how to write magical stories

By Joseph Sale (republished)

The 2006 Christopher Nolan film The Prestige, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, has a lot to tell us about how to write magical stories.

Though there are many things to learn from the way it presents us with a story of two rival magicians, perhaps the most important learning point is the concept embodied in the title itself.

For those who don’t know, “The Prestige” is the third act of any magician’s trick, in which what they previously destroyed, or made to disappear, returns – to the delight and adulation of the crowd. As Michael Caine’s character, Cutter, observes, “It’s not enough to make something disappear. You have to bring it back.”

“It’s not enough to make something disappear. You have to bring it back.”

Our mythologies and religions are full to bursting with gods and human beings who return from death. From the wounded King Arthur, who will one day come again from beyond the veils of Avalon, to the crucified Jesus who lay three days dead in the tomb yet rose, to the dismembered god Osiris, who was reforged from scattered body parts by his wife, Isis, the list goes on and on.

The recurrence of this image throughout history and across innumerable cultures is evidence that the idea of a “prestige” is hardwired into our deepest psyche. We yearn for what was lost to return to us. The concept has filtered through into modern-day popular culture too: The Return of the King, The Return of the Jedi, even Superman Returns. There is a sense that true heroes, true saviours, come back to us when we need them the most.

Of course, sometimes this deep human need is exploited for quick cash grabs, as in the “endless sequel” effect in which our favourite characters just keep coming back time and time again. In these instances, often it is the case that the story begins to lose all meaning, because there are no real stakes; the heroes are invulnerable, and even if they seem to die, they always come back without a scratch.

However, when this mythic principle is handled with sincerity and integrity, it can produce some of the most startling and moving moments in cinema, prose, poetry, indeed, any medium. The initial disappearance of the figure who is going to return need not even be via death; it can be just that: a disappearance.

Consider how Gandalf leaving Helm’s Deep in the second Lord of the Rings movie shapes the narrative. He leaves the story for some time, long enough we almost forget where he’s gone off to, but at the critical moment, when all hope seems lost, he returns to save the day (bringing with him the “lost” Rohirrim) in a sublime eucatastrophe.

I often hear writers talking about how they have “written themselves into a corner” by disposing of an artefact, character, or even a place. Many of these issues can be fixed by building the concept of a “prestige” into your fiction from the get go.

A sad death at the end of a book can be devastating. But a “prestige”, a triumphant return, is infinitely more powerful; it shakes to the bone.

And on that subject, I always admire a writer who has the guts to kill their characters, and sometimes a character simply has to die, and die forever, for a story to end, for it to have any meaning. But whilst the bitter fruit of death, or loss, is sometimes what is needed to round out a tale, the far sweeter fruit of return also has its place. This is more true of horror, not less.

In Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, he remarked that “Positive emotion trumps negative every time”, and I also happen to agree with him on this front. A sad death at the end of a book can be devastating. But a “prestige”, a triumphant return, is infinitely more powerful; it shakes to the bone. Death, after all, is merely existential.

A return is transcendental.

In fact, it’s magic.


Learn the magic behind great stories.

Unlock the Magical Creator Within

A Workshop for Fiction Writers with Joseph Sale

Joseph Sale is an editor and writing coach who’s published more than 30 books, including the acclaimed novel Dark Hilarity, the epic poem Virtue’s End, as well as ghost-written best-selling autobiographies and non-fiction books. As an editor, his clients have been nominated for the Bram Stoker and Splatterpunk Awards, been finalists in the National Indie Excellence and Eric Hoffer Awards, and even submitted to the Pulitzers.

Now, Joseph Sale is on a quest to manifest the beautiful and divine in the world, and wants to show other creators, editors, and writers how to do just that. This workshop is based on his new release, THE DIVINE: Unlocking the magical creator within.

Workshop Includes:

  • Free Paperback or eBook copy of The Divine: Unlocking the Magical Creator Within (Paperback options depend on Amazon shipping options to participant’s location. Shipping is free.)
  • A seat at the live Zoom Class on Monday, October 3rd, 2022
  • Unlimited access to replay and workshop follow-up notes
  • Access to instructor for private questions

Workshop Outline:

0. First Principle of the Muse 

An overview of what the Muse is and why we need the Muse. 

1. Early Experiences of Beauty 

Why is Beauty important how does it influence us? 

2. Invoking The Muse

Practical exercises to draw down the dew of inspiration. 

3. The Cave of Ideas & Wonder

Journey into the hidden depths of your subconscious and find your cave of ideas and wonder. 

4. The Shadow Self 

Learn how to harness your Shadow Self to produce greater art. 

5. Becoming Magical 

Changing your creative practice will change you.


  • Zoom link will be sent via email on day of event
  • Access to replays will be sent after the event
  • Books will be sent out upon registration. An email will be sent within 24 hours to confirm shipping details. (Shipping is free)

If paperback book cannot be delivered to participant within one week of the class, the eBook format will be sent.


Save Your Spot and Get Your Free Book

Make your purchase to have your free book sent now.

Get the Class + Book + Unlimited Access to Replays and Materials + $22