Daily Dojo

Rapping On Writing - The Prestige, The Reveal and the Head-Fake


Cutter: Every great 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 if 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. 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”.”

I always thought this quote from the film THE PRESTIGE was a decent metaphor for writing a story.

I don’t agree that everything need have three acts, per se (and many great films and stories have many acts) but it’s a nice way to begin and certainly an awesome tool to design a beat or a scene.

Like music, it’s a good beat to start with (Mystery Man beat me to the punch on the music thing, check out his post The Nature of Today’s Storytelling Debate, it’s a great read).

But in terms of THE PRESTIGE, let’s apply it to story beats, okay?

Look at this scene from my play THE MEN’S ROOM, for example.


SETH’s messy apartment. SETH lay on the couch, still dressed in the clothes he was wearing the night before. RAY and TODD burst in.

RAY: I’m not arguing about fundamental freedom, motherfucker, I’m talking about something else entirely. Where’s Seth, I know he’s here, I can smell the fumes.

They spot SETH on the couch and RAY kicks it hard.

RAY: Hey buddy, you all right?

TODD: Seth, you alive man?

SETH lets out a mournful groan.

RAY: He’s hung over like a bastard. Listen T-man, this is what I’m talking about. I could go around telling everyone I know that I was from Kentucky and they might believe it, but you know what? I’m not from Kentucky.

TODD: So what? If you want to be from Kentucky, why not?

RAY: The point being that I am not, and therefore I am in the middle of a deception. I can dress like someone from Kentucky, and I can talk like someone from Kentucky, but in actuality I am not, and unless I move there, I will never be from Kentucky.

TODD: If you feel you want to be like someone from Kentucky, then you should have the FREEDOM to feel that way, whether you’re from there or not!

RAY: Listen asshole, what it comes down to is cold hard facts. A he is a he and a she is a she and putting on make-up and high heels isn’t going to change the reality of that!

TODD: Ray, reality is the product of your effort and faith in what you want. If you want to be a she, then you are free to be that way, whether you actually are or not and that is your RIGHT as an AMERICAN!

SETH: What are you guys arguin’ about now?

RAY & TODD: Transvestites.

SETH: Oh God, I’m outa here.

SETH tries to make the bathroom but he collapses on the floor.

RAY: I’m not saying that transvestites can’t dress up as women and pretend to be women, they can, but inside, down under, they are MEN, Goddamn it, no matter how they dress.

TODD: Some feel like women inside, and that’s why they dress like that, show some goddamn understanding.

RAY: They can FEEL that way if they want, but unless they have the operation and get it LOPPED off, they aren’t that way in ACTUALITY.

SETH: That does it, I’m going to throw up right now.

TODD: Smells like you already did.

RAY: I don’t have any problem with men dressing up as women or feeling like women or even wanting to be women. I have a problem with me, myself as a person, being expected to refer to men dressed as women as she and her when in reality they are NOT. If they want to refer to themselves in the feminine then that’s their business, but why am I expected to refer to them that way just because THEY want me to? Fuck that.

SETH: Can’t we talk about something else?

TODD: Jesus Christ Ray, it’s about compassion and understanding.

RAY: My ass, it’s about truth in advertising. How would you like it if you met this really hot babe and you started to get it on with her and BING! Out it pops, and she’s a man, how would that make you feel?

TODD: (angrily) Well I certainly wouldn’t discriminate against a women just because she happened to be a man!

Pause as TODD realizes what he’s said, then he jumps up and down in frustration.

TODD: Shit!

SETH: If you guys don’t talk about something else, I am gonna fucking barf all over you, I mean it.

Annnnd . . . SCENE!

Well, the scene doesn’t end there, but that beat does.

Okay, got it?

Now the PLEDGE came about with Todd and Ray’s argument that we catch during the middle which felt familiar (who hasn’t argued with their friends about random, silly shit) yet still not known.

It feels like something ordinary, they come in, kick their hung over buddy off the couch, yet there is something a bit unusual about what they’re talking about (the he is a he thing, which is also the theme of the play) that we (the audience) feel we should know what it is yet we haven’t discovered specifically what’s WHAT, as of yet.

That’s the THE PLEDGE.


The TURN comes with the admission (and DISCOVERY) that they’re talking about TRANSVESTITES (which also always got a laugh) because we’re taking an ordinary situation (two friends arguing about something) and make it a little extra ordinary.

That’s the TURN.

Instead of arguing about football, they’re arguing about transvestites, which makes the talk unusual (something which Seth emphasizes repeatedly) and, also, each character is true to their own logic. Ray’s making a logical case, he’s not simply making dick jokes. Todd is also making a logical argument, from his POV.

THE PRESTIGE comes when we bring the scene full circle back to Todd’s last statement (Well I certainly wouldn’t discriminate against a woman just because SHE HAPPENED TO BE A MAN!) - it’s a funny line that always got a laugh, but it also worked because it brought the scene subject full circle, before that at the PLEDGE, we (the audience) thought we now knew what the subject is, but it doesn’t seem like we can figure out where it’s going (and neither does Todd or Ray, for that matter) and when we hit Todd’s line (spurred on by Ray’s “What would you do if you were making it with a hot chick and out pops a dick” line) suddenly the purpose comes clear and that line works as a good button.

That’s the PRESTIGE.


It works not only because the line is a good gag button, but also a discovery about Todd himself, and it’s revealed in a rather interesting way.

What makes it work is exactly that, the discovery of something unique (and amusing) about Todd’s character, it’s not only about funny stuff and dick jokes (nothing against either) but what is revealed about character.

And when you think about it, that’s the craft part of this job as a writer. Like the magician, we’re only good as our REVEAL.

We’ve all seen magic acts, some better than others . . . what separates the good magicians from the average ones is how they reveal each step, how smoothly each part of the trick is discovered by the audience.

The great ones direct the eye of their audience, making each moment count. Each discovery is carefully planned out. Everything is revealed exactly when it’s supposed to be, otherwise the trick won’t work.

It’s all about THE REVEAL.

Whereas with magic, the reveal is usually a sleight of hand spectacle.*

For the writer, the reveal is about character.

Seriously, all the great films are essentially great character reveals.

What we discover about them and what they discover about themselves.

One of the more infamous reveals in the last ten years was the film THE SIXTH SENSE, where we find out that our hero is really a ghost at the end.

But what made that film work was that it was also the character’s discovery, he found out he was dead and did not know it. He pushed until he found out and we found out at the same time.

It was an excellent reveal.**

The thing is, can you do it without giving away the end before we get there?

What I think works with the scene from THE MEN’S ROOM (and forgive me for dissecting a scene I myself wrote, but it was handy) is that it’s difficult to gauge where the scene is going.

You know it’s going somewhere, but you can’t figure where that might be (and actually, this is just the first third of the scene, there are similar beats during the rest of it which echo the theme of the play). It doesn’t simply end with a dick joke, but something unexpected yet truthful about the character(s) that echoes as real for the audience.

So it begins like a standard guy shit-talking scene, but when we get to the pledge it goes in a different direction, and the prestige goes somewhere we couldn’t have predicted.

It’s good to try and do that with most, if not all, of your scenes.

Because the truth of the matter is, people rarely reveal themselves knowingly (even in a therapist’s office, remember Tony Soprano?) because to do that makes one vulnerable, and and even vulnerable people don’t reveal everything.

It’s either forced out or spilled out, accidentally, like Todd does.

Keep that in mind when writing. Make it seem like it’s going in a certain direction (though the action should support the reality of the scene and character) and then go the other.

It’s like a basketball head-fake, you move your head in one direction and take your body in another.

Make a head-fake, and if it’s a good one, folks will look in that direction and not see when you hit them after the pledge and be completely surprised when the prestige comes around.

So to summarize my random babbling about writing . . . good moments often break down just like they say in THE PRESTIGE . . . you have THE PLEDGE, THE TURN, THE PRESTIGE . . . but it works dependent on your REVEAL, and one of the basic moves practiced by magicians and basketball players everywhere is the HEAD-FAKE . . . look one direction, go in the other.


Of course, I could just be distracting you with this blog entry while in reality, I’ve got something else going on in a completely different direction.

You’ll have to wait to find out.



*Obviously, you can do the same thing visually in a scene, using spectacle and no words. We see that a lot in film, though I think it also works best when it tells us something about the characters. Just off the top of my head, here’s a visual sample:


RUSH LIMBAUGH sits at a table.


Unwraps a large messy sandwich. His hand lifts the sandwich to -


and he takes a messy bite, still only using his left hand.


don’t leave the


on the table.

Which accounts for the presence of the Rush’s other hand.


Takes another bite of the sandwich with his left hand, while his right does something naughty down below.

He stops suddenly, listening.

He heard something. He looks -


He’s surrounded by dead bodies. Covered in sheets on steel tables. Hundreds of them.

Hearing nothing, Rush goes back to the dirty business of feeding his appetites.

Annnd Scene.

Okay, that was a bit gross. But you get the point, right? With just visual cues, we basically did the same thing, PLEDGE, TURN and PRESTIGE. Add to that, we found out what a sick fucker Rush Limbaugh is . . . who’d a thunk it? It revealed something not only unusual about the scene, but about the character as well.

**I know I just gave away the end of THE SIXTH SENSE, but if you haven’t seen that film by now, you must live in a box or something. Seriously.

3 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing - The Prestige, The Reveal and the Head-Fake”

  1. Osbo Says:

    Part of the reason I think Orson Welles is such a good storytelling is due to some of his magic background. As a magician and writer myself, I can tell you a trick is just a trick unless you add the drama and tension, and that’s what writing teaches us to do.

  2. Joshua James Says:

    I agree - in magic, you have to constantly be aware of the audience . . . a good story teller does the same thing. A bad one doesn’t think or care about the audience, that’s my take.

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