Dear Jerxy: What Makes A Good Premise?

Dear Jerxy: I'm not sure I understand your position on premises/presentations. You say that the best ones are unbelievable but then you shit on ones like the ambitious card where the card keeps coming to the top because it's the most ambitious one in the deck. Isn't that an "unbelievable" premise? How do you differentiate a good unbelievable premise from a bad one? 

Oh No, I Can't Think of an Alliteration in Omaha

Dear Oh No: There is a very simple question you can ask yourself to discern if your unbelievable premise is a good one or a bad one. And that question is this: "Is this a thing?"

Examples -

Premise: "I'm going to restore this rope by going back in time to before I cut it."
"Is this a thing?" - Yes. The notion of time travel is a thing.

Premise: "The deck is going to whisper in my ear the name of the card you took."
"Is this a thing?" - No. The idea of a whispering deck of cards is something you just made up so you could do this trick.

Premise: "I'm going to float this dollar bill by trapping a ghostly spirit inside of it."
"Is this a thing?" - Yes. The concept of ghosts exist outside of your magic presentation.

Premise: "This coin will disappear from my hand and join the others because it's lonely."
"Is this a thing?" - No. Coins don't get lonely.

My favorite types of premises/presentations are unbelievable, interesting, and familiar. And by "familiar" I mean that they should deal with concepts that exist in the real world. Things an audience can relate to and grasp easily. The "Is this a thing?" question identifies the "familiar" concepts.  

When you use a familiar presentation you are engaging the spectator in the world they live in. This makes it easier for them to connect with the magic and it makes your presentations automatically more expansive because what you're doing is a part of the mythology of their real world. When your premise is completely unfamiliar, i.e. "The jacks are the most jealous cards in the deck," then your trick exists out on an island. It may still be a good, entertaining trick but it will be hard to make it resonant or relevant to the spectator. Here's a tip: If your premise involves anthropomorphizing something, you're probably on your way to Shit City presentationally.

So my process for creating a good presentation is to first find a familiar concept I can relate to the trick. Then I think of a way to make it interesting if the concept itself isn't particularly interesting. Then, if the concept itself isn't inherently unbelievable (like ghosts, or multi-dimensional travel), I ratchet up the impossibility of an effect until the premise it's based on is no longer believable as a means of accomplishing the effect. Why do I like an unbelievable premise so much? Because I know it's possible to present a trick that is so strong that, for a little while, people will believe the unbelievable. And to me that's much more fun than getting them to believe the believable.