Hooks are another set of tools that are available to the amateur performer but not the professional.
A "hook" is anything that causes the other person to (seemingly) initiate the interaction that will lead to the performance of a trick. They can be used with anyone, but they're especially valuable with people you haven't performed for in the past.
Let's put you in the spectator's position and take it out of the world of magic.
Imagine you went to visit a new friend and, at some point, out of the blue he asks, "Can I perform a Shakespearian monologue for you?" This could probably come off as a little weird and potentially a little off-putting. "Has he been planning on performing a Shakespearian monologue for me all day? Am I supposed to clap at the end? Is he expecting a certain response?"
If you don't know the person that well, and you don't have a history of watching this person rehearse theatrical monologues, it would likely feel a little odd.
Any time you do something that suggests, "I have been planning this interaction between us and you didn't know about it," that's a weird position to put someone else in.
Now, let's go back. This time you visit your new friend's place and while he's microwaving some pizza rolls you pick up a book of Shakespeare off the coffee table.
"Are you reading Shakespeare?" you ask.
"Oh, no," he says. "Well, not really. I have to memorize a monologue for an audition I'm working on."
"What's the monologue?"
"It's from Julius Caesar. Actually, would it be okay if I run it by you? I need to practice performing it in front of real people."
That's going to come off as a much more natural interaction than him just coming out and asking to perform the monologue. From your perspective, you're the one who started the two of you down this road by mentioning the book in the first place. You don't feel ambushed or set-up because you started it.
In this case, the book on the coffee table is the "hook."
I think that "set-up" feeling can be especially strong with magic because, so often, people see magic as a test of their intelligence. A hook can be a way to circumvent them having their guard up because it makes the interaction seem less planned.
Once people know me, and know what they're in for when I show them a trick, then a hook's value is more about the fluidity of getting into the trick itself. But with a first-time spectator, the benefit of the hook is to put them at ease by seemingly allowing the interaction to commence based on something they've said or done.
Examples of Hooks in Magic
I'll list three here today, but the number of hooks are endless. (I have a couple hundred that I've come up with for myself at this point.) There are verbal hooks, story hooks, style hooks, object hooks, and a bunch of other categories I've come up with since I started thinking about this subject.
Let's start with the most obvious...
A Deck of Cards
A deck of playing cards can be an easy, obvious hook to initiate a magic performance.
In fact, it is perhaps too obvious. If you take a seat at a bar and pull out a deck of cards and set it in front of you, that's not really a hook. That's just a blatant attempt to get someone to interact with you in regards to this object you've brought out.
But in other situations it can be a more subtle cue to someone to question why you have it. I write a lot in coffee shops and often have a deck of cards with me because of what I'm writing. They might just be at my side while I write, or in a pile with other objects. And I can't tell you how many times someone has asked why I have cards with me. In fact, there have been multiple occasions where someone says, "Oh, do you know any card tricks!" (I'm always like, "Uhm...hmmm...my grandpa did teach me one once. How did that go? Let me think...." Then I go on to blow their mind with a genuine miracle.)
In the JAMM #1, in the article, She's Gotta Have It (which you should read if this subject is of interest to you) I make the point that if you go somewhere and pull out a deck of cards and set it on the table, you look like someone who's waiting for someone to ask him why he has a deck of cards—it's a little needy. But if you pull out a deck of cards, and your wallet, and your keys, and set them on the table; then you look like someone who has just emptied his pockets for the sake of comfort. Then the question isn't, "What does this guy want to show me with that deck of cards?" but, "Why is he carrying cards with him?" That may seem like a subtle difference, but I think it's one people can feel. Pulling out a deck of cards by itself and setting it on the table is an initial offering. But if it's just an object among others in the vicinity then it's the person who asks, "Why do you have a deck of cards with you?" who is making the initial offering.
I have a number of different ideas for "picture hooks." This one comes from Chris, the police detective I wrote about in this post.
Because of some interoffice shenanigans at work, Chris had put a single framed photo on his desk. It was a picture of Dai Vernon. This is from Chris' email to me...
Because it is such a unique picture to have framed, and the only thing on the desk, people would ask who it was, why did I have it, etc. After a while I started answering, “Oh, he’s an old mentor of mine” which would lead to the next question, which was, of course, “What type of mentor?” To which I would absentmindedly answer, sleight of hand. Which of course lead to the question, "Would you show me something?” which of course I would.
I think that's a great idea. If I still worked in an office, I'd use it. As it is, I've taken a photo of an old man and stuck it to my refrigerator. It's next to some other family photos but the old man is obviously out of place. The other day a guy was over my place to fix my furnace and asked if the picture was of my grandfather. I said no, it's an old mentor of mine. Which eventually transitioned into me showing him a trick. Now, normally I would never show the guy who was going to fix my furnace a trick. But this hook is so strong and the path from "who is this?" to "can I see a trick?" is essentially automatic so as soon as he mentioned the picture I started planning what I would show him.
As I said, pictures make great hooks. And this one is especially good because the concept of a "mentor" that taught you magic is an inherently interesting thing.
Books make great hooks. And not just because that's fun to say, but because books are something you can carry with you and allow you to put essentially any subject into play.
Let me take a step back. I tend to view creating an experience from an effect like setting up dominos to fall.
So let's say I have some slates that I can make writing appear on. That trick, from showing the slates blank, to making the writing appear, is a certain segment of dominos falling over. If you walked out and said, "Look, there's nothing on the slates. Now I put them together. Now there is a word on the slates." You would have successfully knocked over the dominos of the trick itself in its most basic form.
What the best magicians in the word do is they set up a series of dominos before the dominos of the trick itself. These are dominos that put the trick in some context. These are the dominos of dimming the lights and lighting a candle and having a ceremony where you reach out to some dead entity. And these dominos all fall and lead into the dominos of you showing the slates blank and the word appearing.
Now, when you add a hook to your presentation, what you're doing is just adding a couple more dominos to the beginning of your row of dominos. And you're essentially going to set a trap to get the audience to push the first domino themselves.
The Hook --> The Story (presentation) --> The Effect
Without a hook, the slate trick begins with you pushing the first domino. You say, "Do you think it's possible to communicate with the dead?" That's certainly a fascinating topic, but it's still you getting things in motion. And that's always going to feel much more planned and set-up than if you can goad them into toppling over that first domino.
As I said, books are great for that because they allow you to introduce any topic you want into the equation. I especially like old books and weird books.
One of my favorites is this one that was given to me by an ex-girlfriend.
If that's on your coffee table, or near you while you're doing some writing at a cafe, it's the type of thing that will draw a comment or a joke or a question. And if you're just like, "I don't know. I found it at this book sale and I thought it would be interesting to read." And then you go back and forth a little with the person, and then, almost as an afterthought, you say, "Actually... do you want to see something strange?" And then you go into this weird ritual you supposedly learned from the book. That feels much different and much more natural than you approaching someone cold or bringing up the subject up out of nowhere.