Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Henning Nelms

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

As you introduce each prop, identify it by name. No matter how commonplace it is, never assume that the spectators can recognize it. Some of them may be nearsighted. Try to work the name in unobtrusively. Thus, you might say, “With this egg, I shall now demonstrate…” or “Have you ever stopped to wonder how an egg gets inside its shell?” If you cannot find a smooth description, it is better to state flatly, “This is an egg,” than to let some inattentive spectator mistake it for a golf ball.

Henning Nelms, Magic and Showmanship

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

A most pitiful ambition

with 3 comments

In Magic and Showmanship, which is one of my favorite books on storytelling of any kind, the magician and polymath Henning Nelms sets forth a principle that ought to be remembered by all artists:

An illusion is, by definition, untrue. In every field, we detect untruth by inconsistency. We recognize statements as false when they contradict themselves. An actor who does something which is not in keeping with his role falls out of character, and the spell of the play is broken. If a conjurer’s words and actions fail to match the powers he claims, he pricks the bubble of illusion; he may still entertain his audience with a trick, but he loses the magic of drama. Consistency is the key to conviction.

Nelms adds that consistency is also the key to entertainment, and that it achieves its greatest impact when all of its resources are directed toward the same goal. He continues:

Consistency implies a standard. We cannot merely be consistent; we must be consistent with something. In creating an illusion, our standard is the theme. Once you realize this, you will find that the theme provides a guide to every detail of your presentation. This is a tremendous asset. It answers many questions almost before you can ask them.

And Nelms concludes with a powerful rule: “Plan a routine as if every element of the theme—personalities, phenomena, purpose, and proof—were literally true.”

To some extent, this is simply a restatement of what John Gardner calls “the vivid and continuous fictional dream.” Any lapse or inconsistency will draw viewers or readers out of the performance, and it can be hard to get them back again. As Nelms puts it:

Although the “as if” rule is an inspiring guide, it is also a strict taskmaster. Consistency is essential to any suspension of disbelief. No conviction is so deep that it cannot be destroyed by a discrepancy in the presentation. On the contrary, the more profoundly the spectators are enthralled by a performance, the more likely they are to be jerked back to reality by anything which is not in harmony with the illusion.

Even more usefully, Nelms frames this rule as a courtesy to the magician himself, since it provides a source of information at times when we might otherwise be lost: “It not only helps us to make decisions, but suggests ideas.” He also helpfully observes that it can be more productive, on a creative level, to focus on eliminating discrepancies, rather than on heightening the elements that are already effective:

My whole procedure as a showman is based on a technique of hunting for faults and ruthlessly eliminating them…The good parts of a play or routine take care of themselves. If I see a way to improve them, I do so. But I never worry about them. Instead, I concentrate on spotting and correcting the flaws. These are the places that offer the greatest opportunities for improvement. Hence, they are also the places where time and effort devoted to improvement will produce the greatest results.

On a practical level, Nelms suggests that you write down an outline of the illusion as if it were literally true, and then see where you have to depart from this ideal for technical reasons—which is where you should concentrate your attention to minimize any obvious discrepancies. This all seems like common sense, and if writers and performers sometimes forget this, it’s because they get attached to inconsistencies that provide some other benefit in the short term. Nelms writes:

Many dramas have been ruined by actors who tried to enliven serious scenes by being funny. The spectators laughed at the comedy, but they were bored by the play. The same law holds true for conjuring: No matter how effective an inconsistent part may be, the damage that it does to the routine as a whole more than offsets whatever advantages it may have in itself.

He continues: “Directors and performers alike are so flattered by hearing an audience laugh or exclaim over some line or action that they blind themselves to the harm it does to the play or the illusion.” This tendency is as old as drama itself, as we see in Hamlet’s advice to the players, and it can have a troubling effect on the audience:

A discrepancy may escape conscious notice and still weaken conviction. The suspension of disbelief is a subconscious process. No one says to himself, “If I am to enjoy this performance to the full, I must accept it as true and close my mind to the fact that I know it to be false.” Spectators can be led to adopt this attitude, but they must do so without thinking—and without realizing that they have done anything of the kind.

Which brings us, unfortunately, to Donald Trump. If you’re a progressive who is convinced that the president is trying to put one over on the public, you also have to confront the fact that he isn’t especially good at it. Not only are the discrepancies glaring, but they occur with a clockwork regularity that would be funny if it weren’t so horrifying. After the Washington Post reported that Trump had disclosed classified information—remember that?—to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, his national security adviser said: “I was in the room. It did not happen.” The next day, Trump tweeted that he “wanted to share” the facts with Russia, as he had “the absolute right to do.” After James Comey was fired, the White House issued a statement saying that Trump had acted on the advice of the Justice Department, which based its recommendation on Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails. Two days later, Trump contradicted both points in an interview with Lester Holt: “I was going to fire Comey. My decision…In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said: ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’” And when his staff repeatedly asserted that the refugee order wasn’t a travel ban, only to have Trump insist that it was, it felt like a cutaway gag on Arrested Development. You’ll sometimes see arguments that Trump is a chess master, creating distractions like a magician utilizing the technique of misdirection, which strikes me as a weird form of liberal consolation. (It reminds me of what Cooder the carny says of being grifted by Homer Simpson: “Well, there’s no shame in bein’ beaten by the best.” When his son tries to point out that Homer didn’t seem very smart, Cooder interrupts angrily: “We were beaten by the best.”) But the real answer is close at hand. Let’s look at Hamlet’s speech again:

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.

This may be the best thing ever written about the Trump administration. Trump has been trained for years to go for the easy laugh or the quick reaction from the crowd, and he’ll continue to do so, even as “necessary questions” need to be considered. He’s done pretty well with it so far. And he has a receptive audience that seems willing to tell itself exactly what Nelms thought was impossible: “If I am to enjoy this performance to the full, I must accept it as true and close my mind to the fact that I know it to be false.”

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2017 at 9:02 am

The interest curve

with 2 comments

Magic and Showmanship by Henning Nelms

Increasing interest is called building. If we had to rely on natural interest, providing an effective interest curve would be a hopeless task. Fortunately, we can call a whole battery of technical devices to our aid.

We build interest by adding more: more movement, more color, more sound, more light, more people, more intensity, more concentration, more excitement. In short, anything whatever that the spectators regard as interesting will also increase their interest.

A stage act gives you plenty of scope. You can start with a bare stage and fill it with production items, or start with black-and-white costumes and apparatus and end with a riot of color. Begin with minor effects like a cigarette vanish and wind up by producing an automobile. Commence with small slow movements and end by racing around the stage waving silken banners. Open silently and close with a shout and a pistol shot. If you have adequate lighting facilities and a reliable electrician, nothing is more effective than starting with a fairly dim stage and ending in a blaze of light.

My own pet device for building interest consists in increasing the height of my actors above the stage floor. This works so well that I often introduce steps and platforms merely to make height possible…

One of the dramatist’s most important jobs is to relieve the audience of all mental effort. Each step should be clear, and the transition from one step to the next should seem easy and natural. When a step does not logically follow the one before it, the spectators are puzzled. While they are groping for the connection, they miss the next step—or the next few steps. This confuses them still more. Confusion makes the interest curve drop sharply; people who are trying to understand what has happened cannot give full attention to what is happening.

Henning Nelms, Magic and Showmanship

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2015 at 8:18 am

The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 3

with 3 comments

Art by Kurt Huggins for "Stonebrood"

Note: This is the last of three posts in which I discuss how I conceived and wrote my novelette “Stonebrood,” the lead story in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A long excerpt can be found here, and the whole thing is available both on newsstands and for purchase online. Be warned that a few spoilers follow.

When I began doing research for “Stonebrood,” one of the first articles I read was a vivid piece in Discover by the journalist Kristin Ohlson. It’s primarily about the Ruth Mullins fire, a coal seam blaze that has been quietly burning for nearly a decade in Hazard, Kentucky, and it follows geologists Jennifer O’Keefe and James Hower as they investigate the area, a barren landscape with toxic white smoke billowing up from vents in the earth. It closes with a warning:

[Hower] notes that the Ruth Mullins fire is migrating slowly toward nearby Highway 80. If a coal seam fire burns through the road, asphalt could crack open and sink, swallowing people and cars and unleashing a hellish scenario that might finally make people pay attention to what is going on beneath their feet.

As a reader, I found the thought chilling, but as a writer, I could only say: “Thank you.” One of the most challenging aspects of writing hard science fiction is finding compelling ways of staging the ideas that drew you to a subject in the first place, and a highway collapse—which occurs on the first page of the novelette—seemed like as dramatic an opening scene as any I could imagine.

And in many ways, it’s that initial sequence—which plays much the same role as a cold open does on an episode of television—that makes the rest of the story possible. Reading over “Stonebrood” again, I think it’s a strong piece of work, but its action is almost entirely internalized, and it unfolds in a more subtle fashion than most of my other stories, leaving it up to the reader to connect most of the thematic dots. (In its tone and pacing, not to mention in the nuts and bolts of the action, it has a lot in common with “The Whale God,” another story about a protagonist dealing with unsettling hallucinations while trying to get a practical job done.) The opening buys me a lot of capital with the reader: it’s a self-contained, exciting set piece that clearly establishes the stakes of what Marius and his team are trying to prevent, and it provides a burst of adrenaline that carries us through the remainder of the first section, which is really nothing more than three men standing around a borehole. Most of my stories save their first big plot development or action scene for around a third of the way through, and it takes a great deal of effort to sustain the reader’s attention through the material required to get us to that pivotal moment. Placing the most compelling sequence right at the beginning lends some necessary momentum to a story that might otherwise seem a bit too introspective or subdued.

The October 2015 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

That said, there’s a risk involved in leading off with your most memorable scene, which is that the rest of the story will seem anticlimactic by comparison. Henning Nelms, the legendary magician, mystery novelist, and jack-of-all-trades, puts it best in a discussion of how to structure a magic act:

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.

A story like “Stonebrood” is a kind of magic act in itself—it creates a mystery and then produces a solution with a flourish—and I knew that I had to be careful about paying off the expectations that the first scene raised. I did this, in part, by keeping the memory of the incident alive in the protagonist’s mind, and by making certain choices that tied otherwise unrelated story points back to the opening. In a flashback, we see how Marius, as a teenager, uses carbon monoxide to kill the gangster who had murdered his uncle. He could have simply shot the guy, but the image of that smoldering charcoal, which also ties into the smoker that his grandmother uses to calm her bees, reminds us of how the eight people died in the sinkhole. And it’s that kind of connection, as artificial as it might be, that allows the story to read like a unified sequence of ideas, rather than a succession of loosely related events.

Once I’d finished the research and come up with the general outlines of the plot, it soon became clear that writing “Stonebrood” was largely a matter of not screwing up the material I’d uncovered. I had a gripping opening; a memorable location, in the form of the blasted landscape above the coal seam fire and, in particular, the ruins of the abandoned ghost town nearby, a type of location that has been memorably used before by such works as Silent Hill and Dean Koontz’s Strange Highways; and a lot of evocative secondary material from the Lithuanian lore of bees. (The plot itself, in which Marius is haunted by memories of his grandmother and the sinister gangster Garastas, harks back to The Icon Thief and its sequels, and if I made use of it again here, it’s mostly because I had it readily available.) I’m happy with the result, and I’d rank it in the top half of all the novelettes I’ve published. It’s a type of story I’ve written before and will probably write again, and its interest, as usual, lies mostly in the details of the setting and the specifics of the twist. What I like most about it, though, is the tone, which seems to have been acquired, as if by contagion, from the moodiness of the setting: like the landscape in which it takes place, it’s brooding, mostly quiet, but with forces beneath the surface that always seem on the verge of erupting. I think it sustains that tone nicely, and it’s the opening cataclysm that allows the rest of it to work.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2015 at 9:01 am

The magical life of Henning Nelms

leave a comment »

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on June 22, 2012.

“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.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

Using the rule of three

leave a comment »

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.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2012 at 10:11 am

Starting with a bang

leave a comment »

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…

Henning Nelms, Magic and Showmanship

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2012 at 9:50 am

%d bloggers like this: