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How can you create a story that incorporates magical or supernatural elements in a way that is subtle and understated, without overwhelming the plot or detracting from the realism of the narrative?

I was thinking about writing a story about people who can alter reality at will, but I thought about it and I thought such a power would overwhelm the plot as the power would be just simply too powerful, and it would completely bend the story and worldbuilding around it.

Aside adding limitations to said power, are there ways to achieve this? I am thinking of adding a lot of limitations so that the magical and supernatural elements almost falls to irrelevance. Is this the right way, or are there other things we can do?

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  • This is the premise of two entire series by Roger Zelazny, the ability to alter reality by force of will, never overwhelmed the The Chronicles of Amber. Its about the skill and imagination of the author in storytelling
    – EDL
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 1:33
  • Sure. See the movie "Bruce Almighty."
    – Boba Fit
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 14:03

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This is a popular and well-known subgenre called "magical realism." Books of this type tend to be more literary. Some famous authors who write in this way are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie.

Typically, the magic isn't something that the main character possesses or understands, but something they encounter. This allows it to remain mysterious and unexplained.

Author Brandon Sanderson has a famous dictum to the effect that the more magic impacts your plot, the better explained it has to be. So in a book where the magic remains in the background, it doesn't necessarily need to be explained at all.

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If you're going to keep the magic subtle, make sure the characters are blasé about it. We don't react when somebody flips a switch to ignite a light bulb; denizens of your world shouldn't react when someone casts a spell to make the ceiling glow. Flipping a switch doesn't involve a dialog about voltage and wiring and light bulbs; casting an everyday spell shouldn't invoke a conversation or mention in the story.

There are exceptions, of course. Some big ones are:

  1. If the ability to use magic happens at a certain age or a certain milestone in life, then it's only natural that the coming of age would be exciting. Unless you're writing YA, this would only show with characters remembering their own rite of passage or talking about their relatives, as we would do talking about our children getting driver licenses.
  2. Just as we have car fanatics in our society, there would be magic fanatics in a magical society. This may mean collecting obscure spells, pimping their spells, or acquiring fancy or historic wands.
  3. Scarcity brings things to the forefront. If magic in your world requires mana (or something like it), what if that mana is fading away (see Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away)? What if there are mana outages like we have power outages? What if magic wands can only be made from one particular type of tree, and that tree is wiped out by a disease?

Exceptions aside, the best way to keep magic understated in your story is to have the characters treat it the same way we treat technology today. Most people don't care how it works or why it works as long as they can use it. Skip the exposition and elaborate descriptions and just let it be.

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