5 Lessons Studying Sleight-of-Hand Can Teach You About Writing Suspense

Learning magic taught Michael Kardos several important lessons about performance and technique that have served him well when writing suspense.
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by Michael Kardos

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved magic. The first Broadway show I ever saw, at age seven, was The Magic Show starring the great Doug Henning. In eighth grade, I started studying sleight-of-hand with a teacher at my school, and within a couple of years I had a full calendar of local bookings plus a summer-long gig doing close-up magic on the Jersey Shore boardwalk.

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Michael demonstrates a sleight-of-hand trick.

This was all years before I would start writing and publishing fiction. But learning magic taught me several important lessons about performance and technique that have served me well when writing suspense.

Practice in front of a mirror.

In my new novel Bluff, protagonist Natalie Webb is a world-class sleight-of-hand magician who practices her moves assiduously in front of her bathroom mirror. Like all good magicians, she knows that she can practice a trick ten thousand times, but she really has no idea if what she’s doing is effective until she sees it from the audience’s perspective.

When writing fiction, too, it’s wise to consider the audience—i.e. the reader. We might have worked on a novel for years, but the reader comes to that novel cold, with no inherent need to care about the story or its protagonist. So think about your fiction from the reader’s perspective, and ask yourself: are you being as clear as possible? Are you establishing the story’s stakes quickly? Are you directing—and, equally important in suspense fiction, misdirecting—the reader’s attention, so that the suspense will grow and lead to an amazing conclusion?

 Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

Delay, delay, delay.

Back when I was performing magic, I learned that one of most successful ways to increase suspense was to delay the ending of the trick. The relationship between suspense and delay is simply illustrated: imagine I start blowing up a balloon, bigger and bigger. Eventually it’s going to burst. This is no surprise. Still, even with the outcome known, you continue to watch. In fact, the longer I keep blowing up the balloon, the more anxious and invested you become. When will it pop? How big will it get first? How loud will the explosion be?

The art of magic is all about delaying the outcome. Then, ideally, you make the outcome itself a surprise. Imagine a volunteer selects a card, which the magician makes disappear. He starts blowing up a balloon. When it eventually bursts, the audience expects to find the card inside the popped balloon. Instead, there’s only a folded-up scrap of paper with a lemon drawn on it (delaying the end of the card trick still further). The magician asks, “Does anyone have a lemon handy?” (He acts embarrassed, because why would anybody have such a thing?) Yet it turns out one of the audience members does have an actual lemon in her purse (how it got there, even she doesn’t know), and the magician can only shrug and cut it open. Inside, rolled up, is the playing card that was selected at the start of the trick.

Now apply this concept to writing fiction: Imagine two friends stumbling across a body face-down in the woods. The obvious thing would be to immediately describe the body. But how might the author instead use delay to build suspense? She might first enhance the mood by adding a descriptive paragraph of the trees, the sky, the sound of insects and birds. Or maybe before describing the body the writer includes a bit of dialogue between the two friends, something that makes sense to them because they’ve already gotten their first peek at the body, even though we, the reader, haven’t.

“You know who that is, don’t you?” he said.

“No,” I said.

“Look at the shoes.”

So I did. Then I understood, and the strength went out of my legs.

By now, the reader is dying (figuratively) to see that body—especially those shoes, and be let in on their discovery.

Or maybe the writer will end the chapter right at the moment the body is discovered and not reveal anything else yet. She’ll begin the next chapter in another location, from a different character’s perspective—delaying for a whole chapter a return to that body in the woods.

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Mastery of technique is essential.

No matter how entertaining and enthusiastic the magician, if he doesn’t fool the audience the trick is a failure. That’s why the magician must master the palms, passes, false-deals and other technical aspects of the craft. Technique for the fiction writer is just as essential. As writers, we’re attempting our own kind of magic, transporting the reader into a fictional world of our creation. Doing that takes practice: practice with scene-writing, practice with pacing, with using relevant, sensory detail and believable dialogue, practice using all the tools in our fictional toolbox.

And yet…

… A magician relies on good patter.

Simply fooling an audience doesn’t make you a good magician. Jerry Seinfeld’s mocking impersonation of the sleight-of-hand magician says it best: “Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone. You’re a jerk. Now it’s back. You’re an idiot. Show’s over.”

The successful magician needs to do more than simply fool the audience. He must also entertain. Ideally, he’ll amaze.

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Doing magic, I learned that the moves are crucial but insufficient. The patter—the story—matters as much as the moves, and in fact helps the moves to succeed because good patter attracts the audience’s attention and is therefore its own form of misdirection.

Same with writing fiction. Technical mastery is an important goal, but technique alone is no substitute for an original, urgently told story.

Magic is a lifelong apprenticeship.

I started learning magic after I saw others perform it. I wanted to learn the secrets, sure, but I also wanted to give other people the sense of amazement I had felt.

Before I was ever a writer, I was a reader, and of course I still am. When a work of fiction truly grabs me, when it makes me promises and then over-delivers on those promises…well, it makes me redouble my own effort to provide that same experience for other readers.

Of course, like practicing sleight-of-hand, writing fiction is a time-consuming and solitary endeavor. It’s also difficult (most days, anyway), but that’s why it’s worth doing. And so we return to the mirror for more practice, and more practice still, confident that if we stay with it long enough, we’ll glimpse the magic.

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Michael Kardos is the author of BLUFF (April 3, 2018; Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press); BEFORE HE FINDS HER (2015; starred review from Publishers Weekly); THE THREE-DAY AFFAIR (Esquire Magazine best of 2012; starred review from Publishers Weekly); the story collection ONE LAST GOOD TIME (which won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for fiction), and the textbook, THE ART AND CRAFT OF FICTION. His short fiction has been cited in several BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES and won the 2015 Pushcart Prize. He lives in Starkville, MS, where he is the co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. You can visit him at MichaelKardos.com.

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