Stage 0 of Building Marvelous Magic: Where to Start Building
I have to come clean. I lied to you… and not just about the mystery meat.
I said there are 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic Systems; that’s only mostly true. You see, the majority of my lessons, including the four stages themselves, comes from painful analysis of my own years of experience and practice.
Here’s the bad news: You’re not me! …actually, that might be a good thing depending on your state or country of residence.
Which is why, before you jump right into generating ideas in Stage 1, aligning your magic in Stage 2, defining your system in Stage 3, or iterating in Stage 4, you need to identify your personal Stage 0.
What is Stage 0 and Why Do I Need it?
Because you are here, I’m going to assume we are on the same journey toward building awesome magic systems. Before you can begin any kind of journey, you need to know your starting position.
In the case of magic systems, you need a foundation or seed for your ideas to grow from. It can be any number of things, but it needs to invigorate you and help spark the creation of new thoughts, patterns, and all around awesomeness.
That is your Stage 0.
As I said before, not everyone works, thinks, or screams the way I do. That can cause problems if you try working with the wrong kind of Stage 0. Let me tell you about some roadblocks I hit while building magic systems with Chautona Havig and April Hayman.
Both were wonderful to work with, but the ideas, relationships, and rules just weren’t falling in place for them the way they usually do for me. We spent hours in Stage 1 trying everything we could to generate ideas. While we did come up with some good ones, it wasn’t coming together like it was supposed to.
And then we changed our focus.
During one of our breaks, Chautona started talking about some of her ideas for different people in her story. Specifically, she was interested in a sub-culture of scavengers living in the large cities but surviving off valuable tools and resources found deep in the living desert.
I asked her what magical effects the scavengers might find useful. That’s when the light came on and we couldn’t stop the flood of ideas.
Most importantly, Chautona was excited about every one of them. Finally, she was in a place to really dig into Stage 1.
After seeing the drastic effect this had on Chautona’s efforts, April and I shifted strategies as well. We tried exploring the setting just as I had with Chautona but only met with similar frustrations. Eventually, we realized April cared more about the story itself and less about the setting. From there we spent several hours outlining the plot for the book itself. Just like that, it all clicked into place. As soon as April could start fitting the magic into her story, everything became much easier.
In the end, my method didn’t work for Chautona and neither of our methods worked for April. If your brain doesn’t work like ours, you lucky monster you, you might need something completely different from all three of us.
Without knowing what that something is, jumping straight into the 4 Stages can be exceedingly difficult. That’s why identifying your Stage 0 is so important.
So let’s take a look at your options.
6 Options for Your Stage 0
Characters are the filter through which you tell your story. You might start with some character sketches, an impossible task, or even just some reliable emotional pain. Whatever your ideas, use them to explore the personal connection these people or ideas will have to the magic itself.
From galactic sweeping conflicts all the way down to a self-conscious teenager trying to understand their new powers, plot covers everything happening in your story. Epic conflicts, heart-stopping scenes, and gut-wrenching arcs can all serve as the perfect seed crystal for the development of your magic system.
If you can’t stop thinking about your story’s cultures, history, or ecosystems, then setting may be exactly what you need before starting Stage 1. Does the term “Worldbuilder’s Disease” fill you with a combination of pride, excitement, and shame? Then setting might be the best Stage 0 you are ever going to find.
While plot covers everything happening in your story, Theme is what it’s all truly about. Regardless of the message you want to send, your magic system could be the perfect mirror to enhance and accentuate your theme.
This one is a little tricky, especially if you haven’t listened to season 11 of the Writing Excuses Podcast… shame on you. Whatever experience you want to deliver, be it a sense of adventure, horror, or a sense of wonder, this is the perfect soil for growing an engaging magic system.
This is all about building the magic for the magic. Everything else comes together over time, but the ideas all start here. If you’re like me, may the gods have mercy, then you should only need a little prompting and time for the ideas to begin blooming. Then you’re all set to dive into Stage 1.
There you have it
There are the six components of a story. In addition to providing vital texture, emotion, and power to your story, any one of these components can serve as an excellent basis for your Stage 0.
Chautona needed to understand her setting, April needed to know her plot, and I just need permission to be let loose on a magic system. Now, you need to decide which component will work best for you.
Identifying YOUR Stage 0
Think back on the last story you wrote. Where did it all start coming together in your head? Was it a single scene, a specific character concept, or maybe a powerful emotion you wanted your readers to feel?
Consider your favorite novels and movies. What about them lingers longest in your little grey cells?
What about when you daydream? Do you imagine powerful messages wrapped in a story, or is it all the awesome things you’d do if you had certain powers?
If someone were to pitch a story to you, what elements would get you most excited? Are you more excited by a woman’s struggle to evade pursuing criminals and officers of the law, or do you want to know how her powers will next manifest?
Go back through your answers. If one component comes up again and again like a particularly obnoxious body that just won’t sink… then you’ve probably found your Stage 0. It doesn’t matter which component it is, as long as it excites you and makes new ideas easier to come by
Important Note: Your Stage 0 Can and Will Change Between Projects
There is no single solution. Your current system might require a complete and instinctual understanding of every characters hopes, dreams, and fears, but the next could easily demand a thoroughly crafted outline for that contemporary, cuttlefish romance with thriller elements it will eventually tie into.
Just because a specific Stage 0 has worked for you in the past, is no guarantee it will always do so in the future. Whenever you start a new story or magic system, pause a moment and consider if you need to change up your Stage 0.
You now know what your Stage 0 is and why it is important. There’s just one more thing we need to address.
How do you know You’re ready to Start Stage 1?
This is one of those questions that is both easy and impossible to answer.
Short Version: You’re ready when you feel ready
I know, I know. Big help I turned out to be, but there aren’t really any definitive metrics I can give you on this front. In the end, it’s a call you will have to make.
Maybe I can make things at least a little clearer for you.
Slightly Longer Version: You are ready to proceed into the first stage of Building Marvelous Magic Systems when you have the momentum necessary to carry you through the hard parts.
How you gain this momentum varies so wildly, I can’t begin to cover the options. You can browse pictures online, steal inspiration from other novels, brainstorm with friends, watch movies, play games, go for a hike, or pretty much anything else you can think of.
What is most important is that you are excited by what you are working on, thoughts and ideas are coming more freely, and you are seeing new connections and possibilities with each passing second. When everything clicks into place, you will likely be bouncing up and down afraid you’re going to wet yourself.
That frenetic tempest of inspiration, ideas, and soiled pants is the perfect mentality to have before starting with Stage 1: Idea generation. Just, you know, put some towels down.
That’s all for today
Remember, if you ever get stuck, I’m here for you. I’m happy to help however I can. And if you’re serious about this, you should seriously consider joining the Marvelous Magic Builder’s Mailing List. Join now and I will make sure a demonic familiar alerts you whenever a new post goes live… I suppose email is also an option if you insist. Upon joining the mailing list, you will also receive monthly updates from me about and be the first to know of any projects, giveaways, or services in the future.
If that’s not your thing, no worries; minions will be dispatched promptly to replace you with a more cooperative version. Regardless of your decision, we’ll talk again soon.