The first stage magic show I remember seeing was at Oklahoma’s Frontier City. Although almost every part of the theme park has a western motif, the magic show is just a magic show. I saw the magic show multiple times over the years, each year with a new magician, and the theater was always packed. Kids loved the show because they love magic; adults loved it, I suspect, because it was one of the few places in the park that had seats and air conditioning.
Each year, the magician on stage magically linked and unlinked metal rings and made rabbits appear from nowhere, but the trick that made the biggest impression on me is known as Metamorphosis. In Metamorphosis, the magician is placed inside a bag, and the bag is placed inside a trunk. The bag is bound, and so is the trunk. The assistant then climbs on top of the trunk and holds up a sheet. The sheet is raised, and when it drops, the assistant and the magician have magically changed places!
The reason why Metamorphosis is so impressive is because of all the parts of the trick our minds fill in. We see the magician placed inside a sealed bag. We see the trunk closed and locked! Sometimes we even see the magician’s hands bound in some fashion. But as my dad used to remind me, all of those props belong to the magician. We assume that the handcuffs are real, when in reality they can be opened with the press of a button. We assume the sack the magician is placed inside has a bottom. We assume that the top of the trunk is the only way in and out. All of those assumptions are incorrect. We also assume that the transformation is “instant,” but if you watch it a second time, it’s not. Curious, how long the magician stands at the front of the stage, soaking up all that applause…
(If you want to see how the trick is done, The Masked Magician will be happy to show you.)
Although early versions of the trick existed, Metamorphosis was perfected and popularized by Harry Houdini. Not long after seeing the trick performed at Frontier City, my dad loaned me a book about Houdini that explained how the trick worked. The book showed everything, from the fake bag to the trunk’s fake back. I felt betrayed. The magician at Frontier City had lied to us! Why would anyone watch a magician perform that trick, or any trick, once they knew the secret?
The answer, of course, is in the performance. It’s the appreciation of the art itself that keeps people coming back. Whenever I watch someone perform the cups and ball trick or palm a coin, it’s not less impressive because I know how it’s done, it’s actually more. Once your mind has been opened to what’s going on behind the scenes — the the psychology of misdirection and the hundreds or thousands of hours of practice it takes to look like you haven’t practiced a move — it becomes entertaining on a whole new level.
And now that my mind is beginning to open, I feel the same way about fiction.
When I began studying the art of telling stories I realized that everything in fiction happens for a reason. As a kid, I used to wonder what Luke Skywalker could have differently to save Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru from being torched by Stormtroopers in the original Star Wars. The moment Luke realizes his Aunt and Uncle are in danger, he zooms back home in his Landspeeder only to discover that they have already been killed. We are told that they were murdered because the Empire is in search of the Death Star plans stored inside R2-D2, but the real reason they die is because George Lucas needed to sever Luke’s ties with his home planet and add some motivation so that the young Jedi would agree to go with Obi-Wan “to learn the ways of the force, like [his] father.”
When people first begin writing fiction, they hear a lot about motivation. What is the protagonist’s motivation? What is the antagonist’s? The real question is, what is the author’s motivation? What point is the author trying to convey with his or her story?
Lots of beginning authors start out telling stories from their own life. I certainly did. Those stories can certainly be enjoyable, but they’re never going to become great fiction, because real life isn’t fiction, and fictional characters aren’t real. They are created to make us think they are real, and authors go to great lengths to make them seem real, but underneath their descriptions and actions and witty sayings they are all plot devices. Each character that appears on the page must do so for a reason. I recently had a professor tell me she is hesitant to write people she knows into her books, and I can understand why — because characters are our pawns, our loyal servants. It’s hard to be loyal to our friends when our characters must be loyal to our plots.
Throughout my life I’ve learned how lots of magic tricks work, and I’ve seen a lot of tricks performed that I already know the secret to how they are performed, but every now and then I’ll see a good magician do a good trick and the result is a great performance. It’s the combination of a good performer with a good gimmick that can take a trick to the next level. I’m starting to enjoy books and movies in the same way. When good writing mechanics combine with a good story, the result is a great book or movie. You can have a good movie by only understanding the character’s motivation, but when you understand both the character’s and the author’s motivations, you may find yourself enjoying stories on a new, deeper level.