In 1995, a young magician named Brian Brushwood wrote to Teller, asking for some advice about how to hone an act that was original and clever. To his surprise, Teller wrote back the next day, explaining the struggles he and Penn had endured early on, and offering a concept that should be part of any truly creative endeavor:

Here’s a compositional secret. It’s so obvious and simple, you’ll say to yourself, “This man is bullshitting me.” I am not. This is one of the most fundamental things in all theatrical movie composition and yet magicians know nothing of it. Ready?

Surprise me.

That’s it. Place 2 and 2 right in front of my nose, but make me think I’m seeing 5. Then reveal the truth, 4!, and surprise me.

Now, don’t underestimate me, like the rest of the magicians of the world. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that I’ve never seen a set of linking rings before and I’ll be oh-so-stunned because you can “link” them. Bullshit.

Here’s how surprise works. While holding my attention, you withold basic plot information. Feed it to me little by little. Make me try and figure out what’s going on. Tease me in one direction. Throw in a false ending. Then turn it around and flip me over.

I do the old Needle trick. I get a guy up on stage, who examines the needles. I swallow them. He searches my mouth. They’re gone. I dismiss him and he leaves the stage. The audience thinks the trick is over. Then I take out the thread. “Haha! Floss!” they exclaim. I eat the floss. Then the wise ones start saying, “Not floss, thread. Thread. Needles. Needles and thread. Ohmygod he’s going to thread the need…” And by that time they’re out and sparkling in the sunshine.

I’ve seen Teller do the Needle trick umpteen times. Even saw him make it better a couple of times with little physical moves that brought a smile to his own face. In those moments, I thought, “Wow, he’s even surprising himself tonight.”

In a piece about his correspondence with Teller (including the full e-mail exchange), Brushwood explains the impact it had on his career. It’s well worth reading the whole thing here.

And if you’ve never seen Teller do the Needle trick, enjoy…