My bookshelves consist thusly:
75% Magic
8% Business/Science/Other
17% Kurt Vonnegut

Those are true and accurate figures. In Bagombo Snuff Box, our great American author prescribed his 8 Rules for Writing a Short Story. They represent the brilliance, humor and clarity Vonnegut is known for.

And now, humbly, I translate them into magic speak to see what we lowly magicians can learn from them.

“Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:


“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

Your audience is trusting you with their time. Sometimes they give you money too, but the most important resource you take from them is their time.


“Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

Almost always this character will be you, the magician. But for bits and pieces of your show it doesn’t have to be. In a monte or roulette routine the audience may be rooting for an audience member. Just be sure to identify and understand who the audience should be rooting for in every piece of your show.

However, when you view your show as a whole, you should be the hero. You can be an anti-hero, but I should find myself rooting for you for the majority of your show.


“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

In theatre this is called an actor’s motivation. Conflict drives all plot, and conflict is
created when a character cannot get what they want. Figure out your character’s motivations, and assign motivations to your audience members as well. Then place obstacles between everyone and their desires.

The magician wants to do the Famous Eleven Card Trick, and asks an audience member to deal him Eleven cards. The audience member wants to see this amazing trick and happily gives the magician eleven cards. The magician takes the cards and discovers he only has ten. He doesn’t want ten cards, he wants eleven cards. The audience member gives the magician another card, because he wants to see the trick. The magician still only has ten cards. Befuddled, the magician now wants to know what is going on. He blames the audience member. The audience member doesn’t want the blame, he wants to see the trick. He protests and says the magician has counted the cards wrong. The audience member wants to count the cards to show his innocence and to move on. He wants to see the trick. The magician is insulted that anyone might doubt his suburb counting abilities and hands the cards to the audience member to count. He wants to be vindicated. He wants to move on with the trick. The audience member counts the cards and finds he holds thirteen cards. The magician and audience member look at each other dumbfounded. They both want to put this whole thing behind them and move on with their lives.


“Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”

See Making Magic Edible.


“Start as close to the end as possible.”

Magic is a narrative form; the best part of it, the juicy moment of astonishment, almost always happens at the end of that story. Figure out ways to start closer to that moment.

Furthermore, ditch weak phases and get to the good stuff.


“Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

The intuitive application here is to be cruel to audience members. That’s fair if you want the audience to see what they, the audience, are made of.

I’m guessing most of your audience instead yearns to see what you are made of. Make bad things happen to you and do it often.

Tricks can go wrong, hecklers can threaten you, your assistant can walk out two minutes before the show, you can slowly be running out of magic pixie dust which is the source of all your power, etc. How does the magician deal with these situations? All of this can be orchestrated, more or less, into a strong narrative at each and every show.

This is what we want to see. We want to see people triumph over awfulness.


“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

We have too many generic magicians. Even more of us aim to be “cool” without having anything interesting to say. You need a clear audience. Vonnegut wrote for his sister. He didn’t realize this until he was 40 and she had already passed away. The words he wrote for her have captivated us all- but they were all meant for her.

Who do you write for? A friend? A faceless woman in the audience? Your son? God? We are talking art here, so “Corporate Audiences” isn’t a sufficient answer. One person.

Ask yourself everyday, “Who do you write for?” Maybe in 40 years you’ll figure out who.


“Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Two people who hate each other will come together, have a child named Chrono, and live happily ever after on Titan. That’s the plot of Sirens of Titan and it is revealed within the first chapter to, not only the reader, but also the two main characters. They react as one might expect: by doing everything in their power to keep from arriving at this fate.

Vonnegut made a career out of telling his readers exactly how his books would end, and then making those endings seem impossible. Doesn’t that sound like a magic trick?

Several Card at Any Number routines are based on the tension this creates. Almost all gambling routines or demonstrations are. The audiences knows the ending to a mentalism show: he’s going to read people’s minds. It’s right there in the title.

The obvious rebuttal to this is a quotation of the 2nd or 3rd rule of magic, depending on how you count. “Never say what you are going to do before you do it.” This is meant to retain surprise and aid in misdirection- all noble goals.

You can retain surprise while ditching suspense. You also gain clarity. In my bullet catch, I tell the audience what I’m going to do upfront- I will catch the paintball in my hand while blindfolded.

No suspense. Complete clarity.

Then I catch it- in my teeth.


The ending to this shouldn’t be my words, but the master’s. About his list of rules, Vonnegut had this to say:

“The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

So it goes.

Know somebody who needs to hear this? Please pass it along to them!

Have your own insights? Please comment below!

Did you really read this far down? Thank you so much, you are awesome!

2 thoughts on “Listen:

  1. Pingback: What We Can Learn from Criss Angel’s Yelp Reviews | The Marks of Kane

  2. Pingback: Finishing the Top Hat | The Marks of Kane

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