For writers, a useful image of Magical Realism is that of a recipe. Let’s take a look at the ingredients in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.”

Marquez’s story works according to one very simple idea. Local children find a dead body that has washed up on the beach. The corpse gets bigger and bigger as more and more people see and handle it. It increases in size, weight, and beauty, until it changes the lives of the villagers and of everyone who comes into contact with it.

Let’s use Marquez’ story to help us write.

  1. With a partner or on your own, list 10 things that you would normally find at the beach. Example: beach ball.
  2. Pick one of these things, or have a friend pick one for you.
  3. Now think about 5-7 places that are as far away from the beach as possible, both geographically and psychologically. Examples: A McDonald’s, Sheetz, or a doctor’s examination room.
  4. Let’s write. Follow these instructions exactly.
    • Now write 2-3 sentences about finding that beach-thing in that non-beach place.
    • In the next couple of sentences make that thing get larger or change it in some physical way.
    • Change the reactions of the people who have found it. 2-3 sentences.
    • Change the thing again. 2-3 sentences.
    • Bring in more people and make them have bigger/different reactions. 2-3 sentences.
    • Change the thing one more time. 2-3 sentences.
    • Bring in someone from very far away who sees/experiences the thing from their own point of view. What do they say? 2-3 sentences.

Congratulations! You just wrote the beginning of a magical realist story.

Don’t like what you wrote? Try another combination. Or flip the exercise. 

Make a list of things you usually find in an office and put one of them on a mountaintop or in a forest. Now what happens?

Things to think about:

If you look back at your story and compare it with Marquez’s you will see that both stories work by:

  • Establishing the juxtaposition between the usual and the strange/impossible.
  • Continually growing the situation, making it literally and figuratively bigger and bigger, and then shifting the point of view at the very end.

Dramatic physical change to a main character is a fantastic way to make a story feel emotionally intense and exciting.  It’s also a great way to introduce humor into the picture.