Writing as Con Artistry
Crafting a story is more than just a beginning, a middle, and an end. Whilst structurally a tale may follow that pattern, stories must also evoke an emotional response. If you begin reading and can immediately spot every story beat, so the narrative unfolds without tension or surprise, then why continue? Stories should surprise and excite; they should elicit a reaction. In that sense, the author can consider taking advice from con artistry to learn how to truly manipulate the reader in a natural and unforeseen manner.
Executing a confidence trick is more than just showmanship; it is an art—that is why the grifter is called a con artist. It requires both planning and improvisation to work correctly. Some scams are concocted in advance to minute detail yet still require constant adaption and alteration, and others are built on-the-fly based on the situations and settings that present themselves, with planning being continuously carried out as the trick is developed. The writer, much like the con artist, can work to either of these styles or somewhere in between, as planning and improvisation are not an either/or option but instead two opposing ends of a spectrum. It is upon this scale that all writers find themselves at different points depending on their preferences, their natural strengths, and the story they are writing at that moment in time.
The true mastery of the con is in the specific roles given to the players. Grifting is chess. To understand how to apply confidence trickery to writing, one must examine the parts required.
The Mark is the potential victim of the con, so called because of the chalk mark grifters would leave on the jacket of a suitable candidate for their scams so as to identify them. In the writer’s case, this is the reader.
The first part of a con is to hook the Mark by trailing a figurative rope which they take hold of, pulling them into the scam. The Roper is the connection to this new, undiscovered world.
The first sentence, paragraph, page, and chapter of a book should all pull the reader further into the story. Much like the Roper’s illusion of reality, the world the story creates should pre-exist the opening words. It must already be fully-formed, though the point at which we join this particular story is solely the choice of the writer.
The Roper guides the Mark into the con, working them at a suitable pace for the trick itself. For fast-paced scams this would be a whirlwind, yet longer cons would require a more languishing pace. The Mark—whether swept off their feet or left in the dark, begging for further light to be shed—then chooses to delve further into this world. The Roper has hooked them, and they are biting.
The Mark is brought to the Inside, the central character of the con. Much like a protagonist will pass a point of no return—thereby ensuring the story cannot just end at any given moment—so too should the Mark. This results in a convincer, where the Mark is up on the game.
In terms of writing, the reader needs to reach a point where they are unable to stop. A compelling story will be exactly that—compelling—and the reader will have to keep reading to discover what happens next. They are drawn within, into the depths of this new world where the rules are different and the characters intriguing.
The Inside executes the con, acting as the main steer throughout. The Roper may still appear from time-to-time, continually hooking the Mark and encouraging them to go further, but the Inside should compel them.
Behind the scenes of a con, the Fixer is making sure everything works. From the setup to the payoff they are maintaining the world which ensures the Mark remains convinced and does not see past the thin veneer of the con.
In the same way, the writer must ensure the reader continues to suspend their disbelief. Whilst they could look around and realise everything in the tale is a fabrication, it is the skill of the writer which ensures they do not.
Furthering the realism of the scam is done by the Shill, who plays the parts of onlooker, cynic, collaborator, or fellow Mark. The Shill is the characters around the central story that gives the world depth, and alongside the Fixer’s practical support, maintains the illusion.
To ensure disbelief in the writer stays suspended, the writer must ensure all the supporting and additional characters written into the story are as real and three-dimensional as the main cast. They must have motivations and fears, make choices and mistakes, and be as flesh-and-blood as the primary characters are.
A con must have a driving force and whilst the lure of profit—whether monetary or something else—is the figurative carrot, there must also be a stick. The Outside is the impending doom which threatens the existence of the fictional situation, thereby pressuring the Mark to commit and act. As they draw nearer the stakes are raised, and so too is the drama. Their eventual collision with the Inside signals the final act of the con, resulting in the Mark receiving the brush-off and being sent away.
The Outside for the writer represents tension, as without it a story will fail. Tension must develop, both from internal and external sources to the main characters, and as it builds so the plot advances. It does not have to be overt, but neither does it need to be subtle; the balance depends on the writer, the story, and the characters.
Considering writing from a differing angle, such as con artistry, can help evolve a writer’s perception of the story they wish to tell. Convincing them to apply the lessons learned from this, however, means empowering them. As the writer, you must give yourself the confidence to tell the story. That, in fact, is the real artistry.
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© 2018 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.