Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too. This week’s installment is by Josh Vogt.
Back in high school, I spent a couple summers as a restaurant entertainer—specifically bringing a mix of balloon twisting and magic tricks to tables in the hopes of getting tips after each small performance. The sleight-of-hand was self-taught, while the balloon twisting came from a couple weeks of working with another entertainer who taught me a wide array of shapes inflatable latex could be manipulated into. So, armed with a pouch stuffed with colorful balloons, an air pump (to spare my lungs), packs of cards, coins, and rope, I set out to entertain the masses.
Admittedly, if you’ve ever been approached by a restaurant entertainer, there’s a certain underlying level of awkwardness to the whole situation. There you are, chowing down and enjoying a night out with friends or family, when a stranger intrudes and wants to engage you in a little sideshow, usually in exchange for a few bucks.
It’d be easy to wave them off, ignore them outright, or even get angry at the disturbance. I experienced all of those interactions plenty of times, not to mention the occasional drunk who’d want to see what sort of obscene shapes I could tie balloons into for them to show off to the whole restaurant.
I quickly realized that if I wanted people to put their conversations or schedule on hold, I needed to provide more than just a “Look what I can do!” performance. I had to make a connection. I had to go beyond just showing off a bit of manual dexterity. I had to offer a story for people to become part of, making it a larger experience they felt truly involved them.
There’s a reason magicians and other performers usually have a patter or story that parallels whatever trick they’re engaged in. If they did nothing but stand there and show off various card and coin manipulations, it might be nifty for a few minutes, but it wouldn’t hold people’s attention for long, nor would it leave any sort of lasting impact.
I had to learn a similar lesson when it came to writing. Many of my early ideas and storytelling attempts were only based on the “idea” portion of the process—a different take on magic, a little worldbuilding quirk, or a unique character trait that I spun out into short stories or novels. The problem was, I often focused on just showcasing that idea, trying to demonstrate how cool it was and grounding the entire plot around the concept…instead of thinking about what the readers would be experiencing throughout it all.
Over time, I started to recognize that if, before jumping into a story, I sat down and thought about what I wanted readers to come away thinking or feeling, it’d make the tale much more satisfying and give it more depth. Aside from coming up with original ideas or polishing my writing technique, I now also strive to make each story an experience that engages the reader rather than merely distracting them with a little song and dance.
Though I suppose if this whole writing career thing doesn’t work out in the long run, I always have balloon twisting and magic tricks to fall back on!
Josh Vogt has been published in dozens of genre markets with work ranging from flash fiction to short stories to doorstopper novels that cover fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, adds to the RPG Pathfinder Tales tie-in line. WordFire Press is also launching his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor (2015) and The Maids of Wrath (2016). You can find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt. He’s a member of SFWA as well as the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers.