It’s been a while since we talked about using subject matter expertise to enhance your magic system, but I wanted to revisit the topic.
In previous posts, we discussed why subject matter expertise is useful for storytellers, how to find a subject matter expert (SME), and twenty under used subjects to consider. At one point, we also discussed the 3 biggest pros and cons of using a SME.
#1) The Benefits Apply to More Than Just the Magic
However you use your SME (as a guide, as a font of inspiration, as vampire bait, or whatever), it can provide insight on far more than just your magic system.
Yes, you heard the words “just” and “magic system” in the same sentence. No need to freak out.
My point is, the expertise you bring to bear, whether yours or someone else’s, can apply to all aspects of your story. It helps when building smart, capable, and interesting characters. Adding and explaining the detailed nooks and crannies of your setting becomes easier. The only limits come from the knowledge possessed by your expert, and your creativity in its application.
Unfortunately, it’s not all easy stakings and tasty garlic bread.
The more you work with your SME, the more you will want to use the knowledge they provide… even if you really shouldn’t.
I get it. You want the reader to see every aspect of this masterpiece you’ve crafted. Not only is this unnecessary, but it can also be harmful to your story and damage your reader’s experience.
If you don’t believe me, just research info-dumps and why they are so problematic.
But enough of my silly warnings. Let’s move on to the next benefit.
#2) It Can Enhance Your Story
This is very similar to the first reason, but I felt it was different enough to warrant its own number. If you don’t agree with me, you only have to say so.
*Shoves fingers in his ears and sings… badly.*
You’re done? Thank you for your input. I always like hearing what you have to say, but let’s return to the topic I am obviously 100% correct about.
In benefit #1, I focused on using the SME to build your character and setting. You can also apply your available expertise to the plot itself. With a deep understanding of a subject at your fingertips, there’s no reason you can’t pull out interesting threads, quirks, and mysteries and turn it into a story. In fact, that’s kind of what Hard Science Fiction is.
Take a look at The Martian by Andy Weir. Much of this book’s success came from the engaging character, Mark Watney. But the book wouldn’t have been even half as good if Andy didn’t have the scientific details right. Which is why he tapped so many resources to make sure his math and science were all accurate.
My point is, you can create plots woven around the knowledge, like in the Hard Science Fiction genre, or use it to develop incredible plot twists like in Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
If you’re not deliberate with the knowledge, it can take control of your story.
I’ve read multiple books where the author seems to care more about their pet subject than the plot or characters. They drone on for pages about specs, details, and jargon that means nothing to non-experts.
In the best scenario, I felt I’d stumbled onto some strange fetish shared by the author and their very focused niche of readers but the story was awesome. At it’s worst, the story didn’t compensate for the strange fetish experience and I left feeling uncomfortable and annoyed.
Much like we discussed before, fight the urge to address specific topics, problems, and theorems unless you truly need to.
#3) Apparent Expertise can Better Suspend Disbelief
When done correctly, this is a huge deal.
If you demonstrate in-depth knowledge of a topic without falling into the previously mentioned pitfalls, the audience will trust you more. They will assume you applied the same level of scrutiny to every detail of your story.
On the Writing Excuses Podcast, Dan Wells likes to say, “Give them the details of a small lie and they will believe the big one too.”
I’m paraphrasing. The point is, when properly used, expertise makes it easier for the reader to believe what is happening in the story.
You can utterly destroy your credibility if your facts are wrong. The same thing can happen if you give me too much irrelevant information, so be careful. This is the worst-case scenario but it can happen. You can name all the chemical analysis equipment you want, but if you tell me the characters are carbon dating pure silicon dioxide… I’m gone.
This is the key difference between my friend Ross and Mr. Smarty-Pants.
Ross is insanely bright has an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly everything. He uses the information he has when it is appropriate or interesting to those around him.
Mr. Smarty-Pants knows fancy words and obscure facts and will go to great lengths to make sure everyone knows just how smart he is.
Please, don’t be a Mr. or Mrs. Smarty-Pants.
#4) You Learn New Things
This may seem like a stupid reason for putting in all that work to build/find your expertise, but I always see learning as a good thing.
The more you learn, the more ideas you will have. The more ideas you have, the more interesting your books can become and the more you can help others. I mean, is there even a downside?
Yes… Yes, there is.
Becoming an expert requires a daunting, if not utterly overwhelming, amount of research, learning, and time. Beyond the demands on your brainpower, the process can tax you emotionally.
Never in my life have I found more concrete “evidence” of my perceived stupidity than when I’m learning something new. The perception doesn’t make it reality, but it’s still no fun to deal with that feeling.
#5) You Can Tailor Your Story for Specific People
Remember those books I talked about earlier? The ones so specific and detailed in their information they felt almost fetishistic?
Well, some people might have that fetish, and developing a story just for them can earn you their undying loyalty.
Doing this successfully is tricky. You must know exactly what it is those people want, build your good story including the topic, and get your product in front of them. But if you do it right, you will have one hell of a fan base. And if you did everything else well enough, you can even get customers outside your target niche.
Take Monster Hunter International by Larry Correai.
I was not the target reader for this series, but the writing, character, and plot were so awesome that I loved it anyway. The series is a good read for most people, and perfect for those gun nuts out there.
You might turn off or freak out anyone not looking to scratch that very specific itch.
You must deliver just the right amount of information for this to work. Give too little and people end up feeling confused and stupid. Give too much detail and you’ll bore even your most patient fans right out of your story.
After hearing these extra reasons to use subject matter expertise in your magic and story, are you going to?
There’s no right or wrong answer here. If you don’t need it, then don’t use it. I wanted to make sure you saw all the potential it offered before you moved along. Ultimately, it’s about what is right or wrong for you and your story. If you still have questions about finding, developing, or using subject matter expertise, be sure to let me know. I’m happy to answer your questions any way I can.
That’s All for Now
Oh, I have good news before you leave.
As we speak, I’m setting up coaching services for storytellers looking to create or repair the extraordinary elements of their story. They can take the form of advanced tech in a science fiction novel, traditional magic in a new video game, or even bizarre monsters in a movie or screenplay.
Whatever you need.
I love helping people, and I appreciate those who have helped me. Therefore, anyone on the Marvelous Magic Builder’s Mailing List will have priority on my schedule before the public. In fact, members of the mailing list got to know the service has gone live before the rest of the world.
If you’re stuck with your current system, don’t know how to build one, or just want to spend time with me — weirdo — then join the mailing list today. Also, you’ll get to learn more about me in the process and receive email notifications so you never miss a post again.
Ultimately, it’s up to you. Apparently forcing people to sign up against their will is illegal or something. I don’t remember exactly what the judge said; the bloodsucker walked straight into a stake-trap half a second later… Oh well. We’ll talk again soon.