Back in June I started what would hopefully transform into a mini-series on how a writer can employ the techniques of a magician when they are working on a piece of fiction.
The premise for this approach is this: by thinking of crafting a story like a magician thinks about crafting a trick/magic show, then by default, many other essential literary elements flow naturally into the story rather than by deliberate planning.
In my experience when these other elements happen organically rather than by being contrived, the story elements themselves makes more sense in the context of the tale, “feeling” more like a book.
Admittedly all stories are contrivances--I guess what I’m getting at is that for me my conscious mind and unconscious one communicate better when I employ these techniques.
It could be because any bit of magical chicanery is in reality a story.
Today, I’d like to start a discussion that focuses on Misdirection.
Misdirection has been defined in many ways by numerous people for almost as long as magic has existed. The way I think about Misdirection goes like this. It is the way in which a magician is able to shift the attention of the audience from where the audience naturally wants to focus to someplace the magician prefers that attention to be.
In its most basic form--QUICK LOOK BEHIND YOU!--to its most diabolical stratagems, the success (or failure) of any illusion lies in the magician’s ability to mis-direct its audience. The word “misdirection” itself is a deception as it implies that a magician tries to divert focus away from one area to another with Misdirection, when in fact the true Misdirection may be the magician forcing attention towards whatever area it is that the illusion will take place. (See how sneaky we are).
A simple silk handkerchief serves as a perfect example. This handkerchief is opaque. It contains no trapdoors, no holes, no mirrors--the threads don’t pull apart for an opening.
A magician who passes the silk out to be examined while stealing a stack of coins from behind his suit lapel is using the silk to divert attention away from the secret move. On the other hand, the magician who uses the silk to covers a stack of coins to conceal the method he will employ to turn the coins into a dove is focusing attention towards the secret move, i.e. using the silk as a cover. There is even a possibility that if the attention were not centered on the transformation, the secret switch would be detected.
Here is a clip of magician Michael Ammar performing his Coins Through Silk illusion, which employs Misdirection. Michael uses a silk to focus attention towards and away from the coins at different times in the trick. Using Misdirection, he will eventually pass the coins through the silk. Michael’s challenge? Unlike our silk, his is transparent.
One distinction I’d like to clarify now will become very important to us as we segue our discussion from magic to writing, one point that many non-magicians (and some magicians) neglect and are thus fooled by the magician, and it is this. Magicians manipulate both time and space when they perform. In those terms it sounds like wizardry, but this far-fetched-sounding declaration is true. Misdirection exists as spatial misdirection and time misdirection. Categorized into these two major types, Misdirection is the most powerful tool in a magician’s (and writer’s) toolbox.
Thus far you have probably imagined this concept as it applies to spatial misdirection, shifting focus from one physical spot to another, so let’s direct your attention--darn you, Tricky, you’re tricky--towards time misdirection.
Time misdirection is the act of altering an audience’s perception of time in order to accomplish an act of tomfoolery (running out of synonyms here). If you’ve ever experienced a “loss of time” sensation, such as working on a hobby for hours but thinking only minutes have passed, or upon getting home from work realizing you do not remember your drive, then you have experienced time misdirection. Magicians attempt to create similar experiences, but they have an additional challenge. Unlike these naturally occurring instances, magicians work to disarm your senses so that you are not conscious of these lapses in time.
There are many ways a magician can do this. Like a book, every trick has a beginning, middle, and end; and like a book, the beginning, middle, and end is not always the same for the magician (or writer) as it is for the audience (or reader).
During a magic show, for example, the magician may be setting up his next trick, but to the audience it may appear that he is wrapping up his previous one.
I’m reminded of the magician Max Malani who would attend private dinner parties. After dinner, without leaving the table, he would produce a large block of ice from under a borrowed hat. To the dinner guests, when Max first asked to borrow the hat, the trick is beginning, but for Max the trick began when he loaded that block of ice. Where he hid it and how he kept it from melting is a lost secret, but from what I understand of this trick and of Max’s style as a magician, if the conditions weren’t perfect, then the trick never began for the guests, and ended for Max wearing a pair of wet slacks.
My novel Only Human (OH) serves as an example in writing. I wrote the manuscript of OH out of order. It started by writing the first and last chapter but evolved to the first sentence and last sentence of a paragraph then the beginning words and ending words of a sentence. Eventually these ends met and knitted together. In addition, there are two major storylines in OH. I wrote one and then the other. Finally I carved them up and ordered them appropriately. Obviously, that is not the order the audience would want to read it.
And with that I must end here for now. This entry is getting a bit cumbersome, and I have fiction writing to do. In the next installment we will look more closely at how Misdirection* can be used in fiction writing. I ask that you forgive my pause here, fantabulous blog reader.
I’ve included two anecdotes and videos below for your enjoyment (and to misdirect you away from the fact that this is only half of our discussion and to give you something to think about until the next post is ready). Know that I appreciate all of your support and patience. I hope this is of some value to you.
*Please note: As a whole, spatial and time misdirection both exist in all magic tricks, and I generally denote this inseparability in my writing by using a capital M.
Consider the power of time misdirection: I am often asked how David Blaine levitated on his first TV special. I’ve done this myself over the years and have gotten great reactions from people. The method I use is similar to the one featured below. I must admit that David's TV version looks more impressive (wait 'til you see it!). The reason? The time misdirection that David employs is more powerful than what I can muster (although I must admit once when I did this, I had a person call me the Devil and refused to talk to me after that--no I am not kidding)
Or this: I watched David Copperfield perform Portal at a live performance in Pittsburgh. For his finale, David selected an audience member and teleported to Hawaii taking this person with him. While I can only speculate as to some of the methods used, it is clearly accomplished with Misdirection.