What Magicians Can Teach Us About Creating Surprises and Revelations in Stories by Peter Andrews

A good magic trick depends on several elements:

  • The magician knows the audience.
  • The magician creates a premise and sets expectations.
  • The magician focuses the audience’s attention deliberately (for key information).
  • The magician does the trick.
  • The magician pays off the expectation, often over delivering on the expectation (but never disappointing) with a surprise and/or a reveal.
  • The magician depends on a plan and a masterful performance, with many aspects invisible to the audience, to create wonder and astonishment.

As writers we are expected to create wonder and astonishment, to present surprises and revelations, as well. Sometimes these are just for fun. Sometimes, they become ways to share values, experience, and knowledge.

And, in many ways, writers must follow the same patterns as magicians to succeed. Prose, like a magic trick, is sequential. It unfolds in time. The power of a plot comes from when readers receive information or imagery or unmistakable recasting of what appeared to be real. In other words, pacing matters in prose. As it does in magic.

For a writer presenting surprises and revelations, these are essential:

Knowing the audience is essential. Mystery readers are attentive and looking for clues, but some other genres may attract readers who are less focused. I remember writing an SF story and sending it to smart readers, who were not too experienced with science fiction. They couldn’t bear a made up word that was not immediately explained. Dune would not be their choice of reading material.

Presenting the premise and setting expectations gets people looking for an answer and waiting to see what the premise leads to. Usually, people will have an idea about where it might go, and they look forward to that possibility. Essentially, just as the magician makes a promise explicitly (I’ll saw this woman in half) or implicitly (this is an ordinary deck of cards), a writer will commit to a satisfying conclusion.

Focusing attention. People need to notice certain things and may (and, possibly, as with red herrings in mysteries) need to have can’t-look-away distractions to disguise clues. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. For instance, people notice patterns and breaks in patterns. If I list for numbers two, four, six, eight, nine, 12, you’ll probably notice where the pattern breaks down. Break a pattern, and you’ll create emphasis. This also can be used directly as a surprise.

“Doing the trick” for a writer is providing a logical chain (action and/or information) that leads to the payoff. This needs to be done without cheating. It also needs to be clear, so people can follow along.

Paying off is essential. Disappointed readers stop reading. Readers invested in the story have invested time (and the more time, the bigger the payoff needs to be), speculation, attention, and, often, emotions tied up with the character. To provide something that is trivial or less than anticipated or unfair may even outrage readers or audiences. Outcomes need to be as big as anticipated (or, even better, bigger) or reversed without cheating. That leads to delighted readers, who keep reading (or audiences who keep watching) and may recommend the story.

Readers really care about this. Especially when it comes to endings. Miss on one of these essential pieces, and it’s as bad as telling a joke that gets no laughs. Writers need to keep their promises.

Planning and executing a good plan. Intentional, but incomplete, sequences of surprises and revelations often are missing elements. So, executing the plan happens in revision. Check and recheck to make sure all the pieces are there. If not, complete the sequence. By the way, this comes with practice and attention to craft. Incomplete sequences in prose aren’t as obvious as notes missing from a musical phrases.

There’s a special danger of accidentally creating a promise in a draft. Or unintentionally cutting a scene the tied up a loose end or provided a payoff during revision. Sadly, it’s as bad to accidentally fail to keep a promise to readers and audiences as it is do it through not checking on all the elements for a known promise. A good editor or smart beta reader can spot unfulfilled expectations, so they can be corrected.

Here are two more points beyond the magician’s trick analogy:

Writers can also withhold the facts. That generous uncle knew all along that his nephew was going to inherit the estate. Now we know about the inheritance, and also that the uncle might be more conniving than generous. This revelation may recast everything that came before. Like Luke finding out Darth Vader is his father.

A gesture can be used reverse an assumption in a moment. For instance, the solicitous butler may agree to everything, then curl his lip as he is walking away from his employer. (Wow. Maybe things aren’t running as smoothly as they appeared to be. Perhaps he should be considered a murder suspect—especially if this is a mystery story. Whether this is a clue or a red herring, his reaction is now a possible clue to solving a crime.

Wonder and curiosity can also be the writer’s friends. Why does Mrs. Perez always wear her grandfather’s derby? Readers waiting for an answer will be paying attention when it arrives (provided they don’t have to wait too long).

In general, storytelling, as opposed to other arts like sculpture and photography, provides opportunities to reflect the action of time. It’s a dynamic art (like music and dance) that can present changes that reflect the joys and losses and consequence of chance that we experience in real life.

Writers can, with the word or a sentence, shift power between characters or alter the meaning and stakes of a situation or do something that changes trust into betrayal or failure into victory or honor into ego. Contrasts and emotion emerge with time. Traps are set. Expectations are created. And, as letters and words and sentences flow, worlds are built.

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Peter Andrews is a full-time, independent writer who has written speeches, articles, radio shows, plays, books, and short stories. He teaches for the ...