Saturday, 24 May 2014

Pulling away the table cloth

I love magic tricks.

I love to watch as closely as I can when a magician is performing. I like to see if I can figure out what is going on. I almost never do. Sleight of hand always defeats me, leaving me in awe of the skill on display. I often feel that, even if I gave myself heaps of practice, I'd never be able to repeat such clever tricks myself.

One of the tricks I really like is the "pulling away the table cloth" trick. You know the one where the magician pulls away the table cloth in one clean sweep, leaving everything on the table (particularly the precarious stuff like fully laden glasses sitting atop high platters) completely unmoved. I know, you could possibly say this isn't exactly a magic trick, but it's still especially skillful, and it's not something I could ever repeat myself.

But there is one way that I can emulate this.

I like to think that in some ways, writing compares to the tricks of a magician. We have our own kind of sleight of hand, even though it's more about the tricks we play with words. And I even like to think I have my own version of the "pulling away the table cloth" trick.

I suppose it's about playing tricks with readers' expectations. Get them thinking in a particular way, and then, with one quick movement, revealing something that throws everything in a completely opposite direction. By the time the trick is performed, those readers are a bit like the glasses sitting on the table. Just as the glasses have suddenly discovered there is no longer a table cloth underneath them, so the readers will see that the assumptions they made about the characters or the story have turned out to be completely unsound.

Whenever I finish a new story, I'm never quite sure if I've been successful or not at performing this trick, but it's a nice thing to aspire to. It means I'm always thinking, "How can I surprise my readers and challenge their expectations?" And that, to me, is one of the greatest things about being a writer.

1 comment:

  1. Of course the magician always knows how the trick is done. Nothing ever surprises him and that’s the price we pay. We have to trust what others tell us and most often it’s those others who are closest to us—and hence would prefer to spare our feelings—that we can ask the questions we really want to know the answers to. I don’t think anyone has ever given me the kind of honest response I’d like to one of my books and probably the only one I’d ever believe would be a negative one since I struggle to accept that I’m as good as some people have suggested. But maybe I am. How could I know? I think I’m a bit of a Tommy Cooper when it comes to the tricks I pull off—or at least try to—because the thing about Tommy is the jury’s still out when it comes to his talents as a prestidigitator. If I have one talent I’d like to think is was getting people to think they’re reading a funny book when actually the message is deadly serious. A bit of misdirection then. I suspect this is something you also aim for too.