Transgressive Anagrams

[See update at the end of this post.]

For me, this concept I'm about to explain has been an evolution in my thoughts as far as how to approach the presentation of progressive anagrams/branching anagrams. (If you're not already familiar with PAs, this will make no sense to you.) It has allowed me to have a lot more confidence with progressive anagrams, and allowed me to do effects that are much more interesting to me and to my audience than standard PA effects are. It's not really a change in technique, it's a change in approach and intent. 

While I wouldn't be surprised if others had looked at PAs from this angle, it apparently didn't catch on because I haven't seen them addressed from this perspective in the material I've read. I also wouldn't be surprised if others hadn't pursued this angle in the past because it's somewhat counterintuitive. That being said, it is now the focus of how I attack progressive anagrams.

The idea behind the Transgressive Anagram technique is this notion: the best thing that can happen with a progressive anagram is when you're able to transgress beyond the naming of letters to something more compelling.

Instead of looking at progressive anagrams as a type of effect, lets look at them as a tool for divining information. In this way we can get around what will be the biggest stumbling block for understanding what I'm proposing. That stumbling block is the thinking that the best case scenario with a PA is when you name all the letters without missing any. The truth is that is the best case scenario for one type of effect. An effect that is probably one of the less interesting ones you can utilize a PA for.

With the Transgressive Anagram, the best case scenario is actually two immediate wrong letters. And why is that? Because now you know the word they're thinking of without apparently knowing anything. Now, that's bad if you're stuck in the presentation of being the man who knows letters in the word someone is thinking of. But it's really, really good if you're someone who is willing to pivot into a new effect entirely. After two wrong letters early on, it's perfectly reasonable to say, "Hmm... this isn't working. Let's try something else." And if you do something interesting, that letter guessing thing is a distant memory. 

Here's part of why the Transgressive approach is so powerful. In general, people don't equate denying your guesses with giving you information. Even though they're technically the same thing. For example, let's imagine you, Tom, and I are all friends. Tom is going to cook me a meal for my birthday, but he won't tell me what he's making. I'm pestering Tom to find out what it is. "Is it pizza?" I ask. He tells me it's not. "It's probably some type of seafood," I say.

"Nope. You're way off," Tom says.

Later that night you meet up with Tom to discuss the plans for my birthday dinner. "Does Andy know what you're making for dinner?" you ask.

"He has no idea," Tom says.

What Tom doesn't say is this: "He knows I'm not making pizza or seafood."

That's just not the way most people think. If you break it down for them logically they understand that knowing something isn't true is the flip-side to knowing something that is true, but that's not the natural way people look at things. 

So, let's cycle back to a progressive anagram that is constructed so you know what they're thinking after two NOs. If you get those NOs early enough, then you can skip out on the "naming the letters" process without apparently having gained much information. 

Before we get to the details of the process. Let's take a look at how this might play out in the real world. I'll use Atlas Brooking's superhero anagram for an example since it's widely known. If you're not familiar with Atlas' work on anagrams you will want to check out his Penguin Live lecture and his book The Prodigal.

Traditional Progressive Anagram

Performer: I'm seeing an "A."
Spectator: No. No A.
Performer: Oh... I see what's happened. The top of what I thought was an A is actually rounder. The letter is an R. There's an R there, yes?
Spectator: Yes.
Performer: And an I.
Spectator: No.
Performer: Are you sure? I'm seeing a vertical line. Oh... actually that might the base of a T. I'm getting a T. And an O. Are you thinking of Thor?
Spectator: That's correct.

Transgressive Anagram

I'm seeing an A.
Spectator: No.
Performer: Ooookay... hmmm. It could be an R.
Spectator: Yes.
Performer: And an I.
Spectator: No.
Performer: What the... seriously? Is there a G maybe? Never mind. Screw it. This isn't working. Let's try something more fun. You seem like more of a visual person. I tend to think in words but I'm betting you think more in pictures. So I want you to imagine this superhero, and if there's some kind of classic pose or move they're associated with, or something they're known for, I want you to try and project that to me.

[The performer stands about 10 feet away, bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet, with the rest of his body hanging loosely, ragdoll-ish. For a few moments, nothing happens.]

Performer: Seriously though, I want you to imagine that hero—their presence—entering me. Really send it [A few seconds pass.] It won't work if--

[The performer's body jerks to attention. He does a jump and lands in a superhero three-point pose, pounding down with his right forearm as if he holds something in that hand. This is like a brief momentary spasm and then it's over. The performer sits loosely on the ground, laughing.]

Performer: AAAAHHH-hahahaha. That was amazing. [He stands up.] It's the dude. The guy with the hammer. [He snaps rapidly with both hands as if trying to remember the name.] The god guy.
Spectator: Thor.
Performer: Thor!

How do you think a spectator will remember that experience? Will they think, "He knew I was thinking of Thor because he knew there was an R in the name." Will they even remember the uninteresting, failed letter-guessing portion?

This is the Transgressive Anagram. Whenever possible, using the progressive anagram as a mental peek to get the word and move on rather than making it the process of the effect itself. 

Let's talk more about the actual workings...

The Transgressive Anagram is not just about transitioning the effect if you get a couple of NOs in a row. That's something people do frequently. Instead it's about setting up your presentation of the PA in a way which makes it natural and forgettable if you ditch it. The goal of the TA is to get out of the PA effect. The fallback—if it's not possible to get out—is to then do a more standard PA effect. If you think naming letters is already the most interesting way you have to reveal information, then there's no use performing the Transgressive Anagram. Just follow the rules of the standard PA.

This started because I was doing the astrology divination a lot. And I realized I was getting a better response when the letter portion failed early on than I was if it went well all the way through. When it failed early on I was in a position where I knew their sign, but they didn't know that yet. So I would act like we were going to try something completely different, and then do whatever I wanted. Something interesting. Something that grabs people's attention more than naming letters does. So I might ask them to step outside with me, close their eyes and turn their body slowly, stopping wherever they wanted. Then I would say, "Okay, you were drawn to this direction." I'd look off into that area of the night sky. "Hmmm... okay... at this time of the year that's going to be the area of the archer. You're a sagittarius." And they'd flip out. (It's pretty safe to fake where the stars are. Oddly enough, people who are interested in astrology have little interest in astronomy.) Then they'd go back into the bar and be like, "He could tell my zodiac sign by what part of the sky my body was drawn to!"  

They didn't say, "First he guessed some letters. That didn't really work out. So we went outside and he was able to figure it out." The letter part is a non-event. When they "remember the hits and forget the misses," I think a good portion of them forget the letter part altogether. Or they just give it no weight. So while they may not forget it immediately, it's something they will certainly forget months down the road looking back on this.

The Rules to the Transgressive Anagram

The whole idea behind the structure of the TA is to get you out of the PA early without drawing too much attention to itself. You can't speak with a lot of authority and justify your misses early on or else it will make no sense to abandon the effect. So the rules below—which are in contrast to much of what is taught with modern PAs—are designed to de-emphasize the first four guesses in the PA. 

For our purposes we'll break the PAs up into the first four letters, and all the letters that come after.

1. Never justify any misses in the first four letters.
2. No matter where your first miss occurs, you brush past it with a mildly confused "Huh...Okay."
2. Don't speak with certainty and authority unless and until you've gotten past the four letter mark.
3. If you get two misses within the first four letters, abort the process. Say it's "not working," and move onto something intrinsically more interesting where you can reveal the information you now know.

That's our goal. To get out of this letter naming process and into something more fun. You should be able to do this just under half the time within the first four letters of a normal sized PA. I will, in fact, sabotage the PA to get out of it if I know the word in under four letters and and still haven't gotten two misses. For example, in the superhero anagram you will know Daredevil after three letters: one right, one wrong, and one right again. Instead of just listing off the rest of the letters in Daredevil, I will purposely get the next letter wrong. That puts me at 50% and it makes sense for me to say, "Oh, this isn't really working. Let's try something else." (Given the option between continuing to spell out letters or "absorbing" the spirit of the superhero they're mentally sending me, and then acting like I'm blind and tripping over my sofa, I will go with the latter 100% of the time.)

If you haven't figured out what their word is by the fourth letter, then you're too committed to back out and say it "not working" because, by definition, you will have only missed one letter at most by that point. So instead we're going to do our fall back effect which is the standard PA. 

You see, you're not losing anything by hoping to get out of this via the Transgressive Anagram, you're just putting yourself in a position to do something more interesting. You're only gaining something. That "best case scenario" of nailing every letter is already lost to you at that point. The idea is to transform a scenario with multiple early misses into its own best case scenario.

Let's say we don't get two misses in the first four, so we're stuck in the PA. Here is how I personally handle the possible situations going forward. 

Actually, before I get into that, one note about justifications. I don't try to overly justify misses. Sometimes it can come off a little like you're covering your ass. "Ah, yes. Not an M, but an N." I think for some audience members (not all) that comes off as a little phony. And I think you might be better off leaving things a little open-ended instead of immediately trying to cover your tracks and offering something too pat. Your experience may be different. 

This is how I handle the three potential PA situations assuming I don't get out of the PA within the first four letters.

First Possibility - I get two misses total. One in the first four letters, and one after that.

After the first miss my reaction is slight confusion, but I immediately press on. I just say something like, "Hmmm...okay." Upon the second miss I will try and justify my mistake. But I act as if it's for my own benefit than for the spectator's. And I keep it rather abstract. I think you're better off not knowing exactly what the issue is but apparently working it out later on. For example:

Performer: There's an A.
Spectator: No.
Performer: Hmmm... really? Okay, this might not work. I'm getting an R.
Spectator: Yes.
Performer: And an I.
Spectator: Uhm... yes.
Performer: An E.
Spectator: Uh-huh.
Performer: I'm seeing an H.
Spectator: No
Performer: [Second miss, now an implied justification.] You're sure? That's what I'm getting. Wait... are you seeing these in capital or lower case letters? Or some kind of mixture? [Regardless of what they answer.] Oh, I thought I mentioned to think in upper case [or whatever the opposite of what they say is]. Ooh! That's why the first one was off. Okay, okay.

[Here you're reaching back to imply that that's why that first letter was wrong too. You were anticipating the letters coming through in a different manner. Now I ask for a slight change of procedure. I ask them to imagine the whole word written out in front of them and I spell it directly. Now that we're on the same page it makes sense to finish it off quickly.]

Performer: See your whole word floating in the air in front of you. All capital letters. [I hold my hands out to indicate the area he is to picture it in.] Okay, first letter is an E. Sorry no. I'm looking at it backwards. W-O-L-V-E-R... Wolverine. You're thinking of Wolverine.

Second Possibility - I get two misses total. Both after the first four letters.

Here you've just rattled off four or five letters correctly then you get a couple wrong in quick succession. It doesn't make sense to try and justify those misses when you had been so clear and decisive on things up until that point. Instead I will shift the blame to them a little. 

[First miss] "Hmm... okay."
[Second miss] "Ah, you're losing focus. Let's switch it up."

The truth is, the longer someone concentrates on something the likelier they are to lose focus. So telling them they're concentrating less is something I think most people would see as true. It's almost a minor "hit." Then I will change the procedure so I'm making physical contact with the spectator and I'm getting the rest of the word by some physical means. This is not the same as the TA procedure.

TA Procedure = "That didn't work. Let's try something completely different."
This Procedure = "This has stopped working. Let's try a different technique to finish what we started."

Third Possibility - I get no misses or one miss.

I treat both of these the same, as, essentially, a perfect demonstration of pulling the letters from their mind. Give them the chance to forget or ignore the miss instead of feeling the need to justify it. Rattling off all the letters with one imperfection is close enough. It's not going to present a solution to the spectator. If one were to ever ask after a performance about the one misstep, then I'd make up some justification on the spot. "Why did I guess what? B? Did I say B? I have no idea. I kind of zone out during it and just say what I see. I could have misread something or sometimes letters get flipped."

People who teach progressive anagrams will tell you that you need to speak with confidence to fool people with the trick. You can't act like you're asking, you need to make it seem like you're telling them the letters that are there. That sort of confidence would be incongruous with the TA procedure where you're trying to move away from that part of the process as being a failure. So for our first four letters we don't act overly confident and don't justify things. We just say, "I see a B. I see an A." Etc. You might think this will weaken the effect if we have to stay in the PA past the first four letters. It doesn't and here's why: Only one of three things can happen with these first four letters.

1. You get two letters wrong. In which case you're bailing on the procedure anyway and confidence would draw unnecessary focus on a process you want forgotten.
2. You get all the letters right. In which case acting like you're confident is unnecessary. Your swift and accurate naming of four letters right off the bat is a demonstration of your confidence.
3. You get one letter wrong. Remember your reaction to your first miss is just a quick, mildly-confused "Hmm... okay." This can be seen in two lights depending on how the trick progresses. It can be seen as someone trying and failing at something. Or it can be seen as someone confident enough in what they're doing that they're not going to flip out over one misstep. Depending on where the trick goes after that miss, their interpretation of your reaction to that miss will be whatever seems more appropriate.

After you've made it past the first four letters, then you can ratchet up your confidence for the rest of the PA.

To reiterate, the Transgressive Anagram is an approach to the Progressive Anagram technique that allows you to do a hardcore bail on the procedure in what is usually seen as the worst-case scenario (multiple incorrect letters early on in the procedure). By making the process unremarkable—something where you had at best a couple lucky guesses—you are giving it the chance to be forgotten about. The letter-guessing process will get lost in the shadow of the more interesting effect you erect instead. 

With a traditional PA you will have a couple mistakes (or guesses that need justification/clarification) within the first four letters almost half the time. Instead of pushing forward (which can be seen as an admission that even your wrong letters are helping you proceed), you will act like a normal human who is hitting 50% on his guesses and say, "Fuck this. Let's try something different."


  • From the anagrams I've worked on and used (which are not overly long), I've found that you should be able to either transgress out of the PA or complete it with one or fewer mistakes about 75% of the time. The other 25% of the time requires a little more dancing. 
  • Before this concept really unravelled for me, I used a similar idea in my effect Pale Horse and Rider from The Jerx, Volume One. That effect is all about turning weaknesses into strengths. The TA is all about that too. Taking the weakest scenario in a PA and making it the strongest.
  • While I tend to think and write with the amateur performer in mind, this makes sense for the professional too. Perhaps you sheepishly begin to send someone back to the seat after the initial failure. Then you change your mind and try to do something completely different.
  • If you transgress out of the PA, then revealing the superhero (or anything) by acting as if you can't remember his name (i.e., "Uhm... whatshisface... the Robert Downey Jr., dude.") is a nice, subtle convincer that you were picking up on something other than letters of the character's name.
  • Why did I use 9/11 hijackers for my trick Pale Horse and Rider? Three reasons. One is I needed them to think of a dead person for the trick. The second is that "Who is your favorite 9/11 hijacker" is a particularly stupid question I enjoy asking. The third is this cheeky bit of bullshit: No one knows the names of all but a couple of them. So I just made up names that sounded right and also made the anagram super easy. I made up a fake wikipedia page screenshot. And now they can pick any of them off the list. You could probably do something similar and less offensive by making up a list of high school friends or distant relatives or something.

UPDATE: I'm happy to have received a lot of positive feedback on this idea because as I was writing it I had no idea if it was making sense. I expected to be dealing with a lot of emails that said, "No, no, Andy. You WANT to get all the letters right." And what I spent 20 paragraphs trying to explain would have been for naught. 

But people seem to be on board. So much so that a few people have suggested the idea that maybe there's some way to re-construct a PA in order to get more NOs so you can move on to something else. I considered the same thing too and I was going to make Michael Weber figure it out for me because it's the type of logic-based method I don't excel at wrapping my head around. But after considering it, I don't really believe it's possible. Every outcome of a PA needs a unique string of responses from the spectator. And no string of responses can be an extension of another one. In other words, you can't have NO-NO lead to an outcome and have NO-NO-YES lead to an outcome as well. You would never get to NO-NO-YES, because you would have stopped at NO-NO. So you can't really front-load a lot of NO responses for the purpose of bailing on the anagram and finding out the word quickly.

I mean, what you could do is create some kind of reverse progressive anagram (henceforth known as a Regressive Anagram). Which means you'd know what the word was after two YESs. Now, if the goal was just to get more NOs than YESs, this would be a smart thing to do. But the goal with the Transgressive Anagram is not to get a lot of NOs, it's to get two NOs quickly and move on. A reverse anagram wouldn't accomplish this. Instead you'd have lots of long strings of NOs, often with you bailing on the procedure after the 6th or 7th letter. Sometimes after you finally got a yes. It wouldn't really make sense. And, in fact, you would essentially eliminate the outcome you want: a short, unsuccessful, unmemorable letter guessing sequence.

I bet there is some value in a Regressive Anagram, but not for the TA approach. I'm not sure what it would be.... Maybe some kind of comedy presentation. You walk on stage with a 6-foot tall trophy and a certificate of achievement and a big smile on your face. "Ladies and gentlemen... bask in my presence. You're looking at the world's worst hangman player. Officially recognized by the United Hangman Organization. Never got more than two letters right in my life. I'm not trying to brag or nothing." Then you go on to play a game of hangman. After at most two right letters, you know which letters to avoid. You're drawing every last body part until you're down to drawing individual pubes sprouting from his crotch.

"Is there a B?" No. "Is there a D?" No. "Is there an L?" No. "Is there a U?" No. "Is there an X?" No. "Is there a G?" No. "Is there an M?" No. 

That could make for a kind of funny back and forth. And if you had an index system of the possible outcomes then you could end the effect with a genuine surprise where there is some sort of natural prediction that matches up with the spectators mentally selected word. Maybe they're thinking of the word "canoe" and you say, "Dammit, I should have known. That's exactly the word I played today when the president of the United Hangman Organization beat me at the game." And you turn over your certificate of achievement and there is a completed Hangman game drawn on the back for the word "Canoe."