Guest Post: “A Recipe for Great Magical Realism” by Ava Morgyn

AvaMorgynMeet Ava Morgyn.

Ava Morgyn is a long-time avid reader and writer of young adult fiction. She studied English Writing & Rhetoric at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX, and now lives in Houston with her family. When she isn’t at her laptop spinning darkly hypnotic tales, she can be found making fairy houses, talking to her crystals and plants, hunting for delicious new vegan recipes, or bothering her dog. She also blogs regularly about the devastating journey of child loss at

Her novel, Resurrection Girls, releases October 1, 2019 from Albert Whitman Teen.

You can learn more at, or sign up for her newsletter here.

Pre-order Resurrection Girls on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or Books-A-Million.

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The Guest Post.

A Recipe for Great Magical Realism

There aren’t a lot of magical realism memes floating around out there, so I made my own. It reads, “Magical Realism … because I want to write about impossible shit with no explanations whatsoever.”

Magical realism is one of those genres that gets less attention from writers and readers than some of its high-profile siblings, like straight fantasy or paranormal romance. It has yet to really hit its peak, but it’s been around a long time. It’s a genre that I absolutely love because there aren’t very many rules, so there’s a lot of space to explore. However, even if there aren’t many rules, there are some key components that make for truly great magical realism. You can think of them as the ingredients in a delicious genre stew. These are my favorite elements for this particular flavor of read.

Real-World Setting
The real-world setting is kind of like the broth or the roux for your dish. It’s the foundation that you will build the rest of your story on. Typically, one might think of this as a contemporary setting, but remember—there are no strict rules here. The truth is, you can play with the setting for your magical realism novel, as long as it’s real-world, meaning it feels realistic and down-to-earth. That means you can try a historical setting or a futuristic setting or maybe, arguably, even a fantasy-like imaginary setting. But it must be based in hard-and-fast, real-world grit and practicality.

Magical realism is born out of the contrast between this no-nonsense setting—a world that for all intents and purposes must abide by the same laws ours does—and the one exception to that rule—the magical or fantastical element(s) that disregards those laws.

Air of Mystery

Within the framework of your real-world foundation, you must build an air of mystery. This is not the same as a mystery novel, or mystery as a plot device. This is the fragrant steam rising from your pot. You build that steam with herbs—dashes of this or that which lend dimension and flavor to your broth. Building an air of mystery often requires that you raise questions you either can’t or don’t answer. You must leave some things to the imagination of your reader.

But this is a delicate balance. Too much mystery—too many unanswered questions—and your readers will simply feel cheated, your story unimpactful and anticlimactic. In other words, your souffle of story will fall flat as pancakes. You need this story to rise, you need it to live. You need air pockets, places where the reader is allowed to fill in the blanks for themselves. But you must sprinkle them carefully. Too many herbs make food taste like medicine.

The truth is, we experience unexplainable things all the time. Ball lightning, Stonehenge, crop circles. We can make very educated guesses about all these things, but it is the unknown factor that draws us to them. It’s the same with your magical realism story. Leave enough for your reader to make educated guesses but allow some mystery to remain.

Unique Voice
If you’re going to tell an absolutely unique story, if you’re going to explore the boundaries of your world and push it to its limits, if you’re going to play with the unknown, then don’t do it in the same voice someone would use to write rom-com or true-crime or textbooks on aquatic science. Find an equally distinct voice to tell your distinct story. Find a voice that is mystical, lyrical, transcendent. Find a voice that is unusual, mysterious, baffling. Voice is the magical glue that holds your story together.

In a recipe, it is the je ne sais quois, the personal touch or secret ingredient that sets your dish apart from all others like it. It is the love you pour into your cooking. In writing, it is your charisma as a writer. It can’t be copied, and it can’t be taught because it is wholly and completely individual. Truly great, suck-you-in, up-all-night, tear-jerking, gut-wrenching, or laugh-out-loud magical realism requires a very special kind of voice. Make yours count.

Pinch of Magic
While this is the last ingredient listed, and while it’s vastly different in quantity from the first, it is every bit as important as your real-world setting. You must add a pinch or two—or three—of magic. Otherwise, it’s just realism. In a recipe, this is your salt or sugar. It’s also your heat—the splash of hot sauce or cayenne. This is the sparkle that makes your work shine. It’s the fairy dust that makes it glow. It’s the glitter in your sundae or the cherry on top.

But like the air of mystery, the herbs in your soup, you can’t be too liberal or generous with your portions. Your amount of magic must be just right. Too much and it’s overpowering, you’ve toppled into another territory or genre that has no realism to ground it. Too little and you’re simply writing a contemporary novel. There’s nothing special to set it apart. Choose your magical or fantastical elements wisely, make them work to further your plot and character arcs, and resist the urge to turn that shaker over and pound it like a slab of week-old flank steak.

By now you may be wondering, “Yeah, but what about all the other ingredients? What about the meat and potatoes? Where are the carrots and onions and celery?”
Your plot and characters are your other ingredients. But plot and characters aren’t unique to magical realism—they’re intrinsic to every genre. As with any well-told story, you want fully-fleshed, dynamic characters that you can push through a meat-grinding, jaw-dropping, or soft-as-silk-but-twice-as-slippery plot until they come out the other end changed for the better … or at least changed. It’s how you shape those characters and plot that makes the genre. In other words, it’s how you flavor your pot that separates Irish stew from Borscht from lentil soup, or contemporary fiction from fantasy from magical realism.

Actually, it’s lamb, beets, and lentils that separate Irish stew from Borscht from lentil soup, but you get my meaning.

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