Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, Romania’s Decât o Revistă magazine attracted a crowd of writers, editors, photographers and designers to its third annual “Power of Storytelling” conference, in Bucharest. The conference, under the leadership of Cristian Lupsa, a 2014 Nieman Fellow and Decât o Revistă‘s editor, has featured accomplished, creative storytellers such as Evan Ratliff (The Atavist), Mike Sager (Esquire), Starlee Kine (public radio); Pat Walters (Radiolab) and Walt Harrington (author of Intimate Journalism). This year’s lineup: Esquire‘s Tom Junod, New York Times magazine contributor Cynthia Gorney; Romanian documentary filmmaker Mona Nicoară; Swedish songwriter Jens Lekman; and conference regulars Jacqui Banaszynski and Chris Jones. Our coverage begins today, with Jones, who compares storytelling to the seven principles of magic, giving narrative newcomers and veterans alike a fresh way to think about craft. You can either watch him give his talk — and perform a magic trick — or read the lightly edited transcript that follows. Enjoy!
I became obsessed with magic last year, when I was doing a story about a magician named Teller. I did a story because one of Teller’s best tricks got stolen by a Dutch magician. Let me kind of explain the story. So, Teller has this trick called Shadows. It’s an amazing trick. He has done it thousands of times. Basically, Teller walks up on stage, there’s a light shining on a rose that’s sitting in a vase on a stool, and the rose’s shadow is on the wall. And Teller has a big knife. And he cuts the shadow and a leaf of the rose falls off. He cuts it again, and another leaf falls off. And gradually he cuts it off, so the rose is just a stem. And the he pretends to cut himself accidentally with his knife and on the screen, where the shadow was, this trickle of blood starts coming down, and Teller smears it.
As I describe it, I’m not doing justice to this trick. It is an amazing trick. The first time I saw it I was trying to figure it out: How did he do that? The second, and third and fourth time I saw it I just started watching it, just letting myself go into the magic; and the theater goes silent, silent, silent when he’s doing this trick. And in the dark you can hear people crying. It’s amazing. You’re just sitting there and you’ll hear a sob back here, and a sob back there. And all Teller’s doing is this magic trick.
As writers, we never get to see our audiences. I imagine that people are reading my stories, and laughing or crying or whatever I want them to be doing. But Teller can hear it, Teller can see his audience and see what he does, and doing that story made me want to be a magician. It just made me want to do something as special as Shadows. So I studied magic. And Teller told me something that I’ve never really forgotten. It’s my favorite quote that I’ve ever gotten from an interview. He said: “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” Teller spends years on a trick. Shadows he has done since he was 18. He spent years perfecting these tricks, and that’s how you get the payoff: To get great at these things takes time. You see someone do something amazing, and you think it’s magic. But really it’s the product of hard work and study and all these important things.
Luckily Teller and Penn explain their tricks a lot of the time as they’re doing their tricks, which makes them even more impressive, because they’re telling you what they’re doing, and you still can’t see what they’re doing. I’m going to show you a quick clip. This is their “Seven Principles of Magic.” You’ll have to watch very carefully as they do this, okay?
The reason I showed you that clip is because most great tricks are stories. And those seven principles of magic actually really apply: They could be the seven principles of storytelling. This might be a stretch, but I think I’ve worked this out.
“To hold an object in an apparently empty hand”
Good writers do this. We don’t give away the whole story at the start of the story. We hide it. This is the difference between news writing and storytelling. This conference is the Power of Storytelling, right? We’re not going to do news writing. That’s for somebody else to do. The best stories are about something more than the story itself. Take my soldier story. This story is about how a body gets back from Iraq, but then there’s the theme, the larger meaning of the story. And that story about Joey was a story about war and sacrifice and honor and all those important things. You don’t tell your reader what your theme is. You don’t say: “This story is about this, but it’s actually about this.” You palm it in your hand, and the theme is your little secret. You save it. And your reader probably doesn’t expect to be particularly moved by the words on your page. But if you save it …
In magic, that reveal at the end is called “the prestige.” That’s that moment of surprise. In storytelling, that’s your ending. And if your stories have a great ending, you do the same effect that your magic trick has. You’ve palmed this little secret, and at the end you reveal. And hopefully in that moment you get that little gasp, you get that moment of emotion that you were expecting — or hoping for, anyway.
“To secretly dispose of an unneeded object”
This comes in your reporting. The basic structure of a story is that you start with your idea, and then you go to work, reporting, but you don’t want to include every single fact. Part of your job as a writer is to decide what’s important and what’s not important. And you ditch everything that’s not important. There are some things the reader doesn’t need to know, and there are some things the reader doesn’t need to know just yet. If you think about your favorite movies, they probably had some measure of mystery in them. They don’t give you all the answers in the first 10 seconds. Your favorite movies probably don’t have a lot of extra stuff in them. There’s no extraneous information, there’s no unnecessary scenes. When you write a story you want people to read it and not think: “Oh, there is so much extra (that) I didn’t need in that story.” There’s no quicker way to bore a reader than to tell them every little detail.
This is an interesting principle in magic: Children are much harder to fool than adults. You would think it’s the opposite; you would think kids are easier to fool. What happens, as we grow up, is we learn to take shortcuts. So when we see a sleight of hand, we assume that someone has passed something. Children don’t make that assumption. If they don’t see an object go between hands, it’s not there. Adults take the shortcuts, and so what you need to do is let them take those shortcuts. And then you can use that to surprise them at the end.
Teller’s tricks are quiet. Do you guys know who David Copperfield is? Wears pirate shirts? He does these loud, bombastic tricks, and he’s hiding what he’s doing because there’s smoke and there’s bombs, and there’s everything going off. Teller doesn’t do that. He does these simple, beautiful, quiet tricks. Shadows: He is daring you. He has a knife, a shadow and a rose. He’s saying: Watch me do this, try to figure it out. There’s something that makes his tricks more beautiful than a big, loud trick. It is that quiet, simple beauty. And I think that’s a good way to approach your writing: spare, quiet, let the words do the work.
“To secretly obtain a needed object”
This is always a tricky subject, because journalists sometimes have bad reputations for doing naughty things. But I am totally fine with saying I’m a professional thief. I like to think I’m the guy in Die Hard, remember? “I’m an exceptional thief” — that line was just a great line. I steal lots of things. The first thing I do is steal my idea. If I sat in a room by myself, no ideas would come to me. You go out into the world, you read newspapers, you see that little 400-word story that the newspaper writer didn’t have enough time to do properly; you can make that into a magazine story. You overhear a conversation in a restaurant about something interesting. You talk to a fellow journalist and you hear their idea, and you think, “Oh, that’s a good idea,” and you run back to Canada and do it. You’ve stolen those ideas from something in the world.
And then the second part of your thieving is the facts. When I’m talking to someone for a story, there’s a conversation; we’re just having a chat. Your job is to make, in some ways, that person forget who they are and forget who you are; you’re just two people talking. But the truth is the whole time I’m stealing from them. I’m taking facts, I’m taking information, I’m stealing it away and I’m going to run home, I’m going to tell that secret to as many people as I possibly can. That’s what I do. So stealing is actually a big part of this profession. Stealing is not a very nice word — you can call it reporting; we call it creativity.
“To secretly move a needed object to where it is hidden”
This is a bit trickier for writing, but now we get into the writing process. We’ve got our idea, it’s a great idea; we’ve done our reporting; we’ve stolen everything we need; we have ditched everything we don’t need. This is when we talk about our story’s structure. For the best stories, you don’t just relay facts in some basic order: This happened and this happened and this happened. This is a really boring way to tell a story. Loading is the way we order things in the story, to get that reveal at the end. There’s a way to present your information that will get people to where you want to go. Structure is probably the hardest thing to explain and teach, but when you think about a news story often you get that punchy lead at the top: You grab people, you give all the information, because they’re going to stop reading at some point. With the story — a storytelling story — it’s a different process. The lead is to get them in, but everything has to service that ending. And there is some perfect way to structure a story that makes that ending possible. You do not have to write like this — everyone has a different process — but I always write my ending first. I always figure out where I’m trying to get. And once I have that ending I go back and work my story toward that place.
“To give the impression that something that hasn’t happened has happened”
This is the secret to every great story. They make the reader see something that they did not see. They make the reader feel something that they were not part of. They make them feel as though they were in a room, that they heard this person talking. Great stories make the impossible possible. You’re not telling a reader what to think, you’re not telling them what to do; you’re telling a story in such a way that they feel like they’re there. They feel like they experience — they help carry Joey Montgomery home. Or, they were in space. I mean, that’s an amazing thing. Most of us will never get to space. But if you write a story properly, if you do a story well enough, if you go see the movie Gravity — amazing — you’ll feel like you’ve been to space. That’s an amazing thing, to take someone out of their chair in their living room and make them feel like they traveled in space.
“To lead attention away from a secret move”
So for writers, all of your moves should be secret. Everything we’re talking about now shouldn’t be on the page, shouldn’t read like work or like effort. Sometimes writers are tempted to try to sound smart, to make the reader understand, “I’m a really smart person and I’m very good at my job.” Those stories suck. There is something that Teller taught me about this trick, Shadows: The method of Shadows, how he does the trick, doesn’t matter. When he talked about this lawsuit (suing this Dutch magician who had stolen Shadows), he wasn’t worried that the magician had figured out how he did the trick, because the method isn’t important. What matters to Teller is the effect of that trick. What matters to Teller is that moment in the darkened theater when he hears people sobbing. That’s the value of the trick, and that’s the value of your story. You just have to accept the fact that in front of a great story, the readers will not go: “Wow, that story was a lot of work. Did you see all the people he talked to? Your reader will not think that, hopefully. Hopefully, your reader gets lost in your story. And it’s easy for them to read, they get from the beginning to the end, you’ve given them no reason to stop reading, and they get to that reveal, and they finish, and it just was an experience for them. They weren’t thinking. They were just reading.
Misdirection: You’re taking someone and putting them someplace they’ve never been and might never go to in their lives except in their imaginations, because of your story.
“To secretly exchange one object for another”
This is switching the idea for the theme. Remember I said the story is about something, but is really about something else? And this turn, this reveal has to be subtle. It has to be tasteful. It also has to be a secret. You don’t say, “This is what I’m actually talking about. I know the story is about this; now I want you to feel homesick.” You’re not explaining it that way. That transition and reveal shouldn’t require some giant leap in logic, either. Think of a joke — most jokes are stories, and the ending of a joke is surprising, makes you laugh, but it usually makes sense. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The answer can’t be, “Pants.” The answer has to make some kind of sense. The same with a magic trick: In a great magic trick the ending makes perfect sense. For a great story, the ending is surprising. It excites the reader, makes them feel something, but it also seems inevitable.
Do you know the movie The Sixth Sense? That ending? The first time you see that ending you’re like: “Wait a minute, that couldn’t have happened.” And then you go back and you watch the whole movie, and you’re like: “I can’t believe I didn’t see that.” It’s inevitable. It’s perfectly logical. But it’s also totally surprising. Those are the great endings. Those are the things you carry with you for a long time. That movie came out in 1999. A long time ago. But you remember that ending. You carry that with you.
And the other thing you should do here with that ending, with that theme is trust the reader. Readers are pretty smart. They’ve spent 6,000 words with you. They’ll get what you’re doing. And when they close your story, and it might not be right away, but maybe hours or even days later they will feel homesick and they won’t even know why, maybe. They’ll appreciate where their coffee comes from all of a sudden; they’ll call an old friend for no particular reason; maybe they’ll hold the door open for somebody; maybe they’ll look at the stars and wonder for a second, instead of just looking at the stars. After the best stories, I think, they love someone or something maybe just a little bit more.
So these are the seven principles of magic, and I think they’re the seven principles of storytelling: palm, ditch, steal, load, simulation, misdirection, and switch.
Never mind the seven principles for a moment. We can make this even simpler. We can boil great magic, great storytelling, down to one basic principle. Some people think tricks are just designed to fool people. That’s what a trick is. It is to fool somebody. A great trick is more than that. Shadows is more than that. A trick is a lie — that’s totally true — but a great trick is a beautiful lie. The best tricks stoke a battle between your brain and your heart. You’re watching it, you know it’s not magic, you know in your head that no one is a real magician, but you see something so beautiful that moves you in your chest. For the best magic tricks — there’s a real collision between those two things — where what you see is impossible, you know it’s impossible, but it’s so beautiful you want to believe it’s true. And great magic, great storytelling, has that battle between your head and your heart, but you want your heart to win. That’s when you have a really great story. When someone reading it knows something intellectually, but the spiritual component of it, the emotional component of it overpowers whatever they’re thinking.
That’s what a great trick does. It makes you want for your heart to win. And the same is true of stories. When does a story matter? It matters when you make the reader feel something. It can seem like a very hard trick to pull. This business, especially these days, is very hard, and it can seem like doing these beautiful stories is impossible, but as cheesy as it sounds, there’s magic all around us.
Last year, I thought this while standing up here, and I look at this room today: We take a lot of things for granted. I’ve flown in a plane from Canada. I got here like in 10 hours. That’s amazing! The other thing that still amazes me — because I’m an old man — is that we can instantly transmit information to each other. This is also crazy. When I came here last year, every time I brought up any kind of story, someone would say, “Oh, yes, I’ve read that story,” and they would recite various things back to me. I was thrown every single time, I was like: “You’re in Romania, why are you reading these stories? How are you reading these stories?” This is amazing to me. We can tell stories now to readers around the world. And every one of us is capable of leaving this room today, tonight, going out into the last bit of the sunshine and writing a story that someone, somewhere, some stranger sitting in a room, 10,000 miles away, will get to the end of and laugh, or get angry, or even sob in a darkened theater, like at Teller’s trick. We can all do that.
And that is magic.
Ed note: To read last year’s Power of Storytelling series, go here for the setup; here for Banaszynski and Ratliff; here for Kine, Sager and the Seattle Times‘ Alex Tizon; and here for Jones, Walters and Harrington. Check back here for more installments of this year’s coverage, and follow us at @niemanstory to stay current.