Inferno

A good magic trick is like a good story. It has dramatic imagery. It engages your emotions. Its ending is both surprising and inevitable.

A good magic trick doesn’t have to have a story (just as a good story doesn’t have to have a magic trick). Some do, but most magical stories are corny nonsense (e.g., “My grandfather gave me this coin on his deathbed…”).

Here’s one of my favorite magic tricks by a very talented man named Joshua Jay.

The things I like about it are the same things I appreciate in a story. It becomes apparent that we’re eliminating cards from the deck, but he never says anything about the last card until he asks his spectator to open the matchbox. He doesn’t say “Get ready to see what the remaining card is, because you won’t believe your eyes!” He lets the imagery speak for itself. (The fact that the last card is singed by flame is a lovely touch, too.)

I also like the respect he shows his audience. Personally, I find the way a lot of magicians talk to women to be embarrassing. Hearing them makes me feel like I’m watching Michael Scott tell racist jokes in an episode of The Office. Oh, I squirm. Joshua Jay’s far more easygoing and affable than the guys I’m talking about. Even when he tells the woman, “You’re sick,” he knows the joke will play. I mean, she did just say she wanted to see him burn. But then he shrugs, and does her bidding. (A poorer magician would turn it around and say something about burning women instead.) Most importantly, at no point during this performance do I get a sense that Jay feels superior to his spectators — and oh boy is that a problem in magic.

It’s also a big problem in storytelling. I mean, the author’s the one holding all the cards. Hell, authors are creating our own worlds, our own people over here. Why shouldn’t we feel superior?

Well, because even a novel is a collaborative artwork. Sure, it’s not like theater or a rock show, but I need the pictures in your head to tell my story. My words don’t work without those pictures. You and your brain are doing all the work.

Magicians and authors both would do well to remember how essential their audience is to what they’re trying to accomplish.

Without you, dear reader, there’s no fire.