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Tension.

I've been in the creative arts in one way or another since I was a kid. I used to go to a performing arts specially college, attended additional Saturday drama school and of course, went onto University. I've performed from small studio theatres and quirky theatres like the Calder Bookshop in London's Westend, all the way to large theatres like the Sadlers Wells theatre, Leister Square Theatre and the Royal Albert Hall. Theatre is quite literally in my blood. If you were to cut me, I'm fairly sure that lights, and orchestra and a stage would seep from my veins. I absolutely love it.


Mix that in with my love for magic and I think you'll begin to understand how my brain might function. There is this theory that obsessive people, artists, business people and even gym goers, begin to think a different way. An inventor, for example, may see a problem they run into in a day as an opertunity and a puzzle to solve. This is how I think without meaning too. Everything becomes a story, a trick, an experience.


There are many things I have always wanted to do but never achieved when it comes to my 'creative side'. For example, since I was little, I've played the piano. I'm also a classically trained singer. So, I've always wanted to incorporate a piano into a show. I even wrote a quirky sheet music booktest in which each song began with a different note. Much like the long word principle in which each word begins with a different letter, well the sheet music book test began with a different note on a piano. As soon as I heard that note, I would know which song it is. I never further developed it but I always thought it was an interesting idea.


But for now, I want to talk to you about tension. More importantly, the first 5 seconds of your show. I believe that we should be taking idea's from other popular media and art and using those idea's in magic. Most films, books and television programs start with a simple, concise 'hook'. Think of one of your favourite songs for example, it will have some kind of melodic hook that draws you in and leaves you itching to hear it again. Normally it is found in the chorus of a song.


There is a belief that we make up our minds about someone within seconds of meeting them. First impressions are everything. But this extends to so many other mediums. Even looking at some of the most beloved novels and how they're structured can help us with our own work. The first line not only creates a premise and intrigue but also engages tension in the reader. It is a problem, maybe not a literal problem, but a conundrum or an inquisitive idea that naturally needs to be explored by the reader. Thus, creating tension.


In Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the opening line is simply, "I am an invisible man". Instantly it sets up the premise for the novel but creates a conflict in the readers mind. How can you be an invisible man? Do you mean a literal 'I can see through you' man or is it a metaphor? Why are you telling me you are an invisible man?


The Outsider by Albert Camus begins, "Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure" A superb example of tension building. Hitting the reader with this incredibly emotive, painful scenario in which this person's mother died but then almost trivialising it straight after by implying they're uninterested and almost blasé about the whole affair.


The opening line should help build tension, create an unanswerable question and allow relief when you want it to.


As I type this, I want you to remember, this is all coming off the top of my head so please don't expect anything ground breaking but I would like to try and from an example here.


So I'm going to create a genuinely random scenario. You are putting together a magic show in which the organiser has told you you have to incorporate a message about animal and rainforest conservation. (even i'm interested where i'm going with this!)


The first thing I do is go to Google for a tiny bit of research. According to the National Geographic website, the Sumatra Tiger is nearing extinction. This is going to be the story I start to build my show around. First, I need a strong opening line that creates that tension, asks that questions and creates intrigue. I'm going for:


"I'm here to say goodbye. You are here to say goodbye. We are all complicit..."


Once again, this is off the top of my head so whilst it isn't ground breaking, I feel like it does what I want it to do perfectly. It creates huge intruqge because you are allowing the audience to become a character in your show. You are involving them without them needing to get up.


At the time of writing this, a few days ago, I had the fortune to attend an event at the BFI on London's Southbank. Whilst there, I had the opertunity to attend a screening of the documentary 'Amy' from director Asif Kapadia. During that screening, there was an intimate Q&A in which the audience could quiz him about the choices he made. One thing he said that really resonated with me was, he wanted to make the audience feel complicit in the journey of Amy Winehouse's life. He wanted to the audience to re-evaluate and question their part in the events.


It is a really interesting perspective to take. But my fictional first line does the same thing. It draws the audience into the piece and treats them as a part of the show.


Now I have built the tension though, how am I going to release that tension later? Let's assume that at the beginning of the show, I asked everyone to write down 'one thing they could never live without' and then place that billet inside a box in the centre of the stage. Then I tell the story of a young girl who's dad worked as a scientist and vet. One day he brought her home a small, cuddly Tiger. She was overjoyed with her new soft friend and would take it everywhere she went. She would fall asleep with it, take it to school in her bag and even to the park. She looked at the label and could see words on it, asking her dad what it said. "Save the Samatra Tiger" he said. She couldn't understand why it needed to be saved until he explained that nasty people were cutting down the homes of the Tigers and soon, we would have to say goodbye (call back to my opening line) She started crying erratically and holding onto her Tiger more than ever before.



I might then have someone take out a billet from the box and read it to their self. I would then pull out some extra billets and read out loud some of the things other people couldn't live without.


- their bed

- their iPhone

- their car


You might even get one that's a little 'deeper'.


- time


But then, you have that person read the billet they have randomly selected and on it, it reads:


"My stuffed Tiger"


You mention how most people only care for material possessions when really, they should think about the true value of things. Only then do you ask whoever wrote that to stand up. A lady stands up in the audience. You ask her what she does for a living. She says she works for the WWF in animal conservation and specialising in protecting Tigers. She is asked if it is her whos father gave her the stuffed animal. From her bag, she pulled out a small stuffed tiger and holds it up the the whole audience to see.


She is then invited onto the stage to talk about the importance of deforestation. Because, in reality, she is the one who asked you to incorporate that message into the show and works for the company that has hired you.


Now, I can use the opening line that hopfully by now the audience has largely forgotten about, at the end of the show.


"Ladies and gentleman, it is now time for me to say goodbye. It is now time for you to say goodbye. But non of us need to be complicit in the death of our planet. There is magic all around us and it is up to all of us to protect it. Thank you"


Again, a ropey example but hopefully it illustrates my point enough!


The only final thing I'd like to touch on is, make sure that the tension is worth the build up. Imagine queuing up for a massive rollercoaster. You're super scared and you feel like you are going to be sick. Then you get on it and realise, it is just the cute spinning tea cups! The adrenaline build up wasn't worth the outcome. You'll feel deflated and probably a little annoyed.


Make sure the part of your show you are building up warrants keeping your audience on the edge of their seat.


I hope this all makes sense and I have got my point across a concisely as possible. I'd also love to hear what you think about it. Even if you disagree. Comment below and share your knowledge.



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tricksforrob
May 01, 2022

Now that's a hook that will grab most of us. It certainly had me hooked. Often I find that issues such as the save the tiger or eradicate racism etc, can devolve into sentimentality. While the causes are great, sentiment often takes over from reason and practicality.

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Jamie Daws
Jamie Daws
May 02, 2022
Replying to

Agreed! There are ways to deal with deeper subjects and they may never be accepted well by an audience, but thats for a whole other blog post! :-P

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