And storytelling is magic. At least a certain type of storytelling.
Chris Jones builds on his great article "The Honor System," published in Esquire about a year ago, about a magician who stole a trick from another magician. The trick that was stolen was called Shadows, and the magician it was stolen from was none other than Teller, the quieter of the duo Penn and Teller. If you've never seen Shadows, it's just a beautifully conceived illusion, almost poetically concise.
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.”
My brother James and I really got into magic one summer years ago. James had the patience to practice until he became quite good. I never really stuck with it. But I have a deep appreciation for the art of performing, that desire for a storyteller's control over his audience.
Magic is often described as a form of storytelling, but Jones contemplates the reverse. What can storytellers learn from magicians?
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.