It’s All An Illusion

By Joe Moore

Many years ago, I took my son to see David Copperfield, one of the world’s greatest illusionists. During the over two hours of magic, Copperfield performed a number of mind-copperfield_cleanedbending feats that astounded the audience including walking through a solid wall. Remember, this is the guy who made the Statue of Liberty disappear, so he kept us on the edge of our seats with every trick.

One trick in particular was not as spectacular as making a jet plane vanish, but it made a lasting impression on me that I refer to often as I talk about writing thrillers. It involved Copperfield standing solo at center stage performing some entertaining but basic card and slide-of-hand tricks. It was sort of a breather from the “big” illusions. A few minutes into his routine, someone started heckling him from the back of the theater. A man shouted that the tricks were easy and took no talent. At first, Copperfield tried to dismiss him with a remark that he was glad the stranger was interested in magic. He then went on with the card trick. The heckler called out again, this time louder, saying that Copperfield was a third-rate magician with no real talent, and that anyone could do the famous illusionist’s act.

At this point, the audience started to turn to see who this disrespectful, loudmouth was. What we all saw was a man in a heavy trench coat, pulled down fedora, and a thick beard moving slowly down the aisle toward the stage. I surmised that this was obviously part of the show, but to what end I had no idea.

The comments coming from the heckler grew louder and more boisterous as he claimed that he could do anything Copperfield could. The exchange grew edgy between the magician and the heckler until Copperfield seemed to become so frustrated that he challenged the man to come up on stage and perform a trick that would astound the audience. He then turned and left the stage, giving it over to the bearded man in the trench coat.

As my son and I watched in breathless anticipation of what would happen next, the heckler took center stage and declared that he was about to perform an illusion worthy of David Copperfield. In an instant, he ripped off the fake beard, tossed the hat away, and slipped out of the trench coat. The audience gasped as we all realized the mystery man was in fact, David Copperfield.

I consider that trick the basis for writing thrillers. Because, isn’t every writer of this genre a magician? All great magicians know how to deal with pacing, timing and danger. They know how to pivot from one direction to another and the art of misdirection. They keep you guessing where they will go next, and when you think you know the answer, you wind up being wrong. They make you want one thing, then give you another. They prey upon your fears, your dreams, and your nightmares. They are illusionists. They create magic.

As you write, think of yourself as a magician performing illusions. Know where your reader thinks you’re taking them, then take them somewhere unexpected. For writing, like magic, is all an illusion.


thor-bunker-cover-RSApril, 1945. The Germans have the bomb. Download THOR BUNKER, A Short Story prequel to THE TOMB for only 99¢.

21 thoughts on “It’s All An Illusion

  1. The big difference being, if asked, writers will share their “secrets” and tell you how it’s done…and if you pay close attention, you may figure out how you, too, can do similar feats.
    Both, though, require lots of practice.

  2. As a former magician myself, I appreciate people like David Copperfield and Lance Burton, who are mostly entertainers, and know how to leverage their technical equipment into a real show. My absolute favorites are Penn and Teller, who I saw very early in their careers in San Francisco.

    But more than any of that, I love close-up magic. Johnny Ace Palmer. Ricky Jay. Doing the seeming impossible right there under noses. It requires great skill, years of practice, making it look effortless.

    Hmmm….sounds like writing, too!

      • Yes, this kid is the real deal, combining close-up with stage performance. Fabulous.

        Funny, a few months ago I was writing in Starbucks when a kid carrying a motorcycle helmet sat at the next table and tossed a card deck down. I asked him if he was a poker player. He said no, he was a magician. Turned out to be a 22 year old who’d ridden to LA from Florida to seek fame and fortune as a magician. We talked shop, and I asked him to show me some sleights. Terrific! He’d been at it since he was 16.

        Hard work, baby. But then you get to amaze people.

  3. Great article and a great reminder that the best writing does have a lot of calculated misdirection and sleight of hand to keep you guessing and watching. There is showmanship that shows polish and keeps you focused, and then there is a whole lot of stuff going on behind the scenes while you’re watching the hands (aka the real magic). Who doesn’t want to write or read magic! I do! 😀

  4. My husband was a magician in his early teens and he still won’t reveal his secrets! I love the analogy to magic as I think the greatest illusion a writer can create is a world in which the ‘author’ disappears, in which the writing never gets in the way of the story and which enables the reader to fall totally and utterly under the story’s spell.

  5. Great analogy, Joe.

    One more tool to use as we build our stories. Thanks for the post.

    You asked me to let you know how I liked THOR BUNKER. I loved it. My only disappointment was that there was not more. It certainly gave more depth and meaning to THE BLADE.


  6. Several years ago, my husband and I went to either BN or Borders in Tampa, FL, where crime novelist James Swain held a signing. He quietly stood at a table, performing card tricks, sucking in everyone who passed by, young and old. Needless to say, I left with an armful of his books, even tho I’d never heard of him before then. What a fantastic gimmick to promote your work. Made me want to take up magic.

    Thanks, Joe, and other TKZers for helping us peek behind the curtain and look up the sleeve.

    • I tried juggling chainsaws at one signing, but the store manager made me stop because of the noise, and the blood. 🙂 Thanks, Debbie. Come back to TKZ often. More secrets are yet to be revealed.

  7. I recently got introduced to your blog by some fellow writers. I’ve been so impressed with it that I actually mentioned it on my blog today as one of my new favorite sites. Thank you! 🙂

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