How do I make my magic as strong as possible?
That was the question I asked myself.
For a few years I have been tracking the response of my audience to every performance of a trick, which is in the range of 1000 tricks a year (not 1000 different tricks, but 1000 total trick performances). Not only have I ranked their response on a scale of 1-10 (or, in some cases, had them rank it themselves), I’ve also kept track of their comments and if they brought the trick up at a later date. So I have their initial reaction as well as their long-term reaction to tricks.
By studying this, I realized I could break down what were the defining qualities of the strongest magic I perform.
That’s what this week’s posts are going to be about. It may seem like “theory,” but it’s going to lead somewhere actionable. And those actionable steps are the ones I use when I want to create a trick that genuinely fucks people’s minds.
In today’s post I want to talk about “astonishment.”
To do so, I’ll have to wrestle the word away from Paul Harris who really defined the word for the modern magician in his Art of Astonishment set of books. In the opening essay he talks about the moment of astonishment that follows a trick as being a pure child-like state of mind that usually lasts “under 10 seconds.”
Paul Harris has always been one of my favorite magicians, but over time I’ve come to disagree with his understanding of “astonishment.” (You can read his essay in this free ebook from Vanishing Inc.)
My first issue is his basic premise, that a child’s natural state of mind is one of astonishment. I’ve spent a good amount of time around children. They don’t seem in the least bit astonished by the world around them. They often seem fascinated by the world around them, but that’s something different. Astonishment involves having your expectations subverted. A young child has hardly any expectations, so there’s not much to subvert. If you reached into your throat and pulled out a python in front of an adult, they would be astonished. An infant would look at you like, “Oh…so this is something that happens? Neat.”
The second issue I have with the essay is that it implies a powerlessness on the part of the magician. It doesn’t suggest any ways to increase or maintain astonishment. Really the only suggestion is that you try to make it clear to the audience that feeling astonished is a good thing. And then you just hope they don’t fight the feeling. You’re putting the onus on them to feel astonishment. A much more productive mindset, in my opinion, is that it’s your job as the magician to create a state of astonishment that they can’t easily dismiss.
My final issue with the essay might seem like it’s just semantics, but I don’t think it just that. Or, if it is, I think the semantics I’m going to use are more useful.
Paul describes the moment of astonishment as being like the ringing of a bell that happens at the climax of a trick and then quickly dissipates. I’m going to suggest another name for this moment, but for now let’s call it “initial astonishment.” What I’ve learned is that there isn’t much correlation between the moment of initial astonishment and the overall strength of a trick.
Instead, a trick’s power is most closely related to the moment of contrecoup astonishment (this is just a temporary term I’m using to differentiate it from “initial astonishment”).
What is contrecoup astonishment? it’s comes from the concept of a contrecoup (pronounced contra-coo) head injury.
Think of the last time you bashed someone in the head with a baseball bat. (If you can’t remember the most recent time, just remember any time that comes to mind.)
When you hit someone in the forehead with a bat, there is an initial impact of the brain against the front of the skull. But then the brain rebounds and hits against the back of the skull, causing an injury on the brain on the opposite side of the point of impact.
Initial astonishment is like the primary head impact.
Contrecoup astonishment is the moment of astonishment that happens after the trick has travelled through the spectator’s brain.
Think of the appearing cane. The cane appears [FWAP!}. There’s a moment of initial astonishment. Then the trick travels through the brain (that is to say, the brain processes the trick) and there is very little “contrecoup astonishment.” In the moments after the trick, they think, “Whoa! Where did that come from? Hmm… it must expand somehow? Or unfold? Either way it’s some sort of trick cane, I’m sure.” The initial astonishment of the surprise of seeing the cane quickly evaporates.
This is in line with the Paul Harris model of astonishment. Something amazing happens, there is a moment of astonishment, but that feeling soon goes away after the spectator starts to process what they just saw.
What I’m suggesting is that real “astonishment” happens after the brain has gone into processing mode.
You’ve probably all had this sort of experience. You perform a trick: “And the folded red card in this clear box is actually… your signed card!”
Your spectator responds…., “What the hell?! No way!” This is the moment of initial astonishment. It’s usually pretty good-natured.
Then they stop, and they furrow their brow, and they look down and think for a few seconds. You can see their mind working. Their head snaps up. “Wait…wait…wait…hold on. You brought that folded red card out before I chose my card. And my card had a blue back. Wait…,” more thinking, “How? That’s not possible.” They’ve gone from the initial, jovial response to the effect, to something that seems much more unsettled.
This, I feel, is the true moment of astonishment. It’s not a brief moment. It’s actually a feeling that builds over time (to a point).
What I noticed, when looking at the effects that garnered the strongest reactions, was that while some had intense moments of initial astonishment, they all had strong moments of contrecoup astonishment. They were strengthened by being processed by the brain.
Here’s the terminology I’m going to use going forward.
What Paul Harris calls “astonishment,” and what I’ve been calling “initial astonishment” is really just, Surprise.
Surprise is typically an involuntary, fleeting feeling. In a matter of seconds, the spectator’s mind will attack that feeling of surprise and subject it to all the brain’s critical faculties. Often, they will be able to come up with a reasonable explanation (even if it’s just a general explanation) for what occurred and the moment will fizzle out. But if the feeling of surprise isn’t undermined by that process, then it develops into a feeling of Astonishment. (In fact, “an enduring surprise,” is a pretty good definition of magic.) This happens in a matter of seconds. The Surprise will either crumble away to nothing when looked at critically, or it will change into Astonishment when the spectator realizes they have no feasible explanation for what happened.
Now, Astonishment is kind of an uncomfortable feeling; I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some adrenaline response to it. Most people can sit with it for some amount of time, maybe up to a half hour. I know some people who will allow themselves to be thrilled by a trick for an entire evening, but that is pretty rare. Eventually the feeling of astonishment needs to be processed in some way.
There are two ways for a spectator to process astonishment.
Destruction - “I’m going to figure this out. I’m going to do some in-depth critical thinking. I’m going to do some googling. I’m going to find someone who does magic to explain it to me. I’m going to post on Reddit seeking an answer.”
Acceptance - “I don’t know what happened or how it could have happened. I have no explanation for it. And I’m just going to embrace it as something cool and unexplainable that I was lucky enough to experience.”
If the spectator can’t destroy the feeling of astonishment because the effect was too well constructed, or if they choose to accept the feeling, then it will eventually transform into a feeling of Mystery.
In previous posts I’ve talked about Paul Harris’ concept of Astonishment (which in this post I’m calling Surprise) and Mystery as two different things, but now I believe mystery is surprise that has evolved over time. Surprise is the seed, mystery is the flower.
In Paul’s essay he suggests trying to convince people to stay in that initial moment of surprise as long as possible. But it’s very hard to do that. It’s nearly impossible to shut down your critical thinking that way.
What you can do, however, is craft your tricks so they survive the initial critical thinking and make the jump from Surprise to Astonishment. And from that point, you can train people that it’s just more fun to welcome the mystery rather than to see the whole thing as some sort of problem they need to solve. At this point I can identify people who are connoisseurs of astonishment and want to experience mysteries and the unknown and bizarre experiences and strange fictions. I still have to get past their critical thinking, but once I do, they’re on board. These days I rarely run into someone who is going to desperately try and “debunk” a trick. If they’re that type of person, I spot them early on and they’re not someone I’d plan a “big” trick for in the first place.
For me, this model of the spectator experience—going from Surprise to Astonishment to Mystery—has been incredibly useful for creating really powerful, long-lasting effects. It focuses my efforts on reinforcing those few seconds between Surprise and Astonishment and not giving them any “easy outs” to allow the surprise to die out.
In the end, I’m not dismissing Paul Harris’ idea that the first few moments after a trick can present a powerful void of understanding to the spectator. I don’t know if this is actually our “natural” state of mind or whatever, but it’s fine if you believe that. It’s still compatible with what I’m writing here. My point is that by focusing past the surprise element, we can see a trick as not just the cause of a fleeting moment of child-like wonder, but also as an enduring source of mystery.