One Christopher Nolan Movie Scene Taught Me All I Know About Great Writing


mp3 | Apple | Android

Did you know that Harry Houdini, the famous magician, also worked missions as a Spy for the US government?

Think about it, he had all the skills to be a great spy.  I mean, he knew how to escape from dangerous situations, had a quick hand for swiping small objects, knew multiple languages, and was often invited to gatherings with heads of state.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the real-life James Bond.

I mention Houdini because he is of course, the most famous Magician of all time. And today the topic is magic, both traditional magic like what we know Houdini for, but also a much different form of it, THE MAGIC OF WORDS.

If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, then you have a small army tucked away in that 3 pound dome of yours. So use it!

The problem is: those who NEED the power of words on their side most, rarely understand the concepts behind good writing.  But the concepts themselves are SUUUUPER SIMPLE to implement,  IF you let yourself be convinced that they are true.

I’m just now building my writing chops, but I feel like KICKING myself because I had been given the secrets to writing well 7 YEARS AGO, and totally ignored them.

Here’s the thing: chances are that YOU have been given the secrets too.

Have you heard the name Christopher Nolan before? He’s the guy that made Batman movies cool again.  He wrote and directed the movies Batman Begins, the Dark Knight, The Dark Knight rises, as well as non-Batman movies like Inception, and his breakthrough movie from the late 90s, Memento.  The man is one of the highest grossing directors ever because his movies are deep but entertaining.

One of his best films is called The Prestige. It came out in 2007 and follows the fictional story of two magicians in London during the late 1800s . About the same time Houdini was also making a name for himself.   

Well, the movie starts with a scene that is 2 and a Half minutes in length, and in those 2 minutes and 30 seconds Christopher Nolan spells out the SECRET to powerful writing. It doesn’t matter WHAT type of writing it is: whether a novel, a news article, a podcast episode, a movie, or even a SONG,    the scene spells out how to engage and delight ANY audience with your words.

Now, this is the point where I warn you that there are some spoilers ahead. The movie is worth watching even if you know what happens, BUT if you’re sensitive about these things, then consider this your warning to STOP…READING…. NOW…

Ok, now that they’re gone. Let’s proceed.

The scene that I’m talking about which opens the movie, is not actually about writing. It’s a step by step breakdown of how a Magician puts on his act. But unknowingly, Nolan also gave us the blueprint to captivating writing, because good writing, like a good trick, should feel like MAGIC.  

So, let’s begin.

Let me set it up for you. In the scene we’re gonna study, a character named CUTTER is testifying in court regarding the death of his boss, Angier, who was a famous magician.

All magicians have a right-hand man who comes up with the illusions, and that’s what this character, Cutter, did for his boss. Cutter is an older gentleman who has been in the game for DOZENS of years, so in the movie he is the ULTIMATE authority on performance magic.  In court, he reveals how a magic trick is assembled, which turns out to be EXACTLY parallel to how you would craft… a great piece of writing.  

STEP 1: The Pledge

Cutter testifying to the court:
Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts.
The first part is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary.
A deck of cards, a bird, or a man.
He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real. Unaltered, normal…
But of course, it probably isn’t.

The first key to captivating your audience is of course, to GRAB THEM. And you do this by starting like a magician, with The Pledge.  The magician will show you an ordinary object, something you have seen before. This also applies to writing. A good writer’s first job is to grab your attention by showing you something you’re very familiar with, something YOU care about deeply.

This process of grabbing them should start with the title of the piece, and is IMMEDIATELY punctuated by the first sentence or spoken phrase.

The legendary copywriter Joe Sugarman says that when you’re writing copy for print, the ONLY job of the title is to get you to read the first sentence in the body. At all costs. That’s it. And the only job of the first sentence, is to get you to read the second sentence.  What’s the job of the second sentence? You guessed it, to get you to read the third sentence.

He calls it the “slippery slope.”  A slippery slope can only start if the readers care about what you’re writing about, so you’re going to put in front of them something they know, care for, and want to find out more about. How are you gonna make sure that they want to find out more about it?  First of all, because you should know your audience, and secondly, because you’re going to make a BIG promise to them, A PLEDGE.

Cutter to the court:
The first part is called “The Pledge.”

Let’s think about one of the publications that gets the most eyeballs on the internet, Buzzfeed.  How do they attract you? With titles like “20 signs that you’re an 80s baby”  or “If your friends want to ruin your relationship, shut them up by saying THIS.”  Corny as they may sound, those pledges are hard to resist.

You’ve now started going down the slippery slope.

Being able to create a slippery slope with your writing is like being a master magician.  You’ve pulled them in, and if you do it right, you’re golden.  

When you have grabbed your audience and they are going down your slippery slope, you keep them there through agreement.

Cutter to the court:
He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real. Unaltered, normal…

You don’t bulldoze the reader into agreeing,     you have to gently lead them to adopt the initial basis with which you’ll build your argument. It has to feel part of their own beliefs. If you skip this, you’ve lost them.

So, to use a well-worn saying:  “you can only lead a horse to water, you can’t make him drink.”

Let’s think about conflict resolution for a moment. During my time in the Marketing Department at WeightWatchers.com I picked up a thing or two about working through disagreements.  I learned that the best way to resolve an argument is to first list out the points that all parties can agree on. This reduces the tension in the room, and then you can work towards fixing the points where you’re in disagreement.

So you present your readers this ordinary object, this idea that, for the moment, behaves as they expect. You start with agreement.

Neville Medhora, a copywriting guru says that all writing is, is just “a method of transferring ideas from one brain to another.” With a strong pledge, the second party’s brain will be much more welcoming to your magic.

STEP 2: The “Turn”

Cutter to the court:
He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real. Unaltered, normal…
But of course, it probably isn’t.
The second act is called “the turn”
The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.

 

The turn is where the excitement happens. If in Act One you got your hero to go up a familiar tree, in act two, you throw rocks at him.

Now, here’s the SECOND MOST IMPORTANT thing you need to know about good writing–(the MOST IMPORTANT ONE I’ll TELL YOU TOWARDS THE END OF THE EPISODE)–but, if you paid attention to the clip you caught the SECOND MOST IMPORTANT THING, you heard this:  

 

Cutter to the court:
The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.

This is something I really did not grasp until very recently.  When you’re writing, there are TWO high-level strategies that almost guarantee interest from a reader. And I suspect it’s because they’re so simple.

The two options are:

1) take something that is complex, and through your writing show why it is simple.

OR

2) take something that the reader considers to be simple, and show us why it’s WAY more complex than we previously thought.

For example, let’s look at something like the Stock Market. The Stock Market can fall on either strategy. It can be made simple if you focus on the basic concept of supply and demand. If more people are buying a stock then there are sellers, price goes up. If more people are selling, the price goes down. We demystified it there.

But it can also get really complex if you head in the other direction and start talking about terms like Delta or Relative Strength Index. It all depends on how much you zoom in, or out. If you know your audience, you’ll know which way to zoom.

With magic, as with writing, you are holding an object in your hand that they are familiar with, and the explicit promise is that by then end of the journey, they will see this object in a completely different light.

The way to do this: to de-construct.  

Take the thing apart.  Show them the inside, how it works. Pop open the hood of the car and let them see the engine. Done right, it’s nothing short of magical.

To do this right, you’re gonna have to keep their attention for the whole thing, so you’re gonna need help from a writer’s best friend: the tangent.

Which reminds me of a corny joke I heard about writers. It goes like this:  

What is the difference between a park bench and a writer?…. A park bench can support a family.

Or, what do you call a book club that’s been stuck on one book for years?….. You call it,  church.

When you’re writing, you’ll periodically need to reset the audience’s attention span. A quick tangent gives the audience a mental break, and a chance to look forward to what you’ll say next. You can have fun by leaving the tangent on a cliffhanger until later, aka making it a sort of a B Storyline to your main action.

Think about sitcoms like Friends. During a single 30 minute episode they’ll have a main plot going on with part of the characters, for example, Chandler is having cold feet about marrying Monica, but then they will go off on little side-plots to keep the action from getting stale, like having Joey go through hell and back to reach the wedding on time, while at the same time Rachel is trying to hide her pregnancy from the group.

Magicians bide their time by inserting jokes. It keeps the audience in suspense, and it also serves as misdirection for the third and final step…

STEP 3: The Prestige

 

Cutter to the court:
The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.
Now, you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it,  because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know.
You want to be fooled.
But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough.
You have to bring it back.
That’s why, every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part.
The part we call… “The Prestige”

If the Turn is where all the excitement happens, then the third part, The Prestige, is where the REAL magic happens.

In the Turn you de-constructed something familiar. If it was complex, you showed your audience why it is really much simpler than expected. If it was a simple object, you would have taken it apart and revealed all the moving parts that most people never even knew existed.

Now, in the prestige you re-assemble the thing. You put the thing back together, and though it looks the same, in your audience’s mind, it will never be the same again. Making something disappear isn’t enough, you have to bring it back to get the audience to clap. And you make the reveal as swift as possible after you’ve built up the suspense.

Now, THIS is the most important thing that magic teaches us about great writing.  Just like in magic, when you’re writing, the most important part should always go last.  

This applies to your sentences:  the most important word, or group of words in that sentence, the words that you’d like to direct your audience’s attention to, should go last.  The same applies to your paragraphs, the most important phrase, you guessed it, should go last.  And of course, in your blog post or newspaper article, the main idea of your argument, the one you’ve worked so hard to build your case for, should definitely be crystallized no sooner than… at the end.

There’s this little book called “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White.  It’s essentially the bible of writing in the English language, all your favorite authors read this early on. In this little book, the authors put it simply like this: words that appear at the end get special prominence. So you should highlight what’s most important. You place at the end the word that your audience would like to hear, but dont know it yet.

When you’re writing, build each part like you would build a joke: you have a well-paced, suspenseful setup, followed by a swift punchline.  

Setup, punchline. Setup, punchline.

If this little strategy was taught in High School English class, then I must’ve been absent that day. I had to learn it when I was already 30 years old.

And let me tell you how I learned it: see I love how Steven Pressfield writes, so I took my favorite book of his, The War of Art, and re-typed it.  Word by word, cover to cover. I sat there and transcribed his book because I wanted to get a sense of what good writing feels like.  Sure enough, about half-way through the book I started to get acquainted with his style.

And I noticed, his sentences had a certain bounce to them. They felt very different than how I would’ve composed them, yet much more entertaining. Then I realized, all his sentences rhythmically direct your attention to one key point: the final few words.

Here’s what I recommend: the next time you have to write something, create your first draft as you would normally. Just write it.

NOW, on the second draft go back and re-arrange ALL your sentences so that the key word falls at the end. It sounds easy, but for certain sentences you’re gonna find that it’s NOT so easy.  Our tendency is to write how we speak, with the main concern being to cover all the words that need to be there, and not on their actual order. But with a bit of cleverness and some elbow grease you’ll be able to twist 90% of your sentences into this format. And now your writing will be 10x better.  Trust me.

The purpose of magic and the purpose of writing are the same, to implant an idea in another’s head. You will change how the audience perceives the object in question. To do this, you have to create the ideal conditions for the magic to happen. The setup is how you create the ideal conditions, but you convince them with the Prestige, at the end.

Analyzing how songs are built will give us a fresh perspective on this.  I know no other art form that parallels magic as much as music does.  Consider these lyrics from a song we’ve all heard:

Gold Digger by Kanye West lyrics:
I know somebody payin’ child support for one of his kids
His baby mama car and crib is bigger than his
You will see him on TV any given Sunday
Win the Super Bowl and drive off in a Hyundai

With each of these four lines, all the magic, happens at the end.  The rhyming is of course a main thing, but it’s the message too. You can even go back and chop off the first half of each phrase but 80% of the message would STILL get through. And if you consider the four lines as forming a single paragraph, you’ll see that all the words are just building up to the final revelation: a Hyundai.

You withhold until the last possible second, then the last word –or group of words–clicks it all into place. This is writing’s version of what magic calls “The Prestige,” the final act.

A writer, like a magician, works best within this 3-step format. The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige. You show the audience something they know well, and care about, and though you Pledge that this is a normal, ordinary item, the expectation is that something magical will happen. In the Turn you take it apart or make it do something extraordinary, you keep their attention by inserting small tangents but the audience isn’t impressed because they have reason to believe you’re cheating. That is, until, with the Prestige you bring it all back, in one piece–resembling what it was in the beginning–but in the audience’s mind, somehow, changed forever.

Music by:
Ben Murray-Smith Soundcloud
Julian Avila Soundcloud
Taylor Galford Bandcamp

Sources Referenced:
The Prestige movie by Christopher Nolan
Harry Houdini Little-Known Facts
The Prestige Shooting Script
Joe Sugarman book Adweek Copywriting Handbook
Medium article by Simon Lund Larsen “How Nolan Used Foreshadowing and Payoff in The Prestige to Trick Us All
Friends episode “The One With Monica and Chandler’s Wedding
William Strunk and E.B. White’s book The Elements of Style
Writer and Park Bench joke on Jokes Subreddit
Book Club Joke on Jokes Subreddit

Subscribe to Project Book Podcast

 

One Comment

  1. Finished listening to your latest podcast, really enjoyed it and plan to use some of the tips for my posts. I was a bit confused by changing the sentence structure idea but now that I see you have a transcript I can explore more.

    In an earlier podcast you talked about creating for your tribe, perhaps you could talk about discovering your tribe when you have so much to want to say to so many.

    Listening.

Let us know what you think