Recently, I've been thinking about the causes of magical effects. That is, the impetus behind what actually is producing that effect in the moment. This goes back to my anti-snapping post.
I wrote in that post:
If you ever do anything with a "snap" of the fingers, you've literally put the least possible effort into coming up with one of the more interesting aspects of a trick: the stimulus that makes the magic happen.
For the past few weeks I've been toying with this idea of putting the focus on the impetus (and not the effect) and have had pretty remarkable results from it.
I've been brainstorming and testing out a lot of different impetuses. And because "impetuses" doesn't really roll off the tongue, I'll refer to these as "imps." Which is some Max Maven-level wordplay because imps historically have been a motivating force behind magic.
So an "Imp" is something you do to make the magic happen.
A snap is an Imp, because it's the impetus behind the magic. "This card will rise to the top when I snap my fingers." It's just a hackneyed an uncreative impetus.
The Five Movements I wrote about in this post would be another Imp. "The magic happens when I do the five movements." That would be another physical impetus (like snapping) but one that has some element of mystery to it.
Using a magic word is a verbal impetus. Doing a half-mumbled verbal incantation might be a more interesting and mysterious verbal impetus.
If you're stuck on a presentation for an effect, I recommend you think instead about the impetus for the effect. Let's consider an example.
You have an effect. Let's say it's a ball that changes color and then grows in size.
The magician-centric presentation is, "Here is a ball. When I snap my fingers it will change color. When I say the magic word it will grow in size." The focus is on you and some half-hearted meaningless imps.
However, you're a more evolved magician now, so you think I'm going to give this a presentation that truly connects with people. But you're stuck... what's it going to be about? Maybe the ball represents something? Something that changes and grows? Cancer? Aw fuck, that's a terrible subject to build a trick around. Hmmm... maybe something about how we can all change and grow... something inspirational? Would something like that come off as anything other than trite garbage?
Thinking directly about the effect and trying to come up with a presentation that maps on top of the effect is probably not the best option.
Instead think in terms of impetus. The ball changes color and grows when...what? Maybe the ball changes color and grows when your spectator smells the scent of some black tulips you have in a vase on your counter. What might that be like? Your friend comes over, notices the flowers and comments on how strange they are. "Smell them," you say. She does and you give her a half smile. "Notice anything?" you ask. She looks at you quizzically. You look around the room for a bit. "Let me grab something," you say and pick up a ball from your kid's toys. You wave the ball slowly back and forth. "Anything unusual happening?" you ask again. She starts to say no, but then the ball changes color and a moment after that it grows in size.
"Don't worry," you say, "the tulips have a mild-hallucinogenic effect. But it only lasts a few seconds." And you toss the ball back in the toy chest.
Putting your effort into creating an interesting impetus for a trick is a short-cut towards creating unique experiences for your audience.
I think every amateur magician who actually performs frequently for people in their life has noticed the diminishing reactions their effects get over time. And that's because, often, our tricks deliver the same experience time after time. "He read my mind to know what picture I drew." "He read my mind to know what word I was thinking." "He read my mind to know what the code to my phone was." That's all pretty much the same thing to a person. We think it's different because we're fascinated by magic so we notice the subtleties, but to the layperson these are all nearly identical experiences. You can watch someone paint a mountain or a river or a forest, and those are all the same experience for you despite the different subject matter unless you yourself are enamored with painting.
The best way I've found to prevent the diminishing reactions is to differentiate the experiences. And the best way I've found to differentiate these experiences is to differentiate the impetuses for the effects.
This is a subject that genuinely fascinates me. I have a document with over 60 Imps on it right now in all sorts of different categories. (Physical Imps, Verbal Imps, Procedural Imps, Sense Imps, Mystery Imps, among others). And I've been performing as much as I can recently to try out some of them and it's been pretty amazing. Tricks that I formerly had no real presentation for—ones that I would just use the Peek Backstage style for—have new life in them when prefaced with an intriguing or mysterious imp.
That being said, I also realize this is probably of limited interest to a lot of you, so I'll try not to get too swept up in writing these things up for the site.
But I want to leave you with one of my favorite imps that I've been using whenever I can.
The Pulp Fringe-Imp
Think of all the self-working or mostly self-working card tricks that have been released in recent years—entire DVD sets devoted to these types of tricks. Pick any one you like. Ideally one with a lot of dealing and counting and other process, but one that still has an impressive outcome. The type of trick that often people think isn't "commercial" enough to perform for real people.
I've been using this a lot with John Bannon's Collusion. In that trick I would have you and your friend each deal down any number of cards you want in the deck to select any random cards, those random cards are used to create another card, and then the free numbers you chose are used to find the card we just created.
The Pulp Fringe-Imp is a way of taking effects like these, that often come off as procedural puzzles, and turning them into genuine mysteries.
Here's how it works.
I come into the room with a deck of cards and a small suitcase. I open the suitcase and a light from inside illuminates my face.
I have you go through the processes of the trick as I would normally, but as you do I am tapping and clicking on something inside the valise. When you deal down to your freely chosen number I do something in the suitcase (and when your friend does as well). Then when the random card is created I do something else in there. When you both name your numbers for the first time I do one final thing. Then I close up the suitcase, lock it, clap my hands together and say, "Okay, we're all set," and go onto the climax of the trick.
I never show you what's in the suitcase. I never say what's in it. I don't bring it up again. And I certainly don't suggest anything about how what I could be doing in there could affect the deck of cards and the actions that are going on with us.
This is a Mystery Imp. There is no straight-line explanation between what you're doing and what happens, but that's what makes it so intriguing.
As the name implies this was inspired by both Pulp Fiction (the glowing briefcase) and the show Fringe (where a typewriter was used to communicate with... aliens (?) I think, I don't really remember the details).
If you look in my suitcase I have two dollar store lights that I turn on before I enter the room and an old dial typewriter from the 1940s. It provide a great mysterious ratcheting and clacking noise, but you could have anything in there that makes some not clearly identifiable sound. I also have a wind-up Peepers Binoculars in there, just for the hell of it. Nobody ever sees what's inside. (My plan is to make a more portable version of this with a small pencil-box-sized box as well.)
The effect of this is very different than just doing the trick itself. In essence you're layering a mystery on top of a mystery. Not only, "How did he do that trick?" but also, "What's in the suitcase?" and, "How did whatever was happening in the suitcase—how could whatever was happening in the suitcase—affect what we were doing out here?" This is a related concept to The Gloaming and other things I've written about here.
Essentially it's about deepening the mystery. That sounds like a pretty abstract concept: "deepening the mystery." But here I'm suggesting a very practical method to do that by literally adding layers to the presentation. The impetus of the effect is usually a layer that is ignored or just given lip-service by magicians. "I wave my wand and magic happens, or whatever, who gives a shit." But it's the sort of thing that can be very compelling and really elevate the effect for the people you perform for.