East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Writing as Sleight of Hand

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Cover of "Royal Road to Card Magic"

Cover of Royal Road to Card Magic

I often say that writing – no matter if it’s stories, academical articles, blog posts – is a practice akin to sleight of hand.

Writers are illusionists, doing verbal prestidigitation.
We have an audience, and we must impress and entertain this audience not only with our contents, but with our presentation skills.

And here I am tonight (it’s a little past midnight, Saturday night, as I write this), and in Hugard & BrauĂ©’s indispensable 1947 book, The Royal Road to Card Magic, I find the following:

A good card trick – and by that we mean a card trick which entertains, surprises, amuses, and puzzles an audience – has certain attributes:

1. It has a simple plot. It must not be confusing to those who watch.
2. The modus operandi is simple.
3. It is interesting.
4. It has a surprising denouement.

And really, replace “card trick” with “story”, and the above is good, solid advice – if a little generic – on plotting and outlining, assembling and executing a story.
It’s basic storytelling, if you will.

Read any great story – especially short stories by masters of the form (think Bradbury, Dahl, Ellison, Brown – limiting ourselves to imaginative fiction) – and you’ll see it is built on those four simple principles.

And granted, excellent stories have been written by breaking at least three of the four principles, and yet…

It is essential that you master the first step before continuing on your journey, and for this reason we urge you to learn the various shuffles and perform the many fine tricks which they make possible before you pass on to the other sections.

Hugard & Braué again, in what is not just an excellent book on card magic, but an unexpected source of writing wisdom.

The Royal Road to Card Magic is available in a cheap, high quality paperback reprint (of the 1950 edition) by the fine gentlemen of Dover Publications.
It’s considered a classic, and it’s not just for stage magicians.

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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