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Magic Tricks of the Text

Have you ever seen someone perform a really bad magic trick? The person is trying so hard to deceive or charm you that you are able to seem, without even really trying to look, exactly where he slipped the quarter.

But when you witness a good magic trick, you are baffled and mystified. You know that an answer must exist, but you don’t even care because the feeling of wonderment is something you don’t experience often. In a way, you have allowed the magician to guide you on an emotional journey.

A good writer is like a talented magician, manipulating the reader’s attention and executing the trick so smoothly that the reader neither questions nor stops to think about the mechanics of the act.

I’ve used the metaphor numerous times in class. Scott Spencer, author of Endless Love, is a writer-magician. The first-person narrator in Endless Love is a teenage boy who burns down the home of his girlfriend’s family.

But Spencer is so adept at creating a delusional, manipulative narrator that we find ourselves, as readers, almost sympathizing with a guy who clearly requires psychological care.

At one point, the narrator runs into the house because he feels obligated to save the family from the fire. He says, “It seemed that that house longed to burn, just as a heart can be overcome with love.”

For a moment, the reader might think, Wow, what an interesting image! Then, the reader remembers that the narrator is an arsonist who has completely lost his mind. He is so convincing that you often have to step out of the narrative and remind yourself: he’s feeding you complete bullshit. At the same time, you don’t really care because his words are so hypnotic.

I want my students to recognize how well a good writer will anticipate the reader’s next thought or return to a scene the moment a reader is on the verge of forgetting it. The pacing of a story and the writer’s ability to capture a reader’s interest depends completely on this awareness.

Just imagine trying to understand someone you’ll probably never meet. Both the writer and the magician must know enough about the human thought process, even without knowing the reader/audience member personally, to do their jobs correctly.

Finally, a good writer is like a good magician because a good writer understands that proper grammar, spelling, sentence structure, punctuation, and paragraph breaks will make or break a trick. Poet Wallace Stevens once said, “Technique is proof of your seriousness.”

The same way that no one wants to see a magician with stunted, awkward movements, no one wants to read text with errors. If the reader is too aware of the text, the trick will fail. The text should guide but not disturb; words should neither be too simple nor too complicated, and the sentence structure must not make the reader stumble.

A good writer writes gracefully. A good writer, like a good magician, makes it look easy.

(Photo by kennymatic)

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