How to Subtly Introduce a Magic System - Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

One of the most impressive things about Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the way she introduces the magic system of her world. She develops her readers’ understanding of her story's magic in a way that feels suspenseful, subtle, and never overwhelming.

It’s tough to give the reader enough information to understand the world you’ve created without boring or confusing them. Introducing a magic system is especially full of challenges. That’s why in this post I want to analyze the delicate way Laini Taylor tackles these challenges.

Portrait of Karou by Lindsey Look.

Portrait of Karou by Lindsey Look.

To make matters simpler, I’m going to track one specific aspect of the magic system in the novel: wishes. In the world of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, there is a currency system of wishes, where coin-like objects can be traded for wishes of a corresponding value.

Laini Taylor could have explained the wish currency through a block of exposition near the beginning of the novel that gives a general overview of this aspect of the magic system. Later on, she could expand on the details, but the reader would start out with the big picture. This is a valid strategy that many fantasy novels use and can be done well. It’s generally most useful when the protagonist doesn’t know the rules of magic and has them explained in one form or another.

But Taylor goes a different route: she introduces one detail at a time and only hints at the big picture. We learn about each wish denomination in order from least to most valuable. With each wish denomination that’s introduced, the suspense builds. It’s like leading the reader along with a trail of breadcrumbs rather than giving them a map.

This sense of mystery could create frustration in the reader. It avoids this pitfall because in each of the first few scenes, we only need to understand the one wish denomination we encounter in each scene. There is plenty about the magic system we don’t understand yet, but we understand the magic that occurs in each scene.

Karou, the protagonist, knows more than the reader, and it takes several chapters to catch up to the limits of her knowledge. By that point, the aspects of the magic system that are mysteries to her have been introduced. We are able to follow along with her journey of discovery while having a solid foundation in what Karou already understands.

I’m going to break down my analysis into each of the four scenes that introduce a wish, examine what’s going on and how it’s explained to us, and draw out strategies Laini Taylor is using.

1. Scuppies

At the start of the novel, we meet Karou, a young art student in Prague. In the third chapter, Karou is accosted by her ex-boyfriend, Kaz, who shows up as a nude model for her art class just to mess with her. Karou uses the weakest wish denomination available, a scuppy, to exact revenge on Kaz:

Karou by lesyablackbird via Tumblr.

Karou by lesyablackbird via Tumblr.

And then she made a wish.

It was a very small wish. These beads were just scuppies, after all. Like money, wishes came in denominations, and scuppies were mere pennies. Weaker even than pennies, because unlike coins, wishes couldn’t be compounded. Pennies you could add up to make dollars, but scuppies were only ever just scuppies, and whole strands of them, like this necklace, would never add up to a more potent wish, just plenty of very small, nearly useless wishes.

Wishes, for example, for things like itches.

Karou wished Kaz an itch, and the bead vanished between her fingers. Spent and gone.

In this passage, Laini Taylor focuses exclusively on the scuppies. The higher wish denominations aren’t even mentioned. We learn scuppies are “mere pennies,” which hints that there are more valuable wishes, but we don’t know what the more valuable wishes are called or what they can do.

This passage is the first time wishes are discussed in the novel, but the only overall information we learn is that wishes come in denominations and can’t be compounded. Every other bit of information revolves around scuppies and their function in the scene. Scuppies become memorable because they’re the only piece of magical lore we have to keep track of for now.

Through the way scuppies are used in the scene, we also learn something general about wishes: that they vanish once they're used. Even though we're learning exclusively about scuppies, we're also learning more about wishes without even realizing it.

2. Shings

The next wish denomination after scuppies, shings, aren’t introduced until Chapter 5. Karou receives instructions via a winged messenger from her adoptive father, Brimstone, to come home. She wishes she could fly like Brimstone’s messenger, but reflects that she would need a much more powerful wish than she would ever have access to.

This train of thought leads into the next piece of information about this world’s magic system. We begin by learning a little more about scuppies—namely, where Karou gets them—before being introduced to shings in the following passage:

Brimstone wasn’t stingy with scuppies. He let her refresh her necklace as often as she liked from his chipped teacups full of beads, and he paid her in bronze shings for the errands she ran for him. A shing was the next denomination of wish, and it could do more than a scuppy—Svetla’s caterpillar eyebrows were a case in point, as were Karou’s tattoo removal and her blue hair—but she had never gotten her hands on a wish that could work any real magic. She never would, either, unless she earned it, and she knew all too well how humans earned wishes. Chiefly: hunting, graverobbing, and murder.

Oh, and there was one other way: a particular form of self-mutilation involving pliers and deep commitment.

Here, Laini Taylor is building on the knowledge she already gave us in the passage about scuppies before moving onto the next aspect of the magic system. We’re both reminded about scuppies, which we haven’t heard about since Chapter 3, and told how Karou comes by them.

Kishmish, Brimstone’s messenger, by Funky Book Lover.

Kishmish, Brimstone’s messenger, by Funky Book Lover.

When shings are introduced, we learn about their power through examples that have already been discussed in the first four chapters. We already knew that Svetla, the girl Karou's ex-boyfriend cheated with, had grown extremely bushy eyebrows and it was hinted that Karou was somehow responsible. We also knew that Karou’s hair grows out blue without needing to be dyed and that she somehow removed a tattoo of Kaz.

This passage becomes satisfying and intriguing for two reasons. First, we get to learn about one of the more powerful wishes that were hinted at in the scuppy passage. Second, we learn how Karou accomplished the bits of magic that had already been introduced.

By delivering on both these promises and hinting at more powerful wishes such as ones that can endow a person with flight, Laini Taylor builds cumulative suspense. We’re only excited about mysteries when we know we’ll get some form of payoff; otherwise, we just get frustrated. By continually presenting and solving small mysteries, Taylor earns our trust so we can feel excited to reach the next payoff.

The stakes are also higher here not just because Taylor hints at more powerful wishes, but also because we get an inkling of the cost of wishes. Magic in stories should always have a cost or limitation, because otherwise it can become a cop-out. Based on the passage above, we know the cost of more powerful wishes is high and possibly unethical.

We learn what that cost is very quickly—on the next page, in fact. The new information delivers on the buildup that began in the previous passage:

In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone’s shop. And there was only one currency he accepted. (…)

It was teeth.

Now we understand why graverobbing and murder would go hand-in-hand with obtaining wishes and why Karou can’t obtain a wish that will give her the power of flight. There’s still a lot we don’t know, though. We don’t know what else these more powerful wishes can buy, what they’re called, or why teeth are required to obtain them. The majority of the magic system is still a mystery.

3. Gavriels

Soon afterwards, Karou confronts Brimstone and asks him directly to give her a gavriel. That’s when we learn about the next wish denomination through a simple, concise explanation:

“I was across town. If you want me to travel faster, give me wings, and I’ll race Kishmish back. Or just give me a gavriel, and I’ll wish for flight myself.”

A gavriel was the second most powerful wish, certainly sufficient to grant the power of flight.

Since Karou has already discussed the cost of wishes and what scuppies and shings can do, we don’t need more than this simple sentence defining a gavriel. Karou doesn’t have access to such a powerful wish, so she doesn’t have any examples like she did with the others.

What’s important here is that Laini Taylor is maintaining her pattern of revealing wishes in order of power and one at a time. Gavriels could have been named and defined back when the idea of wishing for flight was first introduced in the previous scene, but by delaying this information, a slight sense of mystery was created and resolved. We’re also able to keep track of all the names more easily, since they’re introduced one at a time.

4. Bruxis

Appropriately, the most powerful wish is the last to be introduced in the novel. Its introduction also carries a lot more weight than any of the others. All the previous scenes I discussed have been implicitly building up to this one, so it’s only fitting that it should be the most dramatic of the scenes.

Before learning about bruxises (bruxi?), we see their effects. Like when Svetla’s bushy eyebrows or Karou’s blue hair are brought up before we know how they happened, we’re reeled into the explanation of this most powerful wish by a mystery. This mystery is much more disturbing than the others, though, as we see in this passage from Chapter 13:

Izîl and Razgut via Laini Taylor Fandom.

Izîl and Razgut via Laini Taylor Fandom.

Shadows told the truth, and Izîl’s told that a creature clung to his back, invisible to the eye. It was a hulking, barrel-chested thing, its arms clenched tight around his neck. This was what curiosity had gotten him: The thing was riding him like a mule. (…) Izîl had made a wish for knowledge, and this had been the form of its fulfillment.

We still don’t know what kind of wish has brought about the presence of this disturbing, invisible creature, but we might suspect it’s the most powerful one, which we haven’t heard about yet. This shadow sets an ominous tone for the revelation of the most powerful wish.

A few pages later, this mystery gets answered: the origins of the creature on Izîl’s back are a bruxis, the most powerful wish. But we don’t just learn its name. We also learn the cost of a bruxis in the following simple sentences:

A bruxis. That was the one wish more powerful than a gavriel, and its trade value was singular: The only way to purchase one was with one’s own teeth. All of them, self-extracted.

Finally, the reader has received the payoff for that line about self-mutilation back in the scene where shings were introduced, and our understanding of wishes has been completed. It took thirteen (short) chapters to get to this point, but we have been led along the path with tantalizing and incomplete bits of information.

Implementation

So, how does this analysis help you in your own writing? First of all, you have to make a judgment call. The reason I prefer discussing craft elements used in a specific book rather than in the abstract is that you can actually see what a technique looks like in practice. Would it work to model your own introduction of your world’s magic system after Laini Taylor’s? That’s up to you.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone has several unique characteristics. The magic system is relatively simple, idiosyncratic, and not used too often throughout the story, which makes it possible to introduce one piece at a time while keeping the reader in the loop.

The novel also has more of a fairy tale tone to it than some fantasy novels—which makes sense, since we’re talking about wishes. Tone is important to consider when you decide how to introduce your magic system. If you’re going for a fairy tale tone, introducing each aspect of your magic system methodically and sparsely might work great.

But even if your story is gritty and/or full of complex magic that’s relevant right from the start, here are a few things you can take away from this analysis of Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

  • Introducing a magic system is a great place to build suspense and mystery. It can feel tedious to have to explain the magic system you’ve created, but you can introduce it in an engaging way so it doesn’t feel tedious to the reader.

    • Consider delaying information that’s not strictly necessary for understanding the current scene like Laini Taylor does with the cost of wishes or the names of the more powerful wishes. Be careful not to delay necessary information, though!

    • Hint at the showstoppers, but don’t put them into play until later. There’s often something shocking about a magic system, whether it’s a terrible cost, some awful use it can be put to, or disturbing side-effects. Consider hinting at it, implicitly or explicitly, but not revealing it until as late as the plot will allow, the way Laini Taylor does with the bruxis and the use of self-extracted teeth to buy it.

  • Spreading out information can help it be more memorable and easier to retain. It can be hard to make it easy for a reader to follow the rules of your magic system. One approach is to repeat information in different ways or through different examples in scenes spread throughout the story. Another is to focus on one aspect of your magic system at a time, giving each aspect its own scene and significance.

    • Here’s where it’s important that Laini Taylor introduces the wishes in order of power and narrative impact. If you’re introducing one aspect at a time, you don’t want the next bit you introduce to be a letdown.

    • Each aspect should somehow outshine the previous one, whether you’re moving up in power from causing itches to making eyebrows grow bushy to flying, or whether you’re adding new information that re-contextualizes what you previously stated, like when Laini Taylor moves from discussing teeth as an odd sort of payment to discussing self-mutilation in order to gain knowledge.

It always pays to study what others have done well. Even if you're going for a different tone than Laini Taylor or if your magic system is completely different, give these strategies a try.

What kind of magic system does your story have? Would any of these strategies help introduce it in a more engaging, understandable, and/or subtle way? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social media!