Friday, January 25, 2013

Mystery, Magic, and the Aha! of the Reveal

A suspense story is unlike any other fiction. The plot entices, the characters connect, but that unique sense of intrigue comes from something illogical, almost magic: the art of the reveal. 

Magicians also create intrigue and for centuries have developed techniques for building suspense into their acts.  They tantalize our curiosity with illusions passed down through generations. Mystery authors like myself can learn a lot about suspense from them. In Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, The Prestige, screenwriters put forth three fictional parts to a good magic trick. I use them in crafting my reveal:

The Pledge:  When opening an illusion, the magician presents an ordinary object. The audience gets to wonder what the trickster might do with it. 

In a mystery, the author first builds an ordinary connection between the main character and the reader. Whether the protagonist is a powerful queen or an aspiring artist, I give her an ordinary trait my reader can connect with. Like the magician's pledge, this connection builds suspense.  The reader can't help but wonder what's going to happen to her.

The Turn:  The magician now takes that object and does something extraordinary with it.  Illogical, unbelievable, the turn must amaze the audience.

In the same way, the inciting incident of a mystery has to leave the reader intrigued. After being exposed to so many books and films, the average reader expects the unexpected so my mystery has to turn the corner to extraordinary. 

The Prestige:  This is the trickiest, most dangerous part of any illusion.  The magician must elevate his illusion to a climax, then restore that ordinary object, the original pledge.

Like any showman, the mystery author has to utilize his full arsenal of tricks to pull off the prestige.  Our pledged character must somehow restore normalcy–a sense of safety or justice–by making it ordinary again.  The solution to the mystery is called “the reveal”, but I still pull out an illusionist's trunk of magic techniques to craft my reveal like a prestige:

Architecture (e.g., trap doors, false locks, etc.):  Just as the magician's assistant helps the masquerade by working the secret architecture backstage, my characters all have their own roles to play outside of the main storyline.  Most mysteries work with first person or limited third person POV for this very reason.  Any character not present in the current scene is up to something–building an architecture of illusion.

Sleight of Hand:  In the same way a magician uses quick movements or distractions to pull off a deception, I use fast twists and red herrings to distract the reader.

Smoke and Mirrors:  By hiding important clues within irrelevent action, I can create a feeling of intrigue.  Secondary, mirror characters can both highlight and build friction with the protagonist and antagonist.

Humor:  Laughter takes a person out of their logical mindset. Anything's possible in a joke. 
At the end, the Aha! comes when the reader delights in the fact that she didn't figure out the puzzle, but now can see my carefully laid clues before her. She didn't really want to solve the mystery too early. She wanted to be fooled, fairly. 
"The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you... then you got to see something really special... it was the look on their faces... " -- from The Prestige, 2006

Lucie Smoker's
imagination grew up in a Little House on the Prairie and at 221B Baker Street. Her best friends were her little sister Minnie, The Hardy Boys, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Like them, she followed a path of adventure, sometimes intrigue, but then she fell in love and finally found home down a long, empty road. Lucie loves to connect with readers through Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. Her debut mystery, Distortion, is available worldwide in paperback, or electronically in Kindle, and Nook from Buzz Books USA.


  1. A really excellent analogy, Lucie. I loved the movie The Prestige.

  2. How interesting, yet perfect, to relate mystery to magic. Thanks for the great tips.

  3. With some modest alterations, this magic can also apply to other genres. A well-constructed, intriguing, and unpredictable story is always more fun to read than a mundane, predictable one; it keeps me turning the pages to see what happens next. Love this post!

  4. Welcome to the BRP, Lucie. I love the cover, too!

  5. Very interesting post, Lucie. I'm going to see if books I'm reading re following your guide, then see how I could translate it to my own work.

  6. Great post. Lots of wonderful advice on how to construct a worthwhile suspense novel, instead of one of a last minute villain out of nowhere unsatisfactory book!

    Morgan Mandel
    Twitter: @MorganMandel

  7. Well done, Lucie. I loved Prestige, too and can definitely see how all of this fits into mystery. And you've done a fabulous job using those techniques in Distortion!

  8. Thanks so much for having me, y'all. This magic is timeless--and so is The Blood-Red Pencil!

  9. Great post Lucie and good advice to any writer.

  10. That is a perfect analogy. It explains the mystery of mysteries well.

  11. I love posts like this, that ask you to create new relationships in your mind. I too appreciated the analogy and can see uses outside of mystery and suspense. My husband loves magic—I'll have to send him over to read this. Followed you on Twitter and tweeted this! Thanks Lucie!

  12. The mystique about mystery writing unveiled! Nice work, Lucie. I love it.

  13. Great article and wonderful tips! Thank you for joining us!

  14. It's true, I DO love to be fooled! I love the hints hidden in the smoke and mirrors.

  15. I think I've got a movie to add to my Netflix queue. I love mystery, and hiding clues amidst the red herrings to give the reader that, "Why didn't I see that coming?" moment is definitely a challenge. Then again, since I don't plot, most of the time I don't know who the bad guy really is. Readers have said, "I never suspected that," and I say, "Neither did I."

  16. SO happy to see Lucie here! Great article!

  17. Where did that bloody top hat and rabbit make it off to??

  18. Thanks all of y'all for the fabulous support. Ironically, I do also write my books from the character perspective so I usually don't know who did it until the end of my first draft. Then I go back and strengthen the clue trail, plus thow in some architecture, plus smoke 'n mirrors. I wish more people realized what FUN it is to write a mystery.

  19. This post really made me think about the mechanics behind a reveal. Thanks for the nice analogy.


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