I am a short-form writer. A thousand words or so. Sometimes more, often less. I like to think I like tight prose and succinct thoughts, but I also know I’m impatient and have a short attention span.
Over the years, familiar article structures and narrative flows have repeatedly crystallized into familiar templates. The most obvious one. The three-act Vanilla structure; a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Your beginning frames your topic or asks an important question.
- The middle expands, explains, and illuminates your topic.
- The ending declares your conclusion.
Writing 101. Looking back at the last hundred articles here, you’ll see this structure repeated. There is a variant of Vanilla that I’ll call the Double Beginning. I discovered it when I struggled to find my Third Act. How do I want to close this thought out? Turns out, confusingly, I repeat the beginning.
The Double Beginning is repeating the first act as the third. Seems like cheating, but it’s not. See, if I’ve done my job in the Second Act, I’ve taught you a thing. I’ve pledged to explain my thought; hopefully, you’ve been illuminated. A repeated First Act as the Third isn’t a cheat; it’s a new narrative experience because you’ve succeeded in changing the reader.
Christopher Nolan’s 2007 The Prestige opens with the following narration:
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’ve had this transcribed opening narration sitting in an unfinished article where I wrote about every Marvel movie leading up to the Infinity War and End Game. The purpose of this piece? Document how Marvel learned from its successes and failures. Looking for and documenting patterns and recurring themes.
I’d recently watched The Prestige as I continued to write this piece and discovered a similarity between Marvel’s narrative structure and how Nolan describes the construction of a good magic trick. You see this in the first Iron Man, where we’re presented with Tony Stark, the trope drunken billionaire; we see him go on the exceptional hero’s journey, and then in the final act, we see something we’ve never seen before.
Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. Secret identities. That’s a thing. You gotta protect those you love with a secret identity. How. Wait. Why…?
It’s a stretch to call this moment a magical Prestige Moment. They’re not bringing something back but showing you something you’ve never seen before. Subverting your expectations. Surprising you.
I wrote for months on this unpublished piece as I discovered Prestige Moments in the MCU. They’re sprinkled all over the place, and I would argue the finale of the first three phases of the MCU resulting in Infinity War and End Game. 24 movies are all intertwined to reveal a coherent finale. The ultimate Prestige.
We had never seen anything like it.
My MCU piece is sitting on the floor. Right over there. It’s twenty printed pages long. Inappropriate for this weblog, but I keep chipping away. I loved the idea I’d discovered how the construction of magic tricks could somehow apply to narrative arcs in the MCU. Then I realized it applies to any story.
A good story consists of three parts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The writer describes something ordinary: a familiar situation or thought. The writer explains this situation; they make it approachable and understandable.
The second act is called “The Turn.” Here, the writer changes the narrative course. Often drastically. It’s jarring because the reader felt they were heading in a familiar direction, and suddenly they are elsewhere. However, the reader remembers The Pledge and buries their discomfort because they’ve agreed to go on a journey. As The Turn concludes, they begin to see how the Turn and the Pledge complement each other. The writer has described their point by combining what looks like two different stories into something brand new. But they’re not done yet. Don’t clap yet.
Prestige Writing builds to an unexpected but also familiar ending. The Pledge asks a question, the Turn answer the question, and the Prestige creates something extraordinary. Something you have never seen before.
That’s a high bar, and writing isn’t a magic trick. Good writing is a journey of learning, and Prestige writing is the aspiration of working so hard on your Pledge and your Turn that, yes, you can repeat your Pledge as your ending, as your Prestige. A repeated First Act as the Third isn’t a cheat; it’s a new narrative experience because you’ve succeeded in changing the reader.
And that’s magical.