I'm writing a story with a world that has different physics, alchemy rather than chemistry, and biology that relies somewhat on magic.

The protagonist is not of this world, however he is not of our world either. His powers do not work like the semi-scientific powers of the world he has come to inhabit.

The setting's powers work by using one's will, the same thing that keeps them alive, and isolating distinct 'powers', memorising the mental triggers that evoke them, and associating them with a verbal component. You then combine verbal components to cast a spell, and after casting a spell often enough, you can give it its own verbal component distinct from the other two.

For example:

'Sao' makes the object unform.

'Cau' makes the object form.

'Ti' makes the next command happen immediately after.

'SaoTiCau' therefore makes the object change from one thing into another.

If you cast it enough, you will be able to associate a simpler verbal component with it, such as 'Nur'.

Alchemical Transmutation works by learning the essence of an alchemical reaction, such as:

Si = Fire (Fr) + Earth (Er) ⟶ Magma (ErFr)

By using the associated verbal component in conjunction with the change command, you can cast NurSi, which turns fire and earth into magma.

But magma reacts as well.

Fa = Magma (ErFr) + Water (Wr) ⟶ Stone (WrErFr)

Therefore, if you want a spell that turns Fire and Earth and Water into Stone, you can just use NurSiTiFa!

The protagonist's powers are utterly alien.

They are essentially from another world, and 'magic schizophrenia', though perhaps insensitive to actual afflictees, is not an entirely bad way of describing it.

The protagonist has sixteen or so 'hallucinations', that represent ideals, such as justice, or honour, or Triumph.

By going to places in the area where he resides, where others and himself come close to reaching these ideals, (such as the courts, the duelling hall, and the rec. room), he can meet with a hallucinated version of himself that matches the way he thinks he would be like if he fully lived up to that ideal. (Aggressive and decisive, solemn and contemplative, and jubilant and competitive respectively). Depending on how pleased they are with his actions, they will give him abilities that either allow him to overcome limitations the ideal requires, or represent that ideal. (Sympathy magic - similar to the way voodoo dolls work, the ability to hold someone to their word, and changing the direction of gravity.)

My target audience is currently considered to be young adults, and it took some explaining to verbally explain how the above magic system worked.

At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist doesn't actually know they have these powers, nor how magic works in the setting.

And that's not even getting into the lore, resident creatures, economy, etc.

How do I prevent my readers from getting confused?

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    The Riftwar saga had two main realities with a whole multiverse explored later. None of the realities are ours if i recall correctly. Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 3:17
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    Two magical realities, ours isn't one of them. Does that mean it's the other? (Sorry; couldn't resist...)
    – Zev Spitz
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 8:28
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    Brandon Sanderson does a really good job of creating multiple different magic systems. Here's an overview of his Three Laws of Magic, and here's the more in depth version from Sanderson himself.
    – David K
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 13:59

5 Answers 5


The main thing to remember is that the audience doesn't need to know the details of your magic system unless the characters need to know. You may be geeked about the system you've put together, but that doesn't justify shoehorning the details into your book.

With that said, Master of the Five Magics (Lyndon Hardy) successfully introduces not just two, but five different, alien magical systems. How does he do it? His main character has to master all five different systems in a desperate race against time, against the opposition of the secretive groups that control the magics. Not only that, but the distinctive differences between the systems play a significant role in the plot. So learning the systems isn't an info dump, it's a integral part of the story.

It's great that you know exactly how your magic system works, but treat that info in your story as a precious and protected resource. Don't shove it down the throats of the reader (or the characters), make them want to seek it out. The more you leave shrouded in mystery the more "magical" it will all seem. In this way, confusion becomes your friend, not your enemy.

  • The setting is a magical university, where the protagonist has to fake being able to do setting magic.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:10
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    @Piomicron Great, that's ideal. Your character is in class. He needs to demonstrate his magic at the end of the week. He has no idea how to do it. So he sneaks around, tries to obtain forbidden books, snoops on other students, eavesdrops on pieces of conversation, and learns just barely enough to fake up a result. Do it well and you'll bet the reader will pay attention! Contrast that with him going to a lecture and learning everything he needs to know (and then some!). Which book would you rather read? Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:17
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    But absolutely make sure that you know how it works, or you'll end up with a pile of incoherent deus ex machina that risks being made into 8 movies. Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 4:22
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    @chrylis To be fair, the books do build up some of those things so they aren't as out-of-nowhere as they are in the movies.
    – JAB
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 16:57
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    Hardy was truly ahead of his time balancing the genius of his magic system while not burdening the readers with unnecessary details. If you ask me, it's required reading for anyone wanting to craft their own magic system, either for writing or game development.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 7:08

This does not really answer the question, but solves the dilemma in the interest of producing better writing.

Reading earlier comments and your replies, you seem intent on an info dump and forcing your YA readers to learn your "scientific" system with your own terminology, as if they need to use it to understand it. I'd wager they've had their fill and more of learning chemistry, math, physics, and more, and they will skip past this info dump and get to the good stuff.

Take a lesson from a woman that has earned about a billion dollars writing magic for YA: JK Rowling. Her system is largely unexplained, a bunch of Latin sounding words, and basically just another language to learn.

Which seems to be your system. Do not try to "stop your readers from getting confused". They aren't going to get confused because they are not really paying attention, they won't care how your system works or if they understand the rules correctly.

From the YA reader's POV, there will never be a test! They will skip the boring infodump, and wait for characters to say something in your strange language and see what happens. Oh look, magma! Oh look, the dog turned into a polka dot dragon!

They won't be confused, they can retain the information that magic works differently in the two worlds, and your MC is from a different world and has to learn a new magic. That is truly all you need. Including ALL the information about how the system works is only going to make your story look amateurish, and will drag it down, and cause both publishers and readers to lose interest.

What you have done is not terrible, but it is background information and "explaining it verbally" was probably unnecessary, it should not be in the story. I suspect you are not reading it with the eyes of a reader, that is looking for emotional conflict and struggles with life consequences. (Those don't typically include struggling with a textbook.)

As background information, it can keep the story consistent, and by osmosis, the reader may gather that there is some logic behind it, which will increase the verisimilitude. IMO trying to cram this into your book is a dire mistake, if you want to get published. Infodumps do not contain the kind of conflict and tension that keeps readers turning pages, and that is a major flaw. Publishers are not self-sacrificing and eager to help new writers, they have an infinite supply of submissions and when they find a big flaw, they seldom waste any more time, they put it on the reject pile and start the next one.

  • +1 This. So much this. As long as YOU know how your magic system works, and you keep it consistent throughout - great. But the reader simply does not care. You can include a bit at the back of the book explaining it if you like (like Sandersen does in Mistborn), but at the end of the day, it's irrelevant to the reader enjoying the story.
    – user18397
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 5:22
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    That said, it's important to keep in mind Sanderson's First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 6:59
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    @ArcanistLupus As Sanderson says, Tolkien does not expound on the rules, neither does Rowling, and such exposition does not fit my experience at all. I don't "understand" the magic of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, two of the most wildly popular magic stories ever. I never understood the rules of magic in "The Magicians" or "Merlin", shows I enjoyed immensely. In many of these stories even the wizards do not know exactly how magic works or what the limitations are. Sanderson just believes rules should exist. I don't think the OP's explanation is needed in the book, OR a good idea.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 13:28
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    Some readers do care and a well thought out and consistent underlying system will be much appreciated by those readers. Personally, I could never get into Harry Potter because its magic was all made up on the fly and there seemed to be no actual scientists in that world. Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 16:44
  • I'm not planning on info-dumping. The magic is a plot point, but it doesn't need the reader to understand everything. Readers can't be expected to memorise Thaumus Arcanus, and I don't want them to. The thing is, if you stick a character into a fantasy world who doesn't fit, people often assume they're from our world. If it is made clear they have magic powers, I fear some may be confused, or assume that I'm saying humans from our world have a different kind of magic, or something of that ilk.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 17:48

Three questions, whose answers may help avoiding reader's confusion:

1. Why should the reader care?

You have attempted to lay down the foundation of a new grammar for achieving something. To simplify with an example, you have invented a hammer. Why should anybody care about this hammer if there are no nails?

The result of all these actions should have a clear purpose in your story. Best if the purpose is essential to the story itself. If you are not going to use a 500 words dictionary for your grammar, then limit it to the words you are effectively going to use. Show at the beginning of the story how the grammar works and how powerful it is,

John Doe put all his heart in understanding this domino magic. He already knew how to get Si to work in order to lit a fire, and he had already had his share of troubles with all the rocks appearing after invoking Fr. Now he whispered "SiFr!" and waited for the molten magma to cool down on the ashes of his old home.

then, when you need it, you will not need to explain anything again. The reader will be already familiar with the

"FoffSi!" shouted John Doe and, not without breaking a sweat, dragged Jane Doe away from the flaming wind he had just invoked from the sky.

2. How would you explain this to a layman?

Imagine you did not know anything of what you described above. How would you react to its description? In other words, what is the easiest way to describe what you wrote? Write it down, count the words, and now explain it using half the number of words. Repeat. Think of it as an extreme form of rubber duck debugging, with the goal of simplifying the exposure, instead of finding bugs.

To control nature may sound easy. Afterall, one just needs the right combination of words: Si commanded a blob of fire to appear dancing in front of one's very eyes, and Fr, carefully pronounced with the tongue rolled beneath the teeth, would instead command a blob of stone to levitate for a moment in the air. It may last an instant, and unless the magic has a form to attach itself to, it turns back to nothing. Yet, it is not easy, and the most skilled of mages spend their entire lives trying to perfect the sounds, which John Doe had just become acquainted with. Si for fire, Foff for air, etc etc ...

3. Could you replace anything by something simpler?

This is a sort of Occam's razor approach. If anything can be replaced by a simpler tool, then by all means do it. For instance, unless you have an ironclad reason to reinvent the dictionary, then why not using Fire for fire and Stone for stone, so that magma could be StoneFire?

It does not detract from your creativity and from the use that you make of this device in your story, and it positively impact your storytelling karma.

  • Sorry, I wasn't clear about a certain detail. The 'Fr' and 'Er' stuff is just the shorthand for elements, like H, He, Li, Be are in real life. The verbal components of spells are independent of those. Some materials have multiple recipes, so it can't just be the name of the substance itself.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:08
  • Also, it helps if there's only one syllable.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:08
  • @Piomicron Notation borrowed from chemistry could follow the idea that the written formulas are then spelled out using longer and descriptive names: a chemical compound like <i>CO</i> is called <i>Carbon Monoxide</i>, and <i>Al(OH)3</i> is called <i>Aluminium hydroxide</i>. Imagine a reader having to remember all the meaning of your one-syllable terms, when you could use the shortest available word for it (I bet at most two syllables in English), and be equally clear.
    – NofP
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:53
  • 'Ar', 'Wr', 'Er', 'Fr' are just shorthand for physical elements, since they all have the letter 'r' in them. 'Md' and 'Vd' (mind and void) share the letter 'd', and so I differentiate them like that. Magma won't be called 'Difire Monoearth' or anything, it'll just be magma. There'll be things like white vitriol, sure, but the readers don't have to remember what it is.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 17:33
  • @Piomicron so, proof-of-principle C="ou", N=", th", B="is ", "|_"="asi", .... of cCrseNBBe|_erNank yC! .... ;-)
    – NofP
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 17:47

You might have to show the protagonist in his own world first in order to show that that world isn't like ours. Then you would have to have him make some sort of journey to the other world to show that that world isn't his or ours.

I strongly suggest no info dumps! Bring out the magic little by little as it occurs in the story. I think that complex and computational magic systems like these are why the "Wizard School" type of stories have come to prominence: because they can explain such things.

I prefer magic systems that are NOT explained. For example, the Lord of the Rings has very little explanation of any magic system. Most of the stories that I just have the magic being used with no explanation to the reader. The storytelling shows what little is really necessary to understand.

From your explanation I don't see any difference between magic and alchemy.

Examples include The Amber books by Roger Zelazny, and The Mercy Thompson books (werewolves, and witches, and coyotes, oh my).

Another thing: if the sounds are mental triggers, then they should probably be different for each user of magic since they trigger mental states in the user.

  • The verbal components are learned standardized associations. Some cultures do it differently. Alchemy is just one of the many branches of the setting's magic.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:09
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    I still think that explaining the magic system breaks the suspension of disbelief and also confuses the reader. Explaining magic systems is for role-playing games, IMNSHO.
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:18
  • You can't use magic to solve a problem, unless the reader already understands how it works, without it being a Deus Ex Machina. Heard of Brandon Sanderson? His magic is explained gradually throughout the books, and is definitely one of the things most loved about his books. Magic isn't used to solve problems in Lord of the Rings. It's just there, a little bit. Even the two or so times when Gandalf solves a problem, it seems more like he's drawing on ancient authority than casting spells.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 17:39
  • I can't really show the protagonist in their own world at the beginning, but I may be able to work in flashbacks along the story.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 18:25

While not as clean a writing technique as what other answers propose, you could also just add an appendix with the explanation of how everything works. An example of this is the Death Gate Cycle by Weis and Hickman. Each of the five worlds visited is completely explained in the appendices of the books. Bonus points if the appendix is in the form of a journal of an old archmage.

That said: Weis and Hickman are great world builders but somewhat mediocre writers and this is where they show it the most. Other answers are excellent at how you should incorporate the magic in your actual story. I don't see a reason why you couldn't combine both, especially with such a detailed development of how everything works.

  • Welcome to Writers.SE DonFusili! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun!
    – Secespitus
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 10:57
  • I like the idea of an appendix written as a journal of a historian or archmage. Perhaps it could be in the form of student paper by one of the characters, tying it better into the story. I will have to agree to disagree about Weis and Hickman being even mediocre world builders.
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 13:13

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