up being a pointless trait.

Though, I do enjoy when powers and their purpose are witheld, not discovered by the hero until the end, are the cause of the conflict to start with or not explicitly described as monumental to the plot.

Mix it up a bit, present the abilities as so amazing that the reader believes it's vital to save the day. However, give that power an unusual use by those who possess it, like breathing fire to grill toast! The cool power has a 'reason' to be there, it's unexpected and could add intrigue/humor/character insight etc.

Perhaps, re-purposing the lower/higher spectrum powers like that, could provide a quirky twist to your novel and maintain appeal.

I also struggle with this in my own writing. I mentally justify those replaceable aspects because of the coolness factor and I loved writing and showing it off... Impressed by my creative pizzazz like, far out! My world and creatures are super duper awesome because they have 17 different powers, shoot fireballs from their eyes while reading minds as they fly around the streets with glowing skin!

Obviously, a silly example but adding the superficial drama without reason leads me off track and dilutes my initial plotline. I just step back and re-trace my progress. My personal methods include:

  1. Copy and paste! Re-Draft, move sections into different chapters/timelines or write a few versions-eliminate/alter/combine aspects. Replace the ability for another to see where it could go. Or just delete the lot as if it was never there!

  2. Backstory check. In my own writing, I like the powers to be: -Consistent with my created story/world history. -Believable, not too absurd in comparison to other elements. -Memorable, are characters and powers easily distinguishable by the reader or will it be confusing to follow who does what? -Relevant, serving purpose to plot/conflict/character/theme etc that is clearly understood by the reader.

  3. Good old pen and paper. Brainstorming! Word association techniques especially help me when cutting/changing/keeping the superficial studd. I challenge my use of language/words/phrases, weed out stereotypes/connotations or realise opportunties to incorporate the aspects with relevance I couldn't see before! E.g. Shooting eye fire-flame-heat-hot-warmth-snug-love... A potentially destructive power becomes a healing power of warmth and nuturing!

  4. Seek feedback. Find someone (who can be relatively objective) to provide constructive critiscm. They could read your draft and comment. I like informal sessions, explaining a brief rundown plot etc like, "in X world, X exists and can do X magic..." and so forth. I have had good breakthroughs with friends, particularly when they aren't a fan of the genre, a writer or creatively-minded. Our opposite tastes and opinions have come together to help shape/recreate my story. I find this so valuable and a great creative outlet.

As I said, these are my personal steps to help shape believable plots where fantasy/magic etc is involved. It can be tricky to seamlessly concoct a believable fantasy tale with flashy superpowers to engage the YA reader. Relevance is still key though, avoiding cliches and bulking up prose with useless aspects can be at the expense of important plot devices/storytelling/character-building etc.

All of the above are basic techniques that can be applied any time. But whenever I get carried away in my world-building etc, instead of complicating it further by trying to create meaning/add information to justify aspects, it's a great to take a little bit of time and just simplify the process.


YMMV as to how relevant this is, but basically superpowers = magic. And there is no one who has more clearly thought through the necessity and workings of magic in the context of a novel than author brandon sanderson.

If you're not really sure what role your magic/superpowers are going to play in your story, you should take a look at this.


  • I wouldn't normally upvote an answer that's just a link, but I read the essay and it's actually excellent. However, you should probably provide at least a brief summary of "Sanderson's First Law" in your post --after all, links often go dead. Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 13:57
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    For any future readers, just in case of link rot, Brandon Sanderson's First Law, taken from the above link: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. Commented May 4, 2016 at 12:41

Don't introduce powers if you won't explore their consequences.

The presence of super super-powers would affect every interpersonal, social and political action. Do you want your characters wondering and worrying if the shy nerdy guy is just socially maladapted or has chosen to isolate himself because he will literally explode with the force of an atomic bomb if he talks to a girl? What forms of bigotry and racism will be fomented by the disparity between "normal" and "powered" people? Are people with powers automatically registered at birth and conscripted into policing or soldiering?

Grand powers would not just be "showy". They might send your teenage protagonists into a perpetual state of existential angst, fearing that everything that they know and love might suddenly cease to be under a barrage of comet-sized punches (cf. Man of Steel).

Given all the precedents from comics, books, TV and movies your audience may expect something quite gritty. Don't raise (lower?) their expectations unless you need to follow through.

P.S.: Have a look at the Wild Cards anthologies edited by George RR Martin (especially the first three!), Firestarter by Stephan King, and the whole Civil War storyline in the Marvel comics as extreme examples of how society can react and become fractured by a spectrum of abilities manifesting. (The other comic book and graphic novel exploring these themes being far too numerous to mention.)


You should use supernatural powers for the sake of the plot, not for the sake of "power" or for "cool."

In one of my screenplays, I gave the heroine "supernatural" powers to fix a problem inherent in the plot. It's all very matter of fact (and treated as such), but when she's done, she is finally "appropriate" for the hero.

  • Absolutely the right reason. Everything in a story should be there to serve the plot. This includes super-powers.
    – a4android
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 10:59

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