One of the reasons I enjoy teaching is the unexpected things you learn from your students. For the past seven years I’ve been teaching the official CAE course in close-up magic for beginners, and have had the privilege of introducing many fascinating people to this amazing art.
One such person is Michael Pryor who, via an article on his website, recently taught me something I didn’t know about writing. Specifically, one of the interesting parallels between writing and magic. I read a great deal of both fiction and nonfiction, and hadn’t realised quite how subtle good writing can be when it comes to plot and character exposition.
As Michael explains in the article:
Writers are always playing with a reader’s assumptions and expectations, confounding them or fulfilling them – or stretching them out via the favourite tool of suspense. […] Writers get readers to concentrate on some breakneck narrative while we sift in some other stuff – background detail, character motivation, relationship indicators, weaknesses and fears, subtle details like that. We don’t want the reader to dwell on them, so we get them to look at the car chase, or the fist fight, or the heated argument between the woman and her no good cheating husband who is on his last chance and she means it this time.
That may be obvious already to all the experienced writers out there, but it was a minor revelation to me. Having read plenty of books that get bogged down in dull exposition (cough, Tolkein, cough), it had never occurred to me that good writing doesn’t necessarily have less exposition – it can just hide it more effectively.
It’s also a pleasant reminder that distraction and misdirection don’t necessarily have to be sinister techniques; they’re just as useful for creating a great experience for an audience, as opposed to picking their pocket or selling them something they don’t need.
(Image via Flickr user Keith Williams, licensed under Creative Commons)