Posts Tagged ‘Magic and Showmanship’
Comedy, as we all know intuitively, is largely built on threes. It often shows the same thing three times with slight variations, followed by a kicker at the end, which is why so many jokes are built around three different nationalities, religions, or professions, like those about the mathematician, the physicist, and the engineer. There’s the famous comedy triple, in which two items set up a pattern, followed by a third that serves as a punchline. (There are countless examples, but I’ve always liked this one from The Simpsons: “Well, little girl, I’ve had a lot of jobs in my day: whale hunter, seal clubber, president of the Fox network…”) A similar rule applies to magic, which depends on the basic pattern of setup, development, and surprise climax. In Magic and Showmanship, Henning Nelms describes a trick in which a color-changing fan is used to magically dye handkerchiefs different colors, and then says:
Commercial color-changing fans can display four different hues. But this is bad showmanship. Dyeing one is trivial. Dyeing two arouses interest. Dyeing three provides your climax. There is no reason to add an anticlimax simply because you are prepared to do so.
So why is the number three so powerful? For the same reason that one point is just a point, two points is a line, and three points, suddenly, is structure. Our brains are wired to look for patterns, and it takes three items to confirm or deny that a pattern exists—and it can be very satisfying either to be given the payoff we’ve been expecting or to be shown how cleverly we’ve been misled. Writing about The Godfather, David Thomson speaks of “the sinister charm of action foreseen, spelled out, and finally delivered,” as when Michael kills Sollozzo and McCloskey. “It is a killing in which we are his accomplices,” Thomson says, and three is the minimum number of story points required for the reader to actively conspire in the narrative. This is why most of our stories, from jokes to fairy tales to novels, still consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Or, as Philip Larkin puts it, “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.”)
This also applies to a story’s constituent parts. Narratives tend to have a sort of fractal structure: an individual chapter or scene will often have the same three-act structure as the story as a whole. This often applies to the movie scenes we tend to remember most vividly, which are structured as miniature plays—think of Holly’s first meeting with Harry in The Third Man. My own novels and stories are usually structured in three acts, to the point where I use numbered sections even in short novelettes, and that applies to individual chapters as well. When I’m outlining a chapter, I’m generally thinking in threes, even before I know what will happen: I’ve learned from experience that three story beats is a strong foundation on which to build a chapter, for the same reason that a tripod needs three legs to stand, so I always make sure that the chapter falls into three roughly similar parts, at least in the first draft.
And yet here’s the funny thing: when it comes to the final draft of a chapter, the first and third parts often don’t need to be there. I’ve spoken before about the importance of writing the middle—that is, of cutting the opening and closing sections of a chapter and jumping from the middle of one scene to the next—and I’ve often noticed that rough drafts spend too much time moving toward and away from the real center of interest. In short, the rule of three is invaluable for structuring a first draft, but in the final version, much of it can be thrown away. In my experience, it’s best to reserve the full three-act treatment for big, climactic scenes, while for transitional chapters or sequences, usually only the middle is necessary. The reader can fill in the first and last parts on his or her own—but only if they’ve been written and cut in the first place. They’re still there, but they’re invisible. And that’s how you use the rule of three.
The need [in magic] to avoid building too high too soon is the most important case where we must apply the principle of conservation. It is also the hardest lesson in showmanship to learn. Many otherwise gifted performers are unable to resist a temptation to start with a bang or to make a rise so steep that its peak comes before the real climax…
If you work night clubs where half the audience is drunk, you may need a violent opening to secure any attention at all. My friend John Carlance once played a club on New Year’s Eve. Just as pandemonium broke out at midnight, the half-witted manager turned to John and said, “You’re on.”
I would have murdered the manager. John, however, walked on stage and set fire to a handful of flash paper. The resulting flare drew even the bleariest eye in the house. Note that although this seized attention, it was not interesting in itself. In spite of his violent opening, John was able to start his interest curve at the bottom…
“Specialization,” Robert Heinlein wrote, “is for insects,” and recently, I’ve become fascinated by the life of a man named Henning Nelms, aka Hake Talbot, who, as much as any author I know, embodies the idea that a writer needs to know a bit about everything. Nelms was born in Baltimore in 1900, and after obtaining an undergraduate degree from George Washington University, he studied law at the University of Georgia and got his MFA at Yale. He made his living primarily as a lawyer, but also worked in advertising and editing and was the head of the drama department at Middlebury College. In addition to his two mystery novels, one of which is a classic, he wrote plays and published several books on stagecraft and set design, but he’s perhaps best known today as a magician. Indeed, you’ll often find articles on Nelms that refer to him either as a magician or a mystery novelist, mentioning his other field of interest only in passing, when in fact he made an indelible impression in both.
I first got to know Nelms through his wonderful book Thinking With a Pencil, which I read when I was younger and recently bought again after realizing that I needed to own a copy. The title says it all: its 350 pages are packed with insight on basic sketching techniques, tracing, cartooning, figure drawing, perspective, lettering, the creation of diagrams and schematics, the presentation of data in charts and tables, and much more, all of it apparently picked up on the fly in a life of solving problems on the stage and in print. His book Magic and Showmanship takes a similar approach to conjuring: it covers the basics of sleight of hand, the construction of props and effects, and the preparation of stage patter and narrative, all of which are treated as parts of a seamless whole. In short, it envisions magic as a special case of storytelling, and much of its advice applies equally well to the writer as to the magician. For instance:
When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.
Given all this, it was perhaps inevitable that Nelms would also try his hand at mystery fiction, which was so suited for his particular bag of tricks. He wrote only two novels, under the pseudonym Hake Talbot, but his more famous book, Rim of the Pit, has been voted the second-greatest locked room mystery of all time (behind only John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, which can be expected to take the top position in any poll). I recently read Rim of the Pit, and while it has some of the weaknesses of the locked room genre in general—everything, including character, is subordinated to the puzzle, and the writing is fair at best—it’s still a fine showcase for Nelms’s talents. A group of potential victims and suspects are gathered in a cabin in the woods for a story that plays like an encyclopedia of impossible crimes: ghosts appear and disappear; a dead body is found in pristine snow, without any footprints nearby; and, of course, a killer vanishes from a room in which there can be no possible escape.
The answer, as always, is never quite as satisfying as the mystery itself, but Nelms plays fair, misleads us beautifully, and comes up with a number of really ingenious solutions. (His approach to the problem of the body surrounded by untouched snow is particularly inventive.) And the book reflects Nelms’s remarkable personality: it’s full of magical lore, testifying to his wide reading in the literature of the supernatural, and it even gives him a chance to show off his skills as a draftsman—the map on the back cover of the original edition was drawn by the author himself. These days, Nelms, who died in 1986, isn’t well known outside the circles of magicians and mystery enthusiasts, but he embodies the kind of writer I tend to admire most: the jack of all trades, equal to any challenge, with a deep well of experience derived from surprising places. And if specialization is for insects, then Nelms is a model for all of us who hope to be something more.