Figure Out Your Story’s Magic System Using Story Structure

From KMW: If you’ve ever written a story that falls into the broad genre of speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, and all their many many subgenres), then you may have faced one of the main challenges of the genre: creating a magic system.

A magic system can be anything from a thoroughly elaborate high concept plot-driver such as in Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novels, or it can be just a simple tweak on reality as in time-travel stories. Either way, the two most important guidelines for a well-executed magic system are:

  1. The rules must remain consistent throughout the story.
  2. The magic system must enhance the plot rather than detract from it.

That’s why I’m pleased to bring you a post from C.R. Rowenson, author of The Magic System Blueprint, in which he discusses key points for integrating your existing magic system with your plot structure.


What’s up, storyteller? Are you ready to talk about your story’s magic system? Because it’s time to talk about magic!

Crafting a quality magic system that connects well with your story is tricky business. On the one hand, much like writing in general, there’s no wrong way to go about this. That also means there’s no one right way either. Some people can start with nothing, reach deep into the yawning cosmos of creativity, and craft a complete magic system right from the start. You might not work that way. You might need to start with characters or the setting or the plot itself.

So if you’ve been struggling with your magic system, you might just be looking in the wrong places. Stop breaking open random proverbial stones looking for that one gorgeous geode. Let’s get grimy, and talk through how you can mine your outline and your story’s structure for those magic-system gems you’ve been looking for.

The 2 Things You Need to Create Your Story’s Magic System

Before you go tearing off with your literary pickaxe, we need to make sure you’ve got what you need to be successful here. Just charging in, swinging wildly, is a good way to end up with a pile of rubble.

What do you need before you can start mining for your story’s magic system? It’s a pretty short list. You really just need two things:

1. A concept for your magic system.

2. A filled-in story structure.

1. The Magic System Concept

The concept for your magic system doesn’t need to be anything crazy. You’re just looking for that central nugget, that core idea around which the rest of the system can form. When I talk about magic systems, I usually call this the Seed Crystal for your magic system. You can also think of it as the north star, the elevator pitch, or the central theme.

Concepts range from simple ideas like “elemental magic on a spaceship” to complex ones like “a crew of thieves using metal-based magic to overthrow a god-emperor.” The exact wording doesn’t matter, you just need to know what your magic is going to be about.

2. The Outline/Story Structure

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You’re here right now, so I’m assuming you’re quite familiar with outlines and story structure at this point. If not, you may need to put this mining effort on pause while you read through some of the post series or books on this website.

This doesn’t mean you need a full beat-by-beat outline. You don’t even need things planned to a chapter level! As long as you know what you want happening at the major points in your story, then this mining operation is open for business… almost.

4 Fast Tips for Expanding Your Your Story’s Magic System

This process helps you find all those little gems and shiny bits you can add into your magic system to make it more interesting and awesome. That can come in a variety of forms, depending on how far along you are with the development of your magic system and your story.

While you’re working through this, try to do, or at least allow for, the following:

1. Create New Things

Add rules and limitations to your story’s magic system. Find new magical effects the magic can generate. Add characters and locations to better address what you’re building.

2. Strengthen What’s Already There

Amplify the emotion and tension in the story. Reinforce the core concept of the magic system. Link concepts and events together with logic and patterns.

3. Add Specifics

Turn generic plot points into fully formed events. Dive into the minutiae of your magic limitations. Define exactly how powerful a magic effect can be. Note exactly what a character does with the magic and how they use it in a specific situation.

4. Allow for Conflicting Ideas

The fastest way to stop the flow of ideas is to focus on finding the “right” idea. Let the ideas pour out. Don’t worry if they make little sense and don’t fit together right now; you patch that together with later drafts. And remember, you don’t (and probably shouldn’t) use all the ideas you come up with here.

Okay. Now that you have the core concept of your magic system and the bones of your story, it’s time for the fun part. Now you’re ready to mine!

Use Story Structure to Optimize Your Story’s Magic System

This is fairly straightforward. Examine each of your story’s main structural beats and explore what we discussed above. This is simple, but it can still be daunting. Fortunately, if you’re using the story structure covered on this site, we’ve got lots of marks and milestones to check in on.

The Inciting Event

The Inciting Event pulls your main character into the plot. So how could your magic system kick things off?

Let’s say your story starts with a murder. Was magic used to kill the victim? Maybe the victim actually used magic in an attempt at defense, leaving a subtle but damning, possibly literal curse on their murderer. Does the magic implicate your protagonist?

Or perhaps your story starts with a character trapped in a system of oppression. How does the magic enable the oppressors to maintain power? Does the magic create, enable, or require something others can control? Could the magic simply allow the oppressors such immense power that none can challenge them? Is the magic being used in such a subtle way that most people don’t even know they’re being oppressed?

The Pinch Points

Pinch Points are moments when the pressure on the protagonist increases. The antagonist makes a display of power. The stakes of losing are restated, raised, or clarified. The protagonist is put in a lose-lose situation and has to make a terrible decision. Take your Pinch Points and look for ways your magic can create them or make them ten, no, a thousand times worse!

Do you want the protagonist’s power stripped away at a vital moment? If so, build limitations and weaknesses into the magic. Find ways to nullify magical effects. Explore how to shut down a character’s magic abilities entirely. Develop a new character whose magic directly opposes the protagonist.

Need to show your antagonist’s strength and rebuild the stakes? Blow something up! Show the staggering might or extensive control the antagonist has over their magic. Build in new consequences or capabilities to make the bad guy’s plans even more terrifying.

The Plot Points

These are moments of change in your story, in which your protagonist comes to understand the true nature of the conflict and shifts from being reactive to being more proactive. At their lowest, darkest moment, the protagonist turns things around and starts clawing toward the final conflict. Where does the magic fit in? How does it assist with these changes?

There are so many ways you can do this. Give the protagonist new abilities, or deepen those already in existence. Create nuances and countermeasures within your magic system to make this the moment when the characters discover them. Allow characters to use their existing tools to their full effect for the first time or in entirely new ways.

The Climax

It all comes down to this—the big finish and final clash. Here is where everyone’s fates are decided and everything changes for good or ill. The protagonist finally achieves or fails at the goal we’ve been dangling for the entire plot. How does your magic factor into this momentous event?

Make this moment as cool, awe-inspiring, and incredible as it can be. What big guns have the characters been holding out? Are there quirks in the magic adding complications mid-conflict? Does a portion of the magic require a personal sacrifice? If not, maybe it should.

Make choices harder, clashes more intense, consequences more severe, explosions bigger, and emotions deeper with your magic system. Take that intensity knob on your story, and use your magic system to crank it to eleven—and then keep going!

Beware the God from the Machine!

Deus ex machina is that moment in a story when a person or thing is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly, such that it creates an artificial or contrived solution to a problem. Sure, this was a popular story-telling technique in the 5th century, but today’s readers want more. We want resolutions to our stories that are satisfying and feel earned.

How do we avoid summoning the god at a crucial moment in our story? The answer is simple: Foreshadowing.

All our efforts so far have been a form of guided brainstorming and creation. Hopefully, this has helped you come up with some incredible gems to add to your magic system and story. It’s now your responsibility to make sure you foreshadow where necessary and allow things to resolve in a meaningful way.

So get back to work. You’ve got a story to tell. And whatever you do, make sure that you keep writing and stay awesome!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written a story that required a magic system? Tell me in the comments!

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About C.R. Rowenson

Fascinated by magic since he could imagine pine cones as fireballs, C.R. Rowenson is an award-winning author, blogger, and writing coach, who studies magic-building like others study oil-painting. His prime directive is to help all kinds of storytellers craft and repair the magic systems in their stories. You can visit him on Youtube at The Magic Engineer channel or his website to witness, fuel, or join his obsession.


  1. Interesting stuff. One thing I try to think through with magic systems are the unexpected consequences of the system itself. If I could make an odd analogy, money could be considered a magic system in the real world. You can use money to do all sorts of things that you couldn’t do on your own. I’d classify it as a pretty hard magic system as there are lots of rules around it, both obvious and subtle. But we all know both the pursuit and use of money has consequences, and therein lies many a story. So, a writer could make a career out of thinking how this could be done differently? Particularly the writer suspicious of utopias.
    Anyway, that’s the weird thought you placed in my head this morning.
    Thanks for the post.

    • Clark R Rowenson says

      That’s fantastic! Identifying real-world structures like that is a FANTASTIC way to develop complex, yet rational magic systems that make sense to the readers. Like, if Mana or magical energy gets handled like currency, imagine what magic Shell Corporations would look like. A sequence of magic channels feeding back to you so nobody knows your powers are actually fueled by dark forces and so on.

      Thanks for sharing! I always love seeing how these conversations bring seemingly random things to the fore

  2. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Clark!

  3. I think I fell backwards into this method. I went with the setting I based my story on. Since I’m using the Greco-Roman era, I went with their ideas of magic. Magical herbs (moly), magical creatures (gryphons), and so forth. Battle sorcerers / priests burn hecatombs (sacrificing 100 animals) before the legions go to battle. Or you have to capture certain types of animals to do certain spells, for instance, “the golden hind” or the “Cadmean vixen,” or Hercules using arrows coated with hydra venom.
    And since the gods are part of the story — hence the hecatombs — the characters have to be aligned with certain gods to do certain types of magic. I threw in the Antikythera mechanism to power a magical device, and I even have a character investigating certain places where the Greek version of voodoo dolls would have been deposited in real life. Another character uses a Roman-style curse tablet. Most especially I borrowed the idea that Hades is a place you can actually walk into (somewhere along the French Riviera, IIRC). Although in my equivalent version people don’t try to do this, because they want to avoid the denizens who occasionally escape from there.
    All of the above contributes to the mystery the characters are trying to unravel. They know certain effects point to certain types of magic, some of which requires infernal aid. So I had to start with, what is the mystery? What kind of clues would throw them off, or point them in particular directions or suspects?
    Your idea sounds like a great way to explore the secondary effects of magic, which helps with generating plot bunnies, too.

    • Sorry, I had paragraph spaces when I composed the comment. I have no idea why the spaces vanished, but I promise I didn’t intend a wall of text 🙂

    • Very nice! And that’s exactly what I meant by people starting in different places. One of my coaching clients was the same way. Nothing was working until we started digging into her setting and how it connected to the magic.

      Hold onto that tidbit! If this is how you work consistently, then you just identified an important step in your process. Setting first and THEN magic 🙂

  4. I’ve written magic systems in fantasy works before, but now I’m writing a paranormal mystery book where I just realized I have a magic system. If I have two characters with magical powers—the protagonist and antagonist—do their powers need to stem from the same magic system or could there be two magic systems?

    • Not the OP, but I have seen dueling magic systems before in assorted works. In Dungeons & Dragons wizards operate by Vancian magic (named for Jack Vance, whose Dying Earth books inspired the magic system). That is: a wizard must memorize a spell first, and can only memorize a limited number of spells. Once the wizard utters the spell, it leaves their brain, and they have to re-memorize it to use it again. On the other hand, in the same D&D universe you have sorcerers, who don’t need to memorize spells at all.
      In Full Metal Alchemist most alchemists have to draw a transmutation circle to work magic, but those who have seen the Gate of Truth can just clap their hands (like the protagonists). In FMA: Brotherhood you have the “Chinese” alchemists whose alchemy works on different principles than the “German” alchemists in the land where the story takes place.
      So different systems can be a thing, although the real question will be how the differences affect the story. But to me, having the different systems can make the world seem more “real.” After all, we have metric and imperial methods of measurement, and we have Fahrenheit and Celsius to measure temperature; why would there not be different approaches to magic, too?

      • Heather Willis says

        One great example of this is in Patricia Wrede’s Frontier Magic series. Three different magic schools. Three different systems of working magic. Eventually they all interact in a really interesting way. In one of Wrede’s other series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, we have a couple of magic systems that don’t interact (witches vs fire-witches vs wizards). But she gives us good reasons not to expect them to. I think I’m saying that if you have multiple magic systems, either find cool ways for them to interact or give us reasons why they don’t.

      • Thank you, Jamie! Those are good examples!

    • They absolutely do NOT need to be the same magic system. In fact, depending on the story you’re telling, that might be the entire point. The antagonist is immune or untouchable from their own form of magic, but not from the protagonists form. Or the other way around, maybe that’s what makes the antagonist so dangerous is they showed up with a magic system nobody has seen or prepared for before.

  5. My magic system is based on a kernel of current science, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. A direct brain to brain experience as made possible by computing power. Literally the sky is the limit if first we go several logarithmic jumps into innerspace to stimulate and inhibit the specific level of one thought-a boxol. Keeping the story on one track is the problem, as so much is possible. I need to take a cue from the military-or DARPA-and just concentrate on one lane. But even that lane, gaining empathy for animals by literally being them, is a huge undertaking.

  6. Colleen Janik says

    Thank you for all the great, inspiring tips. I’m at a point with my WIP that I’m thinking my character needs to do some time travel. My story involves a character from history, so the question is, do I write this piece as historical? It’s only one hundred years in the past, or do I do the time travel thing? I guess my big question is, is it easier to pull readers back in time if you latch them into a magic time machine first, or can they appreciate characters and events from before their time? I want my historical figure to provide all the magic that is necessary.

    • I think that’s about finding the right audience. There are plenty of authors that just write historical fiction (no time travel involved). The question is if YOU want to use time travel and if it allows you to do things with your story you couldn’t do otherwise.

  7. I have a little ‘magic’ in the current WIP in that it is almost a natural talent something akin to reading Tarot cards, but a bit more specific i.e. old magic with learned spells from ancient covens like those allegedly in Lancashire. The main character has a ‘gift’ from childhood, but doesn’t use it often because it scares her. Another character and friend of the main prot. is a Wise Woman but also well read in science and herbalism she can cast spells, but not really harmful ones more protection type spells. I tend to introduce this kind of magic as another skill like riding a bike if-you-like. Anyway it is not the main theme of the book just sort of an aside that these women can do these things.

  8. Wow this was interesting! My magic system doesn’t come in until halfway through the novel. The “base” of the magic is a river, and it only affects animals. Rarely it will have a minor effect of humans. The main receptors of the magic are the Kobagindos, who are basically lizards mutated by this magic and are the guardians of the forest hiding the river, and the Myartas, horses with a variety of gifts from hearing that allows them to see what they hear to being able to light their entire bodies on fire. The Myartas are also smarter than most steeds and one Myarta is chosen to become a Hydrequid, the Guardian of the River– a mermaid version of a horse that is translucent like the water. Myartas choose their own riders (from
    a group of people called the Patroda Raida) and their gifts are transmitted a bit to the rider they bond with. Some gifts are for Patroda who are meant to protect (such as an ability to foretell danger before it actually happens) and others are Raida gifts for those who take action (such as speed or fire). It’s like it’s separated between defense gifts and offense gifts.
    (sorry I know that was long. It’s complicated to explain.)

    Anyway, great post!

    • Glad you enjoyed it and I hope it was helpful. Your system definitely sounds interesting. I’m guessing that the discovery of the river and it’s creatures marks a major point in your story, yes? Seems you’re already working on incorporating it into your plot 🙂

  9. “Don’t worry if they make little sense and don’t fit together right now; you patch that together with later drafts.”

    I wish someone had told me that when I started!
    Thank you for this article. I love the simplicity.

  10. I’ve read The Magic System Blueprint. I read it first as a kindle book, and I liked it so much that I bought a print copy so I could scribble on the pages. So cool that the book and author have been featured here!

  11. This is very timely! I’m working on the outline of a new book (novel #4) and this time round the magic system is eluding me. I think I’ve unearthed a glint of a Seed Crystal, but we’ll see…
    Bookmarking this for reading again soon.

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