The Prestige

Author Lin Robinson

If you haven’t seen the film, it’s worth looking up “The Prestige” with Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Scarlett Johansson. But this isn’t a film review: I mention it because the title comes from a “three part structure” of magic tricks that I think is worth serious attention from writers, one of those rare, simple skeleton keys that can actually help you conceive your stories better. And like the other tips I’ve offered here, it’s a bit global and “Zen”. Please bear with me.

Here’s the breakdown of every great magic trick, according to top pro magicians as well as ancient tradition: three discrete and vital “acts”. The first part is called “The Pledge”. This might be seen as analogous to the “normal world” of fantasy story structure: you are shown a deck of cards, a canary, a woman lying on a table. Then comes “The Turn”. Now things become less normal, which is what magic is all about: the card is mysteriously known to the magician, the canary disappears, the woman levitates. Then comes “The Prestige”, in which abnormal reality steps out and kicks your butt: the card appears in your wallet, the canary flies in the window, the woman dissolves into a flock of doves.

This third step is a fillip, a cherry on the top, an added twist… but is totally and subtly necessary to the integrity of the entire trick. Is actually, from the creator’s point of view, the real trick in itself. You’d quickly grow bored of a magician just making things disappear or float up in the air.

A simplistic analysis of the Prestige is that it completes the Turn, restores equilibrium. The vanished has re-appeared and the catharsis to normality comes full circle. I’d suggest quite the opposite, that the Turn is merely a platform to launch the Prestige, the real trick, the knockout half of the one-two punch. Or, in some cases, the Prestige extends what the Turn has accomplished, taking a last twist that releases the full impact of what has happened. You might say that until the canary is produced out of his ear, the birthday boy hasn’t really absorbed the entire fact or significance of it disappearing, rather than just being hidden somewhere.

I think you may already be translating this into application to writing. Though the concept has nothing to do with advice to writers, I find it to be one of the strongest counsels for creating literary structure I’ve ever run into. For creating, mind you; not dissecting or teaching.

These three elements are nothing specially announced. You don’t have to yell, “I will make this elephant disappear.” In fact, no good showman would do so: a magician drags an elephant onstage and people have a pretty good idea that he’s not going to just trim its toenails. The pledge you make needn’t be stated. You step up in front of the band and adjust the mike: people expect you to make good. “Hey, y’all, watch this…” is a pledge. “Once upon a time…” is a pledge. When a reader opens your book and reads the first line, you are pledged to deliver.

A good way to see how this works in writing, rather than stage magic, is to pay attention to the structure you see in the comics section of your newspapers. The best strips do it all the time. You see a set-up in the first panel, followed by a punchline in the second or third… but then how often you see a second punch, reaction, or layoff in the last panel? Perhaps as a separate panel, perhaps as a reply below the first punchline. This often sets a blue-chip strip like Doonesbury or Chickweed Lane or Pogo apart from more pedestrian ones like Wizard of Id or Beetle Bailey. Several top, Pulitzer-winning political cartoonists like Auth and Oliphant use tiny marginal characters to provide one last shot that often reshapes the gag: the little penguin says a few last words that remake, illuminate, or ridicule the whole message.

This principle is not a plot structure device or structuring, though we tend to respond much more strongly to stories in which the plot is extended by a final twist or expansion. “Boy loses girl, boy gets girl” is fine, but a Prestige production like “girl was setting boy up for a fall all along” makes it more memorable. See “Body Heat” or some of the admired noir novels. Or “girl was running from boy’s love because she has a fatal disease” or “body of boy’s first wife is found”.

But it can be a more useful concept applied scene-by-scene. Another place we see it all the time is in films and cartoons, but perhaps we don’t notice it. The crashed police car slams to a stop as the heroes escape… then a door or the wheels fall off. The horrendous wreck finally stops… and a hubcap rolls toward the camera. And the people laugh. It’s like a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, that maraschino cherry popped on top the whipped cream.

Similarly, the Terminator has been demolished in a deadly inferno. We watch the flames vigilantly and something moves within the raging fire. It’s a flaming tire, rolling out and falling over. Now we breathe easy. Again, that tiny, insignificant fillip sets that great film apart from so many others where we see the baddies burning up in pretty flames.

Another example we’ve all seen is the “tag” on a teleplay, often used as a background to final credits. One of the most familiar would be the “Frasier” show. The silent “post-act” under the theme song and credit roll isn’t just a substitute for a black screen–it very often completes, complicates, or expands the show itself. In some films you see similar effect from an intrusion into the final credits: an excellent example is Ferris Bueller appearing to tell the audience to go home.

But it’s most powerful when incorporated into the whole story. You show us a normal world, then you do something unusual to it… then you make it all come back in another form, another place, another perspective.

Something to note here is what this does to the whole concept of conflict/catharsis that is droned into us as all-important to writing (or as some would have it, to “Story”). You could see holding up an egg as a first act, ending when a handkerchief is placed over it. When the egg disappears there is definitely conflict, because it violates the laws of nature and our senses. Hence the gasps and delighted exclamations. And a good magician or grifter definitely strings The Turn out for all it’s worth. But, whether you know it or not, or whether they know it or not, the audience is waiting for something. They know it’s not all over yet. Then the egg is produced from the ear of a pretty girl or beamish boy and the excitement redoubles. This is even less possible, yet is laced with inevitability. But is it “resolution”? Far from it. What it does is transcend the conflict. By, in fact, compounding it. And is their “permission” to enjoy the trick. With a hidden message that’s very important, “Oh, here it is. It was you all along.”

Like my other “Zen” concepts, once recognized and understood, the threefold “Prestige” event structure starts becoming obvious in the writing you most admire. And I would say that knowing it’s there, working, can be more helpful than the more static maps of how stories get the job done.

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

17 thoughts on “The Prestige”

  1. Excellent post, Lin, thanks. That’s exactly what a story needs to stand out, that kind of extra punch, the further complication. I think I drew it from studying comedians and what in the UK is called the “topper” gag: the comedian tells the set up line, then delivers the punch line, which makes the audience laugh. But then a good comic will produce a topper – an extra, unexpected punchline which makes the whole thing memorable. I’m glad you noted Frasier, as the structures and comic complications the writers could cram in to 22 minutes of show time really were outstanding.

    1. The Freazier “tag” has to be the most famous on TV. If you liked that show, let me richly recommend the three novels by the genius behind the writing, Joe Keenan. :Blue Heaven” and My Shining Star and the other one are hilarious, and I’m not generally given to reading stories about gay guys writing for Broadway. He’s a fabulous humor writer.

  2. I adored Frazier and I can see your 1-2-3 there but I haven’t quite got the ‘ah hah’ moment with regards to writing. I will watch out for it now though. Great post Lin.

  3. Lin,

    What an AWESOME post! I love hearing about/talking about the meta-theory behind storytelling. This isn’t someone trying to break fiction down into a formula or easy-mode chunks; it’s a complex theory which can be applied to making fiction better. Love this. Seriously. I think you’re onto something complex and intriguing. Will re-read this later and give it more thought. Thank you!

    1. Wow, thanks Kevin. That’s very gratifying coming from you. Thanks to everybody who’s responded to this.
      I’m sure all have realized that the examples I’m using here sprawl across several different kind of application, but I think the central principle of a third element or direction that makes writing more dimensional is solid and can be used in a lot of ways. I hope you can find it useful.

  4. This is probably one of the most profound pieces that I have read on writing. Will certainly need several rereads to digest and apply. Thanks for this great effort.

  5. Beautiful and well thought out piece. This could be a doctoral dissertation of why some have it and some don’t. I’m not saying I have it, but understand the concept and I make an attempt at the entire show. Of course it doesn’t hurt that my ex was a professional magician from the Magic Castle. Many folks can learn how to write a sentence, but the art of writing is truly the hat trick.

  6. Your column presents a very astute take on story-telling. Makes me want to go back to all the great pieces of lit I have read and look for the Prestige! Thanks so much!

  7. Thanks for those nice comments. Sorry, Eve, I just can’t stop imagining you in a sequined bathing suit and high heels, smiling as you carry rabbits off stage and catch knives in your teeth.

  8. Very interesting! I’m already thinking about my favorite books and relating the “prestige” structure to their stories. I imagine that this will stay with me as I write future stories of my own. Very enlightening. Thanks!

  9. Thanks for that. Maybe if I followed some sort of road map, or constructed a proper chassis such as what you described, I could consider writing fiction, which to me seems as mysterious and difficult to do well as song writing.

  10. But at least it doesn’t have to rhyme. 🙂
    This isn’t much of a road map, just a little tune-up thing. If I were writing songs (which I do, by the way,nice to meet another lyricist) and having trouble with long stories, what I would do is examine songs that got built into films, like “Harper Valley PTA”, and see how they did it.

  11. This was a great article and highlights the 3-act structure we all struggle with. I’m a big fan of The Prestige and it is worth reading the novel by Chris Priest to see how Chris and Jon Nolan adapted a good book into a great screenplay/film.

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