Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Magic and Showmanship

Quote of the Day

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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

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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

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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 magical life of Henning Nelms

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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

An alternative library of creativity

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If you want to be a writer, there are plenty of guidebooks and manuals available, and some of them are very good. When you’re stuck on a particular narrative problem or trying to crack a story, though, you’ll often find that it’s helpful to approach it from an alternative angle, or to apply tactics and techniques from an unrelated creative field. I’ve always found inspiration from works intended for other disciplines, so here’s a sampling, in chronological order of original publication, of ten I’ve found consistently stimulating:

Magic and Showmanship (1969) by Henning Nelms. A magic trick is a work of theater in miniature, and writers can learn a lot from the insights that sleight of hand affords into the use of staging, emphasis, and misdirection, as tested under particularly unforgiving conditions. This book by the great Henning Nelms is the most useful work on the subject I’ve found from the perspective of storytelling and performance, and it’s particularly helpful on the subjects of clarity and dramatic structure.

Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation (1972) by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. An eccentric, highly opinionated meditation on bricolage, or the art of making do with whatever happens to be at hand, which is something writers do all the time. (The real trick is taking a story assembled out of odds and ends and making the result seem inevitable.) Out of print for many years, it was recently reissued in a handsome new edition that belongs on the shelf of any artist or designer.

A Pattern Language

The Little Lisper (1974) by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen. Coding is a surprisingly valuable field for writers to study, since it deals directly with problems of structure, debugging, and managing complex projects. I could have named any number of books here—Programmers at Work and its successor Coders at Work are also worth seeking out—but this classic work on the Lisp programming language, later updated as The Little Schemer, is particularly elegant, with a focus on teaching the reader how to think recursively.

A Pattern Language (1977) by Christopher Alexander. Alexander’s magnum opus—which is one of the two or three books I’d take with me if I couldn’t own any others—is ostensibly about architecture, but its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software design. This isn’t surprising, because it’s really a book about identifying patterns that live, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures, all from the perspective of those who use them every day. Which is what creativity, of any kind, is all about.

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I’ve always been fascinated by animation, which scales up from the simplest possible tools and materials—a pencil, a pad of paper, a hand to flip the pages—to collaborative efforts of enormous complexity that can require years of effort. Not surprisingly, its traditions, tricks, and rules of thumb have plenty to teach storytellers of all kinds, and this work by two of Disney’s Nine Old Men comes as close as a book can to providing an education on the subject between covers.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) by Edward Tufte. Tufte’s rules for clarity and simplicity in the presentation of statistics apply as much to writing as to charts and graphs, and his ruthless approach to eliminating “chartjunk” is one that more authors and editors could stand to follow. (“Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.”) His other books—Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence—are also essential, hugely pleasurable reads.

On Directing Film (1992) by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book endlessly before, but it’s still the single best introduction I’ve found to the basic principles of storytelling. (In the meantime, I’ve also learned how much Mamet owes to the works of Stanslavski, particularly the chapter “Units” from An Actor Prepares.) It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a set of immediately applicable tools that solve narrative problems under all circumstances, and although it can be read in less than an hour, it takes a lifetime to put it into practice.

Behind the Seen (2004) by Charles Koppelman. The problem that a film editor faces is a heightened version of what every artist confronts. Given a large body of raw material, how do you give it a logical shape and pare it down to its ideal length? The physical and logistical demands of the job—Walter Murch notes that an editor needs a strong back and arms—has resulted in a large body of practical knowledge, and this loving look at Murch’s editing of Cold Mountain using Final Cut Pro is the best guide in existence to what the work entails.

Field Notes on Science and Nature

Finishing the Hat (2010) by Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s candid, often critical look at his own early lyrics shows the development of a major artist in real time, as he strives to address the basic challenge of conveying information to an audience through song. Cleverness, he finds, only takes you so far: the real art lies in finding a form to fit the content, doing less with more, and navigating the countless tiny decisions that add up to the ultimate effect. “All in the service of clarity,” Sondheim concludes, “without which nothing else matters.”

Field Notes on Science and Nature (2011) by Michael Canfield. Much of the creative process boils down to keeping good notes, which both serve to record one’s observations and to lock down insights that might seem irrelevant now but will become crucial later on. Scientists understand this as well as anyone, and there’s an unexpected degree of art in the process of recording data in the field. It’s impossible to read this beautiful book without coming away with new thoughts on how to live more fully through one’s notes, which is where a writer spends half of his or her time.

Looking at the books I’ve cited above, I find that they have two things in common: 1) An emphasis on clarity above all else. 2) A series of approaches to building complex structures out of smaller units. There’s more to writing than this, of course, and much of what authors do intuitively can’t be distilled down to a list of rules. But seeing these basic principles restated in so many different forms only serves as a reminder of how essential they are. Any one of these books can suggest new approaches to old problems, so you can start almost anywhere, and in the end, you find that each one leads into all the rest.

Using the rule of three

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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

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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

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