I watched a documentary last night about legendary magician Ricky Jay. It was good.
Much of the movie consisted of Ricky, sitting at a table and telling stories as he absently shuffled the deck of cards that seemed always to be in his hands. As he fanned the cards out in front of him and scooped them back up in an impossibly smooth and fluid motion, he related a story about observing one of his mentors, an old vaudevillian master of sleight of hand, who was himself watching people taking off and putting on their coats as they entered and exited the club.
When Ricky asked him what he was looking at, the old man replied,”See? No one puts on their jacket in exactly the same way.”
The point, Ricky went on to clarify, was that observation was key to mastering the art of sleight of hand. “The duplication of natural motion,” he called it. “You have to learn to make your motions look as natural as possible if you’re going to deceive the people around you.”
That is the point where something clicked in my mind, and I saw a clear parallel between sleight of hand and storytelling. In both cases the point is to lead an audience down a path. To immerse them in a story and show them a route that leads to them somewhere expected, only to pull the carpet out from under them and give them something unexpected for their trouble. And to do this as writers, just like magicians, we must try our best to duplicate natural motion.
For writing to really come alive, it must seem as effortless as the shuffling cards seem in Ricky Jay’s hands as he speaks to his crowds. It must seem natural. And for it to seem natural, the writer must spend a lot of time watching. Like the vaudevillian master who spent so much time just looking at people that his apprentice had to ask what he was doing, we must not neglect the fact that we are trying to do magic here. And to create that magic we have to know our audience until motions seem effortless. Natural.
Where is your favorite place to people watch?