This is the piece I submitted to the first 48 Hour Magazine, a fascinating project put together by a group of editors who decided to see if they could take a magazine from concept to proof in 48 hours, the concept for the zero issue being the word ‘hustle’. I put this together, on magic, JJ Abrams and narrative structure and, whilst it didn’t get in, I’m pretty pleased with it.
Pledge, Turn, Prestige, Monster
Magic tricks are the slightly more reputable sibling of con tricks and are designed along the same, basic structure. ‘That structure was articulated by Christopher Priest in his novel The Prestige and is defined as the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The pledge is the promise of something extraordinary, the turn is the apparent revelation and the prestige is the actual reveal, the moment you realise that the magician was never standing there, that the silk scarf has become a bird. It’s a simple, elegant framework that can be applied to everything from making a coin disappear to walking through the great wall of China and it’s also one of the secrets of JJ Abrams’ success.
Abrams’ entire career is based on not just a fascination with misdirection and magic but an instinctive understanding of this framework. Lost, Alias and Fringe, the three TV shows he’s best known for all embrace it and interestingly, each one also uses the three stage framework within their pilot episodes. In Lost, the Oceanic 815 survivors not only realise something is wrong with the island but that they’re not alone, in Alias Sydney Bristow not only realises she’s working for the opposite side but becomes a double agent whilst in Fringe, Olivia Dunham not only discovers what the Pattern is but that her colleague Agent John Scott is deeply involved in it. Pledge becomes premise, turn becomes plot, prestige becomes cliffhanger. The three stage magic trick melds with the three act narrative structure to create something intricate, detailed and, in the long run, immensely rewarding.
This is the connective tissue that holds Abrams’ work together as shown by the teaser trailer for his new film, Super 8. It opens with text informing the viewer that in 1979 a section of Area 51 was closed before cutting to a train speeding through the night. We learn that the materials stored at Area 51 were being moved overland to a secure location as, on screen, a pickup truck smashes through the barrier and runs headlong into the train. The train is derailed, cars ripped apart before, finally, silence falls. The text returns, informing us that next summer ‘It Arrives’ as the camera tracks through the wreckage to a large, sealed container with US Air Force stencilled on the side. The side of the trailer deforms and is then thrown outwards as the camera cuts to a close up of a Super 8 film lens with film flickering past it before fading to black.
Now, as pledges go that’s pretty spectacular. In less than two minutes we learn that something awful was moved from Area 51, something unthinkable happened that freed it, that the creature is large, strong and angry and that the film will have something to do with a Super 8 camera. Straight away we get science fiction and horror mixed with conspiracy thriller and a human element, all without meeting any of the principle characters. The message is clear; next summer, innocent people will witness something awful, try and survive it and you’ll be first in line for a ticket.
It’s a classic set up and one Abrams has used before, most notably with the original Cloverfield trailer. With no name and almost no credit text, it was a cut down version of the party scene from the start of the film, culminating in the Statue of Liberty’s head being hurled into the street. Once again, it’s a pledge, a hint of something remarkable designed to intrigue, get the audience’s full attention and bring them closer before the turn.
The teaser trailer for Abrams’ Star Trek uses the turn beautifully, opening with close ups of men constructing something immense as sound bites from the history of space exploration play. It’s only in the final shots, where the camera pans up over the saucer section of the USS Enterprise, Leonard Nimoy says ‘Space, the final frontier’ and the familiar refrain plays that it becomes clear what’s being trailed and the true nature of what you’ve been watching becomes clear. It even throws in a self-deprecating, cheeky prestige as the Starfleet crest appears to the sound of the transporter and the first bars of the original series theme tune before fading out to be replaced by two words:
This wry, self-deprecating sense of humour is just another means of disarming the audience and putting them at ease. It’s also an immensely clever move with Star Trek in particular because it feeds into the affection for the series and the status quo it represents.
Abrams then takes great pleasure in both honouring and subverting that status quo throughout the film, most notably in the opening sequence where the Kirk we meet is revealed not only to be James T. Kirk’s father but has to sacrifice himself in order for his wife, son and friends to survive. It’s a brutal sequence, difficult to sit through even after multiple viewings and there’s a case for it being the film’s turn. After all, everything changes as a result of it and the rest of the film is spent exploring those changes.
However, the real turn arrives at roughly the halfway mark, by which point the sense of familiarity has returned. There are changes certainly; James T. Kirk is a darker, brasher version of his old self, Spock is more emotional but still a genius but they’re fundamentally the same people. The Enterprise looks more futuristic, the special effects are more impressive but, fundamentally, it’s still Star Trek, still familiar, still safe.
Then Vulcan is destroyed.
In a single moment, Abrams, along with scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman change the rules, alter one of the most intricate fictional universes in decades forever and force the audience to pay full attention as they realise that everything is different now. The building blocks, the accepted wisdom of decades of fiction are changed into something new and dangerous and exciting which still, somehow, manages to honour what’s gone before it. This isn’t just a textbook example of how to successfully reinvigorate a franchise, this is magic at it’s purest, taking something that the audience think they know and turning it on its head. It’s the assistant disappearing, the needle going through the balloon, the card appearing inside the sealed box. This is the turn, positioning the audience for the final revelation, the prestige.
The best example of a prestige in Abrams’ work is arguably the end of the pilot episode of Fringe, which deals with both the mystery deaths of everyone aboard an international flight from Berlin and the serious injury of FBI Agent John Scott, caught in an explosion at a storage facility linked to the incident on the plane. Scott’s friend, and lover, Olivia Dunham’s refusal to let him die leads her to defy protocol, track down reclusive genius Walter Bishop and his son, Peter, get Bishop released from a mental asylum and, finally, to both the person responsible for the incident and a cure for Scott. The episode is, by all weights and measures, over, the series’ premise established as Olivia is offered a job investigating Fringe Science cases full time, Walter is reinstalled in his old lab and Peter slowly begins to accept his father.
Then John Scott gets out of bed, goes to the perpetrator’s room and suffocates him. At almost the same time, Olivia discovers evidence that Scott was complicit in the attack, tracks him down and a car chase ensues. Scott is fatally injured and his last moments are spent apologising to Olivia and telling her to ask why.
This by itself would be enough, but the episode’s final scene really drives home the unknown territory the series is running headlong towards. Nina Sharp, the head of Massive Dynamic, a pseudo-Microsoft company helping the government investigate Fringe Science is shown Scott’s body. She asks how long he’s been dead, is told and, after pausing for a moment, says ‘Interrogate him.’
This single moment brings together the mystery surrounding John Scott, the allegiance of Massive Dynamic and the research into communicating with the comatose and dead that Walter successfully uses earlier in the episode to not only set the rest of the series up but neatly place the viewer and Olivia on the same page. Neither know what’s going on and both find themselves wanting answers as the episode finishes. Or to put it another way, the circle is closed, the trick is finished and everyone leaves the theatre asking how it was done.
Pledge, turn and prestige, each not only mapping onto the three act dramatic structure but changing it into something rich and strange. Abrams and his collaborators take this still further, incorporating the elements of magic and misdirection not only into their films and TV series but how these stories are marketed and presented. This is magic not only as a storytelling framework but a tool, a means of not only writing and constructing stories but selling them to an audience. It’s not always successful but it’s always interesting and, with Abrams linked to several major new projects, it’s an approach that’s clearly working. Just remember, the rabbit isn’t always in the hat, and the hat may not be a hat at all.