The Hidden Benefit of the Unbelievable Premise

I've written before about how I prefer to present tricks with unbelievable implied methods. That is to say, the premise of the effect—what's causing the effect—not the actual method itself. I've spelled this out most clearly in this post, in the section The Sealed Room With the Little Door. 

I'm sure I went through a period, probably soon after Derren Brown came on the scene, where I thought it would be cool if people believed I was doing these things for real. That I was truly controlling their mind or reading their body language or something like that. But that didn't last too long for me. I think it's a style that obviously works amazingly well for Derren, but the idea that it could just work equally well for any other idiot who adopted it is kind of dismissive of everything uniquely "Derren" that he brings to the table. And I think it's a style that falls horribly flat for the amateur performer. "Oh, look. Apparently Timmy is now a mental mastermind. The kid who swallowed a roll of pennies to hear them jangle in his stomach is now able to tell me what memory I'm concentrating on based on my micro-expressions. Okay. Sure." I mean, if you're doing it as a goof, that's fine. But I've only ever seen people play it straight.

I'm at the point where I'm disappointed if people believe what I'm telling them. Sometimes when I'm with someone who's a little... spacey... what I consider a fantastical premise, she might think has some validity. "Of course you could tell the emotion I was concentrating on by reading my aura," she'll say, or words to that effect. So I'm constantly pushing my effects into weirder and weirder directions because I don't want them to be believed. 

But here's a dirty secret. Even if you do want people to believe you have some special powers, you're better off not saying, "I'm psychic." That's just a challenge to people. You're better off giving it some absurd explanation and then letting people back themselves into the idea that maybe it's something "real." On more than a few occasions I've heard someone say—either directly to me or second-hand—"Well, yeah, no shit, obviously he wasn't serious when he said he could do what he did because he had a blood transfusion from a werewolf. But how does he do it? Is he hiding something?" Not in those exact words, of course. But the notion that maybe there was something legitimately unnatural going on, and I was hiding it behind a bogus explanation, is something that comes up. It's not my intention to create this interpretation of events, but I'm fine with this jumble of truth and fiction and I can appreciate all the different layers of reality going on. I'm doing something fake and saying that it's real, but the thing I'm claiming is real sounds so obviously unreal that maybe I'm just hiding something real behind the guise of something unreal.

One huge hidden benefit of unbelievable premises, is that they can be used to disguise a method. And this is something I use all the time. I'll give you a simple example. Let's say we're at the public library. It's a big brightly lit place. I decide I'm going to float a dollar for you. I want to get into the shadows to hide the thread better so I tell you to follow me over to the corner (where it's not so bright). Then I levitate the bill (via "magic" or "mind power"). 

This is, possibly, a fine trick. But what you'll find when you perform for the same people over and over is that, while they may not be able to deconstruct your tricks, they can often become very good at spotting unjustified actions. "Why did he pick up the deck just to set it down again?" "Why did he have me put two coins in my hand in order to vanish one?" Or, as in the example above, "Why did he bring me over to this corner to float a bill?" These are all unnecessary expenditures of energy. And sometimes spectators can follow that thread of suspicion to at least a partial method. Some people are just naturally attuned to spot inconsistencies, and some people just become more relaxed the more often they're put in the position of being a spectator. Just as you become more comfortable performing the more you do it, people become more comfortable watching magic the more they do it. And that can cause them to question things that someone who is less comfortable watching magic will let slide. This is an issue the amateur performer has that pros encounter less. 

But here's where the unbelievable premise comes into play. If you make that questionable action part of an unbelievable premise, then it becomes not only justified, but it becomes dismissed as anything of consequence. They just see it as part of the fiction of the presentation; part of the thing they can ignore if they're looking for clues to the "reality" of what's going on. It's like sneaking out a prisoner in a load of laundry. 

Let's go back to the library. Now instead of dragging you to the corner for no reason to float a bill, I tell you to come over by biographies (that same darkened corner). "There's a lot of spiritual energy here because of the old books documenting the long dead." I have you choose a book and we tear a dollar sized chunk out of one the blank pages in the back (I'll make a donation to the library to cover it). We harness the spiritual energy and it begins to float. 

Now you don't question why we came to this part of the library to float a piece of paper. Instead you dismiss it as being part of the story I was establishing. If your intention is to unravel the trick, I've snuck part of the method past you disguised as presentation. 

In his review of JV1, Jamy Swiss said the presentation for The Miracle Worker (which was the updated version of this post) "might well amount to the most perfect misdirection for a Center Tear that you have ever encountered." And why? Because it adds a number of layers to the handling of a center tear that makes it easier (you can do it slowly, and you can take as much time as you want staring at the paper), but it disguises those layers in presentation. 

Now, I'm never suggesting people adopt the style I use. If you want people to think you're the real deal, that's cool with me (even if I think that's a psychological disorder). I'm just pointing out one of the not-so-obvious benefits of a presentation that provides an unbelievable context for a trick. When I have an effect with a weakness or a certain performing condition that needs to be met, I will always try and incorporate those things into such a presentation. 

And unfortunately, you can't hide your method in presentation if you want your premise to be taken as real. That does the exact opposite. It shines a spotlight on those questionable moments. You're opening your premise to scrutiny, and hence your method to more scrutiny.


If you own Marc Kerstein's WikiTest, I'd like to show you how I use this concept with that effect. My use of that app is just slightly different in effect, method, and presentation and it leaves a little memento of the effect at the end—not a "souvenir" because I don't expect anyone to keep it— but just an interesting physical reminder of what has happened. Don't get me wrong, WikiTest is pretty much perfect as is. But I like the presentation I've come up with because it fits my style, addresses a potential weakness in method, and allows for something a little different than presenting it as a mind-reading demonstration. 

If you're interested, I'll be making my handling available via a free pdf download for owners of the effect on this site next Tuesday.