This is part II of the series: A Unified Theory of Blowing People’s Fucking Brains Out Their Buttholes.
The theory presented in these posts is not necessarily what I would apply to every trick I perform, but it’s the thought process I apply to tricks that I want to have a truly profound effect on people. To be clear, you can do entertaining, fun, enjoyable magic without ever pushing the reactions to this extreme. So this theory isn’t for everyone, and certainly not every trick you do.
In Part One I wrote that with the strongest tricks, the spectator’s experience goes from a feeling of Surprise, then seconds later to Astonishment, and then in the long-run to a feeling of Mystery.
All tricks have the “Surprise” element. That’s just another word for the feeling they should have at the climax of the effect. But to move past that, I have to find tricks that survive the critical thinking that follows the Surprise. And to do that, I have to avoid certain types of tricks.
I feel like there should be a term for these types of tricks already, because it seems like it should be a fundamental concept in magic, but I don’t know that there is a term. For the sake of explanation, I’m going to call them Broken Tricks (or Broken Techniques). Not “broken” in the sense of “doesn’t work” (although sort of that) but more “broken” as in “incomplete.” Like a broken circle.
“Broken” sounds like I’m making a value judgment about these tricks. I’m not. I’m stating a fact about the structure of an effect. The tricks and techniques I’m going to talk about here can still generate a strong Surprise, but they can’t really be used to reach the next stage (Astonishment) because the process to get there is going to expose the “break” in the trick.
Here’s an extreme example of the concept.
I walk out on stage with a closed cardboard box and set it on the table. “Ladies and gentlemen. I have here an empty cardboard box.” I wave my wand over the box. “And now…,” I open the box, “there is a red balloon inside!”
I clap my hands and spread my arms wide in an applause pose and bow deeply.
The audience is like, “Huh?” They never saw the box as empty so the appearance of the balloon in the box isn’t magical.
After the show, you come up to me. “Hey, Andy. So… about that balloon trick… what was that all about?”
I pull you in close and look around to make sure nobody can hear. “The balloon was in the box from the very start!”
You’re thinking, “Yeah, no shit.”
The method to my trick is: Lying about the box being empty.
While “lying” is a valid method for some tricks, for this particular trick, it doesn’t work. The trick is “broken.”
A broken trick is a trick where the method that is used prevents you from establishing the conditions that are needed for the trick to be seen as truly impossible.
I’ll try to clarify that sentence if it isn’t clear…
Every magic trick sets up some conditions that make what is about to happen seem impossible. There must be some apparent evidence/proof of those conditions.
Condition: My card was placed in the middle of the deck.
Evidence/Proof of that condition: I saw the magician clearly place it in the center of the deck.
Now, when the card appears on top of the deck, the magician has defied the conditions they established. So we have a magic trick.
But some tricks have a method that prevents you from establishing the condition you are apparently going to defy. That’s why I call them “broken.”
The trick in my example was extremely broken, but that was just to introduce the idea. Let’s look at some further examples.
Kolossal Killer - In Kolossal Killer, the spectator names any card and you remove that card from your wallet (sometimes). It’s a seductive trick for magicians, because it will get a strong initial response (a strong Surprise reaction).
But to establish the conditions that would make the trick completely impossible, the spectator would have to know there are no other cards in the wallet. But the method actually is “multiple cards in the wallet.” So the method cancels out the condition that is required. Hence, it’s a broken trick.
“But Kolossal Killer gets a good reaction.”
Yes, often it does. But if you perform the trick, and especially if you perform the trick and then ask people about it afterwards, you will find that it’s a classic example of a Surprises-heavy trick that doesn’t transition to Astonishment.
You ask them to name a card and you pull it out of your wallet. Boom! That’s a nice and clean effect. It’s the baseball bat to the head.
But then the effect travels through the brain. Does everyone say the 8 of spades? I doubt it. He couldn’t have a whole deck in that wallet, could he? No… he pulled out the card too quick, and the wallet would be fatter. But maybe the 8 of spades is a popular card, and he has a bunch of popular cards in his wallet, and he knows where each one is.
The contrecoup reaction to the trick is much smaller, because they’ve come up with a solution. It’s not exactly the correct solution, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s their escape hatch.
And I’m not just making up how spectator’s will think about this trick. Kolossal Killer is something we tested early on in the focus groups (because it was a trick that had supporters and detractors amongst us) and that explanation I paraphrased above is similar to the explanation many people gave. If not that exactly, the overwhelming majority said they’d be interested in seeing what else was in the wallet.
You can, of course, add more elements of deception to “un-break” the trick (a gimmicked wallet, for instance). But in its basic form, you are only defying an implied condition (that you only have one card in your wallet). It’s not quite as blatant as telling them you have an empty box and hoping they’ll believe you. But it’s really not that far removed from that either.
The Classic Force - The classic force is a Broken Technique. For a trick based soley on the classic force to go from Surprise to Astonishment, the spectator would have to be convinced their selection was free. But the method behind a classic force doesn’t allow for that. Done well, it can seem pretty free in the moment, but after the climax they will not be left with the feeling, “I definitely could have chosen any card I wanted.”
It’s a Broken Technique because the method (literally forcing them to touch/grab a card) precludes the clear establishment of the condition that it’s a genuinely free choice.
Genuinely free choices are made at the “choosers” pace, between distinct objects. When you’re on the receiving end of the classic force, there is not a moment where you decide on the card you want, and then reach out and take that particular card. Instead you reach out and you end up taking the card that happens to be touching your finger. These two things might feel similar at the time. But that’s not the real issue. It’s a question of how they feel after the moment of Surprise. If the audience can think, “You know, I can’t say for sure that felt like a completely free choice,” then they have their explanation.
“Wouldn’t this be true of all forces?” you might ask. A lot of them, yes. But not all. (I’ll have more to say on that in the future.)
The conceit: “I’m going to read your mind” (or “predict your thoughts” or whatever).
The condition you must establish to make that seem impossible: That there is no way I could know what you might think.
The method that makes that condition impossible to establish: Guessing the most common thing people say.
Of course, most mentalists realize the limitations of psychological forces which is why they’re generally used as part of a method, or as a sort of “experiment” early on in a show.
Let’s take a look at the finale of two different packet tricks.
A couple weeks ago I posted this youtube video of a packet trick called The (W)hole Thing. At the time I wrote:
“I think at the end of this trick, when the card says ‘Hole’ on the back, you’re supposed to get that surprise that you get when you see the $14 card in Color Monte. But I have a hard time believing it ever generated that kind of reaction.”
The reason it doesn’t have that same surprise is because it’s a broken trick. For the appearance of the word “hole” to seem impossible, the audience would have to feel that it was established that there wasn’t writing on the back of that card. But the method doesn’t allow you to clearly display the cards in any manner that would establish that.
On the other hand, Color Monte is not broken. For the appearance of the $14 card to seem impossible you have to establish that you only have three cards (which is true) and that the audience has seen the faces of all three cards throughout the routine. That second part isn’t true, but the displays leading up the climax allow you to apparently establish that condition.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Color Monte is a trick that’s going to transition from Surprise to Astonishment. It just means it’s a structurally sound effect.
Identifying and filtering out Broken Tricks is just the first step in determining tricks that have the potential to be legitimately staggering to an audience. Once you have a trick that has passed that filter, the next step is to eliminate the “easy answers.” I’ll cover that in Part 3 on Friday.
[Note: I originally said this series was going to be three parts. There is actually going to be a fourth part on Monday to collect some tangents that didn’t make it in the other posts. I also said these were going to be short posts. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.]