Hustle is a British TV show about a group of likeable con artists and the elaborate confidence tricks they pull. In addition to having criminals as the protagonists, the show also breaks other storytelling rules (like “never cheat your reader”) to great effect. Here are some ideas you could borrow to up the ante in your own stories.
Cast of Hustle – Robert Glenister, Kelly Adams, Adrian Lester, Robert Vaughn, Jaime Murray, Matt Di Angelo
1. The Loveable Rogue Protagonist
The first risk Hustle takes is that of the lawbreaking hero. It’s not an uncommon technique, but it does come with some useful guidelines to enable the author to pull it off without alienating readers. Your protagonist can be “bad” as long as he abides by a moral code that usually includes not harming “innocent” people, like children, pensioners, or anyone lower down on the crime food chain than the protagonist. In Hustle, the mark (and thus the episode’s antagonist) is always either truly nasty and immoral or excessively greedy, with no respect for the unofficial code of ethics, and therefore deserves to be taken down.
Sometimes the antagonist is the police, which is writing on thin ice if one’s readership is not a group of anarchists or teenagers. Hustle handles this cleverly – one episode featured a corrupt cop where Mickey Stone’s gang was hired by the Chief Inspector to ferret out the dirty detective; another episode involved one of the team being arrested as part of the greater con, but, since he hadn’t actually stolen what the police thought he’d stolen, he was soon free to go.
2. Sleight of Hand
There is a reason people love watching magicians despite knowing they are being tricked: the catch-me-out-if-you-can bravado. It’s part of the game to see if you can spot the sleight of hand that creates the illusion. The most skilful magicians relish the impossible-seeming tricks, knowing that their audiences expect to be conned convincingly.
Hustle cons the viewer by leaving out a crucial piece of the set up until after the big reveal. Normally this technique would irritate and annoy readers – it’s often called “cheating the reader”, and readers will demand a really good reason for a point of view protagonist forgetting to mention something that would assist them in solving the mystery too early. But Hustle viewers expect to be conned, in the same way that the audience at a magic show do. Once you know the score, the game becomes one of guessing what information has been omitted, rather than one of solving a mystery. This works best over a series, where readers become used to the formula over the first book or two and set out to second-guess the author from then on.
There are two other effective ways to accomplish a sleight of hand in a novel: Smoke and Mirrors and The Unreliable Narrator.
The Smoke and Mirrors trick involves placing your “con” in plain sight, but hiding it behind other elements in your book, such as red herrings, MacGuffins, anachronisms, and sub-plots, or using them as distractions. By the end of the book, the reader should be able to see, in retrospect, that the author had given a number of clues, deftly palmed away, but definitely there. Starting with your story’s climax, or its ending, or even mixing the chronology up a bit (think Pulp Fiction), is one of the simplest ways to obfuscate without having to leave out any clues.
The Unreliable Narrator is ideal for first person narrative and can be used as a subtle way of giving the reader a heads up that not all is as it seems and that the narrative will not be telling the whole story. With this mistrust in place, the savvy reader will be on the look out for clues that are glossed over by the protagonist.
3. Breaking the Fourth Wall
Occasionally, one of the protagonists of Hustle will glance or wink at the camera, or even speak directly to the viewer (known in theatre terms as breaking the fourth wall). This method of writing is common in the classics, often with the narrator addressing a direct comment to the “dear Reader”. It fell out of popularity over the course of the last century, but now seems to be returning. It is a rather risky technique because it can shatter the precious illusion that fiction builds, pulling viewers or readers out of the story by reminding them that they are watching or reading fiction. Or, as in Hustle, used sparingly and with skill, it can do the opposite – make the viewer feel s/he is part of the team, in on the con, and ready to hustle. It can also be used to distract the audience while you slip in one of your vital clues.
So, study your mark(et). Build up your confidence. Position your mirrors. And get ready to give them a twist to remember.