07 August 2008

Misdirection and Magic

In a writing group last week, I brought up the topic of misdirection in writing fiction. There's the broad-scale misdirection of making sure there are enough red herrings in a mystery (something I didn't manage on my first try). And then there are smaller-scale misdirections an author might use when introducing important details so that they don't seem too important.

That group discussion was prompted by a scene describing a few items that, when combined later in the story, would produce a startling change in the hero. The author needed to establish that they were present, of course. But in this early draft they seemed to stand out so much that they threatened to break the verisimilitude of the scene. We don't want our descriptions to make readers think of blinking neon signs and ominous musical chords. We don't want them asking, "Now why did the author just tell me that?"

By coincidence, on Sunday the Boston Globe's Ideas section ran Drake Bennett's article on "How magicians control your mind." It included an unconfirmed observation from one sleight-of-hand expert, Apollo Robbins:

Robbins, a performing pickpocket and another of the magicians to coauthor the Nature Neuroscience paper, has found, he says, that semi-circular gestures draw people's attention better than straight ones. "It engages them more," he says. "I use them when I'm actually coming out of the pocket."
Robbins demonstrates and (at the end) discusses his techniques in this video from the 2007 meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Concentration in Las Vegas. Robbins's theory is that straight motions make it easy for our eyes to snap back to the place where the movement started, which is where he might be removing a man's watch or doing something else useful. An arc gives the brain more to track, and thus makes it easier to misdirect and distract.

Is there an equivalent in writing fiction? A way to make readers think about something other than the details we're establishing, or to make them think about those details in another way. One, word-heavy approach might be to pile on more details, camouflaging the important ones. Another might be to imbue the necessary details with an emotional weight that sucks up our attention, and thus stops us from wondering why the author put them in there.

As for Robbins's ASCS lecture, one element I found most impressive is his choice of dress for speaking to scientists. He blends. The video clips on Robbins's website and available through YouTube show a much slicker fellow, ready for his TV closeup. (ASCS? Just seeing if you were concentrating.)

Robbins's own website is called istealstuff.com, and he's a host of a TruTV show called The Real Hustle. Wired magazine reported on his move into the business of security consulting for big corporations. That is, after all, where the money is.


Anonymous said...

Appropos of nothing, to quote GOB on Arrested Development, "It's not magic. It's an illuuuuuusion."

J. L. Bell said...

As someone who watched my share of 1970s television specials, I believe that GOB was channeling Doug Henning.