Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writing as Magic. Or Just A Joke.

Note: I wrote this article for a writer's group I'm in, but thought I'd share it here, too. Click the post title for the full text.

My 8 year old daughter made up a knock-knock joke a couple of weeks ago using some of her spelling words. It goes like this:

Emma: Knock Knock
You: Who's there?
Emma: (Very seriously) Never forget.
You: Never forget who?
Emma: (Shrugs) Eh, I forgot.

Scientists have studied why jokes are funny. Why do we laugh at something like that?

Part of what they've come up with is this:

Your brain gets tickled in a particular way when it makes a connection between two things it wasn't expecting to connect, or it's expecting one connection, but instead things don't quite connect like it thought it would. Either the connection or the lack of connection in your brain titillates. In the case of this joke, the last line doesn't quite form up right with either the standard form of the knock-knock joke or the impassioned admonition to “Never Forget.” But it DOES match up with the idea of not forgetting in a funny and unexpected way, so we laugh.


Or check out this Far Side comic, one of my favorites.

There are all these separate elements in the comic. Your brain has to take all of these things and put them together. When the neurons all bump together just right, at the right speed and in the right way, you get a laugh. Or a smile.

Or, if you're a cat person, maybe a bit of chagrin.

But the point is, humor comes from an “ah-ha” moment in your brain.

Sometimes the connection is between something in the joke and something in the outside world. Sometimes, it's a reference to something already set up in the joke. Humor columnist Dave Barry pretty much always ends his stuff with a joke that references back to something in the middle of the column. It gives a nice sense of tying things up in a bow, as well as giving him a random connection.

Now when I'm not giving my daughter spelling words or reading Far Side comics, I like to dabble in magic. And I came to a realization a while ago that the best magic tricks are the same way. The best magic tricks create “Ah-ha” moments in your brain. Moments where things don't quite hook up right. If all goes well, the effect, instead of humor, is amazement. Or both humor and amazement, which is why people so often giggle when they see a good magic trick.

Here's an example. Not magicians, exactly, but see if there are any “Ah-ha” moments in this trick.

Please click here and check it out. It won't let me embed this one, but I will embed the other ones right here on the page, I promise. Seriously, don't say you'll do it later. Just go watch it.

Okay, back? Can you see what I'm talking about? These moments when the brain can't quite connect what's happening right, you get an effect.

Now try this one, from the great ones, Penn and Teller. Bit of a language warning.

There you go. You're not coming away from that with any of the same “How did they do that?” questions you have on the Quick-Change artists, but you still get two separate ah-ha moments. The first is when he gets stabbed through the hand, and your brain realizes what's happening, and the second is when you see the card on the hand, and you realize the trick you've really seen.

Even if you sort of jumped the gun and anticipated it a bit, you still get the idea of the one-two punch here of ah-ha moments.

Okay, now, to contrast it, I give you multi-bazillion dollar magician David Copperfield. Be sure and watch it before you read the comments after.

No, seriously, don't read this down here. Go up and watch it. You have to experience it first, then come back to me.

Go. Go.

Back now?

So how was that?

Yeah, pretty awful, huh? Even if you were kind of impressed, I'm betting dollars to donuts you didn't even make it through the whole video without skipping ahead. But why?

I have two reasons:

1.There was no clear “Ah-ha” moment. The box was folded up way too gradually to create a single moment of absolute, clear-cut “I am amazed now." There was no real moment when your brain knew we'd crossed a line. So all the connections happened so slowly and gradually, you didn't reall get to appreicate them.

2.The trick kept going long after the “Ah-ha” moment was over. Once the box was in it's small, red shape, you, me, and everyone in the world knew the lady wasn't in that box any more. So at that point, sticking swords through the box, no matter how well choreographed or how well posed, isn't adding any amazement factor to the trick.

I'm not bashing Copperfield here. He's done some great stuff. I just hate this trick. It's diluted.

Now, there's a flip side to this: There's a way to take a trick and draw it out even more than Copperfield did here, but actually make it stronger instead of diluting it.

David Blaine does it all the time. When he locks himself in a block of ice or stands on top of a pole for days on end.

I sometimes think David Blaine's stunts are completely mishandled when they're broadcast on television, because they put so much emphasis on when he stops doing whatever he's doing, when that's the least interesting moment in the whole thing.

The most interesting moment is every other moment in the whole bit. Or maybe I should say any other moment in the whole bit.

Somebody once asked David Blaine what his favorite magic trick was. This was his reply:

When Fidel Castro spoke to his supporters at his first triumphant rally, trained doves were released from amid the crowd. When one of the doves landed on his shoulder, the Cuban people perceived it as a sign from above that he was ordained to be their savior.

The idea, in this case, isn't an “Ah-ha” moment. It's an “Ah-ha” image. A picture that's meant to be ingrained on the mind of the person who sees it and create a single impression, like the dove on Castro's shoulder had for Cubans. David Blaine standing in a block of ice is memorable and iconic. David Blaine coming out of a block of ice is just a cold guy.

Now, the third point I want to make is about the way the moment's dressed up. Let's stick with David Blaine on this one, and show him doing a very striaghtforward presentation of a card trick, a card trick he's pretty well known for, mostly because of the memorable name of the guy he does it for:

Now that's a pretty straightforward presentation of the trick. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Blaine isn't performing here. He is. He's using his usual earnest acting style that's earned him his reputation as being genuinely capable of having powers, even though his first two specials featured off-the shelf tricks from any magic store. But the focus is definitely on the magic.

Now here's the exact same trick, only this time, the magician, David Regal, is trying to be entertaining separate from the magic. He's still going for the “Ah-ha” moments, but he's dressed the trick up in a way that makes it more than just, “Look at a card rise to the top of the deck.”

So which one do you like better? Honestly, I'm not going to say definitively one is better than the other. Both guys have their fans. But I'd be curious about which one you like better, if you want to say in the comments.

Yeah, So What?

I'd like to suggest that all of these techniques of both humor and magic are techniques we can shamelessly pilfer from in our fiction.

We can:

Make Connections.

Look for ways that things in your story can hook up. Think about all the dramatic moments in books, movies, and TV that were all about making connections. The big, “Luke, I am your father,” moment in The Empire Strikes Back was really a connection. Not only did it connect Luke to Vader in a way we didn't expect, but it connected the information we had about both Vader and Luke's father in a way we didn't expect, but made sense.

In E.T., if they had simply had E.T come back to life in the climactic scene, we might have felt cheated. Oh, that's convenient, we would have thought. But notice what they did to make us accept it: They grounded the scene long before it happened. When we were first learning that E.T. had powers, he spun some balls around the room and he brought some wilted flowers back to life. When it came time to resurrect him, they didn't show us him. They showed us the flowers. By grounding what might seem hard for us to accept by connecting it to a moment we'd already accepted, they got us to accept the new development.

Create lots of details and/or rules that might connect.

The more fully you imagine your world, the more details you plant, the more likely you are to create things that can connect. The more fully you explain the rules of your world, the more likely you are to find solutions to them.

Some of you read my short story “Dash It To Hell,” about Santa having to deliver presents in hell because one boy there had been good all year. In the end, it turns out it was a trap. Satan had chained up the boy to keep him out of trouble, and his holding cell was a trap for Santa. The edges of the cell are lined with magic-suppressing powers, keeping him from getting out.

When I first wrote that story, I had no idea what to do from there. Santa was stuck and so was I.

So I thought back over the details that I'd created in the story so far. And I remembered a gag I'd put in about a bunch of leftover toys they were trying to get cleared through the custom's department of hell. Leftover toys from years and years. And I realized that if the walls of the cell suppressed magic, all of those toys wouldn't fit in the bag any more.

And I was left with this wonderful scene where the cell is burst apart by toys. Exactly the toys that all the people in Hell had wanted but never gotten.

It was purely by accident, but I'd created a world with enough detail to get Santa into trouble, and get him out.

When in doubt, add details. You can always cut out the unnecessary ones later.

Create images that stick.

In E.T., it's the bicycle crossing the moon. In North by Northwest, it's Cary Grant running from that airplane.

Can we create images in prose? Sure we can. And we have the advantage of not being limited to just a visual image. We're creating an overall sensory impression.

My mom read Dune for the first time while she was pregnant with me. Being pregnant somehow amplified the idea of the Dune bodysuits, designed to wick and carry away all the moisture that your body secrets or excretes, then purify it for re-ingestion. That's a nice way of saying you drink your own sweat and pee. She's never forgotten that, though she could now barely tell you what the book was about.

Dress it up up serious or dress it up fun, but think about how you dress it up.

David Blaine is choosing a very specific persona when he does his magic. Even though sometimes it comes across almost as if he's a passive observer of the magic that's happening, almost a guide to the magic, that's a very conscious decision that he's making. It sets a tone, sort of channeling where the emotion are going to go.

David Regal does the same thing in the puppy trick. He chooses a different direction. It's not just about the magic, it's also about the people in the room. It's about who is there and what kind of people they are as they experience it. Are they having fun even before they get to the crazy stuff?

You get to make all those same choices.

To me, one of the reasons The Sixth Sense worked so well, as a movie, is that it was such a great movie even without the twist. If he'd have gone home at the end and there would have been the standard Hollywood ending where he goes to his wife and says, “I've worked through my issues. We can reconnect now. I'm sorry,” I still would have loved the movie.

THEN the movie hits you with all of these connections you never made before, and you get your “Ah-ha!” moment.

A weaker movie shows you confusing scene after confusing scene, and then think that explaining it later, it's an “Ah-ha” moment. But that's counterfeit. That's bogus. That's not an “Ah-ha.” That's an, “Oh, okay.” Or, even worse, that's an “Oh, is that all?”

Now that's not to say every story gets the full, fleshed out treatment. Like the David Blaine version, sometimes it's just about the moment. Imagine if Jim Carrey were a character in Issac Asimov's short story “Nightfall.” It would completely change the effect of the story.

Sometimes, you pull away the distractions and let the moment speak more for itself.

Know when your moment has passed, so you can let it go.

Picture David Copperfield ramming a sword through the box we've all figured out is empty.

Then consider: Is the dashing hero of your tale making another go at trying to woo the not-quite-right-for-him woman, even though everybody's figured out he's not going to end up with her, but with the other girl?

You either need to give the audience a better reason to believe there's still a chance, or stop trying to squeeze tension out of a dead issue.

Or consider: Has the tension already gone out of your climax, now that we know the hero is safe, and do all the explosions happening now feel boring? Either move the peril back to match up closer with the explosions, or create new peril to get the reader through the explosions.

Bringing it all together.

The movie that I think pulls all of this off fantastically is Back to the Future. The next time you watch it, look for how they do all of these things. Planting seeds they can connect to later, connecting to things both in and out of the movie, creating iconic unforgettable images, all of it.

So much so, that when it came time to make sequels, even though they hadn't planned on it, the first movie gave them so many strong moments to make connections to that they provide a huge chunk of the framework for the movies.

But always in a way that's entertaining—never do you feel like a scene is “just” a set-up or “just” a call-back. Every time there's enough going on or enough that's fresh and new that it never stops being entertaining by itself.

Even the final scene of the movie, where Marty decides not to race the guy, is a reversed connection/callback to his dad getting up the courage to hit a guy. It was about his dad really being brave and becoming cool, and Marty being willing to risk becoming uncool if he doesn't act brave.

* * *

So there you go.

A couple of drawers from the comedian and the magician's toolbox, all unpacked for your inspection. Feel free to pick them up and play with them as you write your stories this week

Unless you're a cat person. Then I need you over here. There's something in my dryer I want to show you.

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