July 27, 2011

When Magic Is Matter-of-Fact

How to work with elements of magic and magical realism

I’ve recently edited a number of manuscripts where authors incorporated impossible or fantastic elements into otherwise matter-of-fact worlds (a technique that sometimes crosses into the realm of magical realism). Used well, these elements give a work undeniable personality, and heighten the meaning of a story. Used haphazardly, they diffuse the impact of a story or confuse readers.  What are some ways writers stumble with this technique? And how can editors help writers use magical realism in a way that elevates the story and adds to the reader’s experience?

This post shares some examples of this issue* together with questions I’ve used with authors to help them clarify their thinking. As always, one of the basic tenets of developmental/substantive editing holds true: help authors ensure their stories are accomplishing what they want them to. (*Note: The examples in this post have had identifying details changed or are represented as composites to maintain confidentiality and the creative integrity of the authors.)

Altered States
The first example is from a historical fiction work-in-progress about the Chinese immigrant experience in the 1860s. In it, the author had punctuated the novel’s straightforward reality with dream sequences in which there were magical and symbolic elements.

Two issues arose. First, the writer admitted he wasn’t sure what he was trying to accomplish with the dreams. Second, the text divulged the nature of the dream sequences after the fact. That is, the reader would learn in a “real life” section that the previous section had been (just) a dream. This had the potential to confuse readers and to trespass on their trust. Could they rely on the author to shepherd them through the story so things made sense, especially if some of those things were other-worldly?

These were my questions to the author:
  • What purposes do the dreams serve, what aspect of the story do they amplify?
  • What kind of sign-posting would help the reader, while not treading on the author’s style?
  • Does the author intend to continue using magical elements only in the dream sections of the book (avoiding any reader confusion about the real-world setting), or is there potential for the dreams to “leak” into the real world later in the text? 

To strengthen the impact of the dream sequences, we first identified what work the dreams were already doing: adding nuance and complexity to the main character; pulling back the curtain on a cultural subconscious; and giving the author an opportunity to editorialize. Once we spelled this out, the author had a better sense of how he wanted to deploy the dreams, where they were working successfully, and how to use them for more oomph.

To address reader confusion about reality versus dream-state, we tried some alternatives on for size: italicizing the dream sections, leveraging section titles, formatting the text “poetically” on the page, and even using in-line annotation to create a kind of conversation between the two “consciousnesses” telling the story.

Oddities in Our World
In another story, the main character learns he has a brain tumor. He then meets a human woman whom the reader—after putting some clues together—realizes shares many of the physical and emotional characteristics of a benevolent creature from the main character’s favorite myth. After talking with this woman, the main character regains a sense of peace and purpose despite his illness. In the course of the story, no one else sees this being, though the opportunity arises, and the main character never questions the being’s reality.

My guiding questions for this author were intended to uncover how much she wanted this story to be interpreted literally or symbolically:
  • Regardless of how much she wants to reveal to the reader, what is her definition of the relationship between the woman and the mythological creature?
  • How much does she want the reader to question that relationship?
  • How much of an “aha” moment does she want the reader to have when realizing the woman and the mythological creature may be one and the same?
  • Should the existence of this woman/creature imply to the reader anything about the main character’s physical state?

This author is now in the midst of revisions and it will be interesting to see which aspects he chooses to clarify and which he will leave open to reader interpretation.

In Part 2 of this post I’ll discuss editing a science fiction manuscript and offer a few general thoughts I’ve had about editing manuscripts with symbolic or mythical elements.

—Beth Stokes

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