The Great X-Communication/The Jerx/My Email Crossover Post

Oooh, a crossover post! Exciting. This is going to be like the time Archie met Predator, or Charles Barkley met Godzilla.

Except it's the blog I write meeting the newsletter I write meeting an email I wrote.

It starts with this post from a while ago where I was asked to differentiate a good unbelievable premise from a bad one. I encouraged him to ask the question, "Is this a thing?" in regards to his premises. If it's a concept that exists in the real world then you're probably on the right track.

In the past few months I've had some people email and say they don't understand what I'm saying, so I probably didn't explain it well. What follows is an excerpt from X-Communication #5 where I expand on the idea, and an email back and forth with a reader where we hash out the concept as well.

You might already be completely on board with this notion, or you might completely understand my position but disagree with it. If that's the case, you won't necessarily get much out of this post. But I'm not writing this just for you, understand? In a couple hundred years when archaeologists find my laptop and uncover these writings (how do internet work?), I want to make sure this point is clear because for me it has been one of the most useful concepts in finding premises that the type of people I perform for (reasonably intelligent adults) find interesting.

From X-Communcation #5, March 2016

Familiarity of cause:

I tried to outline this concept in an old blog post that encouraged you to ask “Is this a thing?” when considering the cause of your effects. Audiences are more engaged in effects where the supposed cause is something they were familiar with before the start of your effect. How is this bill levitating? Is it mass hypnosis? Is it a manipulation of gravitational force? Is it an invisible friend you had since you were a child who is actually real and just picked the bill up off the table? These are all unbelievable ideas, but they’re not unfamiliar ideas, so they are all potentially good premises. But if you say, “The bill is floating because I’ve hypnotized George Washington into thinking he’s a bird,” that’s not going to resonate with anyone. You don’t hypnotize inanimate objects. And you might say, “Well, magicians don’t actually say stuff like that,” but yes they do all the time. I’ve seen magician’s “hypnotize” a deck of cards so it balances on their fingers; have “leader” aces cause the other aces to join them; make “jealous” cards turn green on the back; say encouraging things to cause a card to rise from the deck. While hypnotism, leadership, jealousy, and encouragement are all concepts people are familiar with, they are not familiar with them applying to objects. So it makes for bad presentation unless you perform solely for children.

You could argue, “But this is just a metaphor. No one thinks the ace is really the leader ace. I’m just using that language to clarify the effect.” Yeah, I get that. And so does your audience. They understand that your magic is just a trifle with no relationship to the real world so you have to give it some meaning in a symbolic way because it has no inherent meaning. It’s like teaching someone to tie a tie: “The rabbit goes around the tree and then under the log....” You’re trying to give context to something that is otherwise dull and meaningless. You should really question your material if it needs the context we give to the dull and meaningless. 

Email correspondence from November 18, 2015

From: B--

You write:

"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?""

I dig the simplicity, but the examples you gave confused me.

Time travel is a thing, but "ropes traveling through time" is not a thing. How do I know when to apply the rule?

Or what about whispering decks? Sure they're not a thing but "whispering information" IS a thing. If applying the concept of "ghost" to a floating bill makes for a good premise, why would applying "whisper" to a card divination be any different?

To: B--

The ropes don't travel through time. The magician travels through time to alter the condition of the ropes in the future. People traveling through time to alter the current situation is a thing.

Whispering decks are not a thing. Inanimate objects don't whisper. 

You're not applying the concept of ghosts to a floating bill. You're saying a ghost is causing the bill to float. A spirit being trapped in an object and moving it is a concept that exists in popular culture.

If we lived in a world where one of our popular delusions was that objects whispered in our ears, then that would be a fine premise. But we don't, so it's a made up magic premise. 

From: B--

But inanimate objects whisper, talk, and are anthropomorphized all the time in popular culture! Think about movies like Toy Story. Wall-E. And if we go further back, we have talking sticks in the bible, whispering pots in Anderson's myths. Etc.

People traveling through time is a trope, sure. But so are OBJECTS traveling through time. Time machines. Swords. Treasure. So the distinction isn't clear to me.

I think maybe the question isn't "is it a real thing" but rather "how can we MAKE IT a real thing".

To: B--

If you want to say you sent the rope back through time, that's fine with me too. I just think it's less interesting than saying you went back through time.

The purpose of that post was to discuss what types of premises I believe audiences have an easier time connecting with. And my point is that it's probably more engaging for an audience when the premise is something relatable (albeit unbelievable). 

How was this amazing thing accomplished?

  • Time travel
  • Ghosts
  • ESP
  • Coincidence
  • The deck talked to me

The first four are all rich subjects that can be mined for interesting presentational angles. The fifth is not.

If your audience relates to whispering sticks from the bible, then that's perfectly in line with my point. Tell them your deck of cards was crafted from that stick in the bible. Talky Bible Stick is my favorite bible character. My friends don't know that much about the bible unfortunately.

Anthropomorphizing things is what we do to explain to children. And it's a big part of the reason why magic often comes off as being for children and magician's come off as being condescending.

From: B--

Assuming by "good premise" you mean interesting and compelling (is that a fair interpretation?), the problem with a whispering deck isn't that "whispering things" aren't real, it's that it's a boring ass premise. And I totally agree, that WE traveling through time is better than a rope traveling through time, and a ghost is more compelling than a whispering deck.

I dig that. So instead of:

"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?"

we get:
"Is this [the most interesting type] of thing?"

Which means what makes a good (i.e. compelling/interesting) premise good is that it is compelling/interesting (i.e. good). Which kinda doesn't say anything.

What I dig is the idea of the premises being UNBELIEVABLE. Because that's TOTALLY contrary to the way so many "popular" performers are trying to convey their magic.

To: B--

In regards to that blog post it was just a matter of trying to answer the reader's question, "How do I differentiate a good unbelievable premise from a bad unbelievable premise." And my answer is that if that premise is a concept that already exists, then it has the potential to be a good premise because it's a concept an audience can relate to and will possibly hook them in some way that you can't even plan for.

As I've stated in some other post, my favorite reaction is when a spectator will find themselves, however briefly, believing something unbelievable. The jack got angry and changed from blue to red is not a premise that people could even consider buying into for a moment. Cards don't get angry. Yes, anger exists. And humans and other animals may turn red. But that doesn't explain how this card changed.