Avoid card tricks in the dark when writing

No one likes a show off. Unfortunately, one way novice writers slow their story is by saying “Look see what I can do!” When they use such authorial cleverness for no purpose other than to show off, they’re guilty of using “card tricks in the dark,” a term coined by American science fiction writer Lewis Shiner.

A common example of “card tricks in the dark” includes a humorous scene that has no point other than to be humorous. And it probably does elicit laughs because it is humorous. But the scene – like every other word, sentence and paragraph the author has written in the story – ought to have a dramatic payoff.

A humorous scene might offer a dramatic payoff by relieving tension. Shakespeare does this when he inserts the humorous monologue of a drunken clown into “Macbeth.” That provides dramatic payoff because the audience then does not become numb to the deaths and violence unfolding in the play. The monologue offers the added benefit of advancing the play’s theme.

Or a humorous scene might help establish the characters’ motivations and personalities. The kind of jokes a character tells and how the characters react to it tells a great amount about them. However, once that’s been established, there’s not much need to keep doing this with humorous scene after humorous scene.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.