What a magic presentation comes down to, essentially, is cause and effect, i.e., what is the cause of the magical effect?
Cause and Effect = The Narrative = Your Presentation
These are all the same thing.
Here are what I consider to be the five varieties of cause and effect in magic.
No Cause and Effect
No Cause and Effect is exactly what it sounds like. There is no cause given, we just see the effect. The rope is cut into three pieces and then it's whole again. The rubber bands are linked and now they're unlinked. There's no dove in the pan and then...well, F me... there's a dove in the pan!
"No Cause" also includes things like snapping your fingers, waving a wand, "concentrating," or any other supposed cause that a modern audience will just ignore.
Lip Service Cause and Effect
For my non-English speaking readers, "lip service" is when you say something, but you don't really back it up with your actions. Lip Service Cause and Effect is when you just toss out a cause, but it's not really the focus of your presentation.
There are two types of lip service cause and effect.
Lip Service C&E Type 1 - The Non-Sequitur Cause and Effect
In Pit Hartling's trick, Unforgettable, from his book, Card Fictions, he states that drinking orange juice will give him a super powered memory. He doesn't say why it does, he just says it does. It's just a goof that gets him into the trick. It's "lip service" because there's no real narrative connection between cause and effect. It's arbitrary. And that's why I wouldn't really consider it a strong presentation. Which is fine because you're not meant to invest much in such a presentation. (You know it's not a strong presentation because you could come up with 200 similar examples in an hour. "When I wear red my memory is supercharged." "On Tuesdays my memory is supercharged." "When I part my hair on the left my memory is supercharged.")
Lip Service C&E Type 2 (Adult Onset) - The Unfulfilled Cause and Effect
In this demo for Ben Earl's The Answer, the "cause" he gives for what's about to happen is "influence." But then he does nothing to demonstrate how this influence is manifested. This happens a lot in mentalism. "I influenced you to say the time 6:45." Okay... how? In what way? You might say, Ah, but that's the point. His influencing is so subtle you don't even see any remnant of it. Okay, but that doesn't make for a compelling presentation. Again, it would be lovely if a good presentation was that simple—just take any mentalism effect and say it's done with "influence"—but it's not that easy.
By "unfulfilled" I mean you haven't fulfilled the promise of the Cause you establish. You just toss it out there and then move on. (To be fair, I wouldn't waste a good presentation on Andi Gladwin either.)
Believable Cause and Effect
This is pretty straightforward.
"I will tell what hand holds the coin by reading your body language."
"I'll figure out the first letter in the word you're thinking by having you recite the alphabet while I judge your micro-expressions."
"I will use sleight-of-hand to stack this deck for a winning poker hand in three shuffles."
These are all examples of believable cause and effect. This is not my preferred style, but it's one of the more popular types of "causes" to suggest.
A believable cause and effect will generally put the focus on the performer.
Unbelievable Cause and Effect
This is the sort of presentation I like the most. I like the theatricality of it. I like that it shifts focus off me (at least in the fiction of the narrative). And it's the sort of thing the people I perform for tend to enjoy.
One thing to keep in mind is that unbelievable does not mean illogical. It just means something that your audience is unlikely to believe: time travel, mass psychosis, anti-gravity pills, invisibility cloaks, or whatever.
Read the post, "The Sealed Room With the Little Door," for more detail on why I like unbelievable premises.
Mysterious Cause and Effect
This is something I've been exploring a lot in the last couple of years. The idea is to hint at the cause but not fully explain it. I first talked about this idea in this post where I mentioned the phrase "Mystery Imps." (Imps being another word I use for "cause.") With the Mysterious Cause and Effect you are going to hint at the narrative but never quite spell it out.
If you burn a billet and then form the ashes into some kind of symbol before blowing them away, you're hinting that the symbol is important in some way, but you're not saying how. You're creating a mystery.
If you ask someone to repeat an incantation in an unknown language before an effect, that is also a mystery cause and effect.
If you say you found some notes in a shoebox when you were cleaning out your grandfather's house after he passed and one note had directions for some weird card game or something, and something weird happens when you follow this procedure, that's a mystery.
From the spectator's perspective, there is a Cause, but either the performer is keeping it secret, or the performer doesn't fully understand it either.
Okay, so what's the point here?
The point is you can take a big step towards achieving whatever the goal of your performance is by choosing the correct Cause for your effects.
Is the presentation there as an excuse to show the trick? Or is the trick there as an excuse to weave a story? Or are the trick and presentation there to put the focus on you?
If you want to put the focus on the trick, go with No Cause or Lip Service Cause. If you want to put the focus on yourself, go with a Believable Cause. If you want to put the focus on the presentation, go with an Unbelievable Cause or a Mystery Cause.
But can't I do something that puts the focus on the trick and the presentation and myself? Yes, sometimes you can have a perfect confluence of these things, but more often than not if you don't focus on one aspect you'll just have something bland that doesn't make an impact in any particular area.
Here is my personal pecking order. Ideally I want to use a trick to create a compelling interactive fiction. I would much rather say, "Uh-oh, guys... I think we're stuck in a mini time-loop," than, "When I snap my fingers, the card jumps to the top." So my first choice is an Unbelievable Cause.
If I can't think of a good, coherent Unbelievable Cause for a particular effect, then I will go for a Mystery Cause.
If it's a quick, visual effect that doesn't lend itself to a Mystery Cause, then I'll do No Cause (in the Peek Backstage style).
Again, this is just personal preference. I prefer the presentation-focused causes, because I find a strong presentation is more enduring than a strong trick. The presentation can be a whole journey.
But you may find that sort of thing silly. You may just want to perform the strongest visual eye-candy you can, in which case focusing too much on a presentation-focused cause may distract from that goal.
I'll expand on this idea in a post next week where I'll look at one effect through the lens of the five different causes.