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October 16, 2010

Flourishes and Mechanics in Writing and Magic

In Magic, a flourish is essentially a visible and impressive demonstration of skill:

On the other hand, you have mechanics. Mechanics involve a skill that achieves something needed for a particular effect. I don't know if I'm the first to use this term or make this differentiation.

A flourish can often work as a mechanic, but it doesn't have to. Most mechanics are not flourishes because they are meant to go unnoticed.

The great Dai Vernon preached that flourishes shouldn't be a part of magic at all. You don't want the audience to know how good you can handle a prop--the magic should just happen in your apparently regular hands. Using flourishes to show off dexterity and skill  reduces the impact you have on an audience because. They think "I'm not surprised he can do that, he just did that flourish thing!"

My favorite card magician, Jon Armstrong, embodies the concept beautifully. He just seems like a regular, funny, disarming guy, he almost seems as stunned as the audience when  the magic happens. Jon's mechanics are perfect because they are totally invisible. I never see a single one in his work.

The relationship between flourishes and mechanics play an important role in writing too. When writers use long, windy sentences, elaborate vocabulary and complicated metaphors, they're showing off their skill while seldom achieving as much as prose that puts story and character first. I'm not sure if minimalists like Ernest Hemingway are good examples for mechanics-only writing, but he does come to mind when you look at everything he cut away.

In my last writers group meeting, I submitted a chapter with an action scene that failed to bring my readers in, and they related a technique writers sometimes employ for scenes of action and suspense. Three short sentences are followed by one long sentence. It was a great guideline, and I think it's a perfect example of a literary mechanic. Readers don't notice it, but it's working to convey the suspenseful atmosphere.

I use flourishes in magic, but I think Dai Vernon was right. I'm coming to see my flourishes as a crutch--in magic and writing.

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