The Describe or Die Maxim

This is our JAMM Muse for June, Karla, doing her best Annemann, minus the mustache. (Oh, we considered the mustache.)

When we shoot with the Muses, we like to perform the effect for them, if possible, so they have some idea of the context in which their photos will appear. With Karla it wasn't possible because we were shooting during the day and Good St. Anthony, the effect in the June issue that her picture goes along with, requires performing in a very dark room. So you either need a windowless room or to perform at night when you can get a room pretty dark.

So instead, my friend Andrew who was doing the photography, just described the trick to her. And as he was walking her through it, he was showing her the cards that were used in an earlier performance of the trick (the "guitar" ones that were used in the actual performance that was written up in the magazine, and used for illustration purposes). So he was just talking her through what a performance would be like, beat by beat. And he gets to the end and does the final reveal with the cards and Karla goes, "What! No way!" And covers her mouth with her hands.

To be clear (for those of you who don't subscribe and might not follow what I'm saying), she didn't actually see any magic or anything unusual. Her reaction was solely based on the description of how the effect would look if it was performed for her.

It wasn't as strong as if she'd actually seen the trick, of course (it's a crazy strong trick), but it was bigger than a lot of reactions you see online for people watching a "meaningless" card trick.

For a long time I've felt there is value in just describing tricks to laypeople, and it's something I do pretty frequently. The three main benefits I've received from this are:

1. They often interject with ideas that make the trick stronger or take it in a more interesting direction.

2. It's the easiest way to "test" a trick and to test the deceptiveness of a method. You don't need to actually perform the floating bill to know that one of the first thoughts people will have is that it's suspended from some kind of string that's hard to see. You can just describe a trick you're "working on" and then ask them how they think it might be done. 

So, with the floating bill, the conversation might go something like this. (I'm paraphrasing this from an actual conversation I did have on this effect many years ago.)

Me: I'm working on this new trick where I borrow a dollar, crumple it into a ball and make it float in the air.

Friend: Sounds cool.

Me: Do you have any idea how it could be done?

Friend: Not at all. Maybe you float it on a column of air or something. Like a hair dryer hidden somewhere.

Me: No, it's not like that. I could do it right here or on the street somewhere. If you saw me take a bill and make it float right in front of you, what would your first thought be on how I did it?

Friend: I don't know... I guess maybe that it's suspended from something I couldn't see, like fishing line or something? Unless it was really flying around like a bird.

Me: Oh, okay. No, it's not suspended from anything. But I can't really make it fly like a bird either. How could I convince you it's not suspended from something?

Friend: I guess If I could wave my hand over it. Or pull it out of the air myself.

So now I know—especially if I hear that from multiple people—that a good way to eliminate the idea of thread is to let them wave their hand over it. And maybe that's obvious, but perhaps if I hadn't asked I would have spent a bunch of time coming up with a way to pass a small hoop around the bill, when that's not the easiest way to show them something isn't suspended.

3. The third benefit I get from describing tricks to people is that it builds up anticipation. It can be interesting to people in a "peek backstage" sort of way, to hear about a trick and then a few months later actually see it come to fruition. Obviously you don't want to do this with a trick that has a particularly "surprising" climax, but for more direct tricks I think it's a good idea. And it can help disguise the method in some ways. If the bill is just hanging from a string, why did it take him 4 months to work out how to do it? There must be something more interesting going on.

Describing a trick is one step removed from performing it. But after the experience with describing the Good St. Anthony trick to Karla, I think there is possibly a benefit to being two steps removed from performing a trick. That is, I think it might be helpful to some of you to just think about describing tricks to people.

I've cured myself about 90% of "magician-centrism." I'm pretty good at not getting wrapped up in a clever method or an interesting sleight. But for a lot of magicians this is kind of a big issue. Well, actually, most magicians don't really care. They're in this hobby to entertain themselves, first and foremost. It's like collecting stamps or something. Sure, you might think, "I'm going to show people my stamps!" But that's not the reason you collect them. It's just your personal interest. And that's fine. If you just want to entertain yourself with this stuff, I don't have an issue with it.

But there are those of you who suffer from magician-centrism who want to redirect that energy towards the audience. And sometimes you'll have a trick that you really like and you might wonder, "Do I really like this trick because I think it will strongly affect people? Or do I like it because I like the structure and it feels good to perform and it's kind of clever?" I think a good way to strip a trick of its magician-centric elements is to just imagine describing the trick to someone as if it was performed for you.

"This guy showed me a trick where I cut some cards and then I counted the number of cards I cut. Then he showed me cards and I thought of a card at the number I cut. Then he dealt through the cards and stopped on the card I was thinking."

Yeah, I'd never bother describing that trick to people. It's just not interesting. You might think.

And yet thousands and thousands of magicians will perform this trick for people.

The Jerx Describe or Die Maxim: If it's not interesting enough to describe, it's not interesting enough to perform.

Don't you want to leave people with a memory they would want to tell others? Well, if you can't imagine yourself describing it, it's not the sort of thing that they would share with anyone else either.

It doesn't mean you need to throw out the whole trick. You can address this presentationally. The Engagement Ceremony style, for example, takes procedural tricks and puts the emphasis on the background of that procedure. You probably can't imagine describing a trick like, "I dealt cards and counted cards," etc., but you might describe an old fortune telling ritual you partook in (that involved dealing and counting cards), that had some eerie or coincidental outcome.

Thanks to Karla and her gleeful reaction to the description of Good St. Anthony in JAMM #5 for inspiring this post, as a good Muse should.