So here’s how it works. The climax of the the trick happens. It’s the moment of Surprise. The spectator’s mind goes into attack mode and starts pulling at any loose threads it can find in order to unravel the surprise. You can try to get them not to do this. You can assure them that it’s actually beneficial to just enjoy the moment. But this is primarily happening on a subconscious level. So trying to convince them not to engage in this on a rational level is going to be of limited usefulness.
The truth is, you actually want them to pull those threads. If they pull on the threads and—instead of unraveling—the Surprise turns into tight little knot, then you will be in the realm of Astonishment.
But for that to happen, your effect/method/presentation must offer no easy answers.
This might seem beyond obvious. “Yes. Of course. If the method is easy to figure out, then the trick won’t ever get past the Surprise phase.” But that’s not what I’m saying. It’s not enough just to disguise the specifics of the method you’re using. You need to do your best to prevent them from even having a general idea of a potential solution. Because even just a general idea will act as a sponge, soaking up the Surprise before it can build to Astonishment. And that’s true even if their solution is not the method you actually used.
It’s not possible to keep 100% of the people from jumping to an Easy Answer 100% of the time with 100% of tricks. So don’t think I’m saying that’s an achievable goal. Instead, think of the trick like a boat. The Easy Answers are like holes in the boat. Every answer you can address will make the trick stay afloat a little longer. And for the rare tricks where you can plug up every hole, you will have something that is virtually unsinkable.
This is the goal when looking to create the most devastating tricks. I would say I reach this standard of “pure impossibility” maybe 5% of the time. That may sound low, but I think it’s actually close to the upper limit. With most performances, I find my audience to be some combination of entertained, perplexed, amused, amazed, in awe—whatever you might hope for from a good magic effect. But 5% of the time—about 1 in 20 tricks—i can craft an experience where they are truly unsettled, and at a complete loss to explain what they just saw.
The way I push a performance to that extreme is by first picking a structurally sound effect (see Part II) and then systematically going through the list that follows and plugging as many of the holes as possible.
From the formal and informal testing of magic tricks that I’ve been a part of, here are the 10 most common Easy Answers that I’ve seen people resort to in order to “explain” a trick, even when they don’t have an understanding of the exact method.
1. “It was sleight-of-hand.”
Normally, if someone said, “That was sleight-of-hand,” you wouldn’t think, Damn, they figured out my trick.
But for the purposes of explaining away the Surprise element of a trick, “sleight-of-hand” is enough. People may still wonder how exactly you accomplished the trick, but that won’t build into a sense of Mystery, because a general cause has been identified: sleight-of-hand.
Plugging This Hole: While “sleight-of-hand” is the easy answer to probably the vast majority of close-up, non-mentalism tricks, there is a way to greatly lessen the likelihood of people resorting to this answer. And that is to only do sleights that you’ve mastered and that look like ordinary actions.
In the upcoming summer issue of the X-Comm newsletter for subscribers, I’m going to write about some recent testing we did that looked into this. But I’ll explain the conclusion here briefly: Non-magicians expect sleight-of-hand to look like something. Yes, sleight-of-hand is almost a default explanation people will apply to tricks, but if you don’t do any movements that draw attention to themselves as awkward or unnecessary, and if you handle the cards as your audience would, the likelihood of people jumping to this conclusion drops dramatically.
“So I can’t do any tricks that suggest sleight-of-hand?” I’m not saying that. I’m saying, if the spectator experience you want to create with a particular trick is one that ends with an unfathomable mystery, then yes, the Easy Answer of “sleight-of-hand,” has to be eliminated from the equation. And you either eliminate it by doing effects that require little to no handling of the props on your part or by having sleight-of-hand that is flawless and draws no attention to itself.
Further Reading: Inexpert Card Technique, Summer 2019 X-Communication Newsletter (coming in July)
2. “He distracted me.”
After “sleight-of-hand,” this is the most common explanation I’ve found that people give for how a trick worked. They may say, “He distracted me,” or, “He switched something when I wasn’t looking,” or, “He moved too fast and I couldn’t focus where I needed to,” or, “I was looking in the wrong place,” or, “He misdirected me.” Regardless of how they put it, what they’re suggesting is that they just weren’t focused where they needed to be. If they hadn’t been “distracted” they would have seen exactly what happened.
If your spectator is interested in Location A, and then you go and do something interesting to draw their attention to Location B, and then at some point you bring them back to Location A, and something has magically changed there, this does not fool people long-term. In fact, it is exactly in line with a modern layperson’s concept of misdirection.
Plugging This Hole: First, in general, it’s good to move much more slowly than you probably do when performing. If you seem relaxed, it seems much less likely that you’re doing stuff furtively.
Second, try not to ping-pong people’s attention around too much. It’s one thing if you’re doing a production act on stage and you need to constantly direct their attention. But in a social situation, this will feel very weird.
In the further reading below, I talk about misdirecting people’s attention (their eyes) vs. misdirecting people’s suspicion (their minds). If you can master when to do both types of misdirection, you’re much less likely to have a situation where they feel they’re being directed or distracted.
Further Reading: Practical Misdirection for the Amateur Magician
3. “It must be a gimmicked [whatever].”
I’ve beaten this subject to death, but if their options are:
“Something happened that transcended the laws of physics.”
“That’s a trick dollar bill.”
They are going to go with “trick dollar bill.”
Plugging this Hole: You must choreograph your effect so any object that is altered in some magical way can be looked at by the spectator afterwards.
If you can’t reach this standard, you may have some tricks that offer cool visuals and big moments of Surprise, but you will not be able to transition that into Astonishment, because they will have their easy answer.
4. “I must have been forced to pick that (card, celebrity name, slip of paper, page in a book, train car on the Orient Express).”
Forces are a foundational element of many magic tricks, and while the specific techniques behind forcing may be unknown to an audience, the idea that something can be forced is not unknown.
Plugging This Hole: This is something I’ve worked on a lot personally and run testing on as well. Most forces consist of something that feels like a random selection. That’s fine. But to make it more impenetrable, there should be a genuinely free choice that happens at some point in the process.
Why is that? Shouldn’t something that seems “random” be enough for it to seem like it’s not a force? My theory is this… If the spectator says, “That thing seemed random,” they are making a statement about something external. So they can never say it with 100% certainty. But if they say, “That was a fair choice,” they are making a statement about something they felt.
And so, if I want to plug the “it was a force” hole, I’m going to construct the trick so there is a genuinely fair choice at some point in the proceedings. (A “choice” means a selection between two or more distinct options. And no, “say ‘stop’ while I riffle” or “touch the back of any card as they go by” does not come across as a choice.) And then I’m going to show them what would have happened if they had made a different choice at that point. So they have a free choice, and they see the consequences of that choice.
How do you add genuinely free choices to a force? It usually means adding other techniques to the force. (switches, multiple outs, miscalls, third-wave equivoque, or whatever).
As an example, an easy card force with a moment of free choice would use a Pop-Eyed Popper deck. They put their finger on any card. Then you give them a clear, free choice to stay there or move one card to the left or right. Whatever choice they make, you cleanly show them the other cards they “almost” ended up with. That structure makes it very difficult for them to walk away thinking, “I think he forced this card on me.”
(An even better version of that force—better because it has all the same moments, but uses an ungimmicked deck—is what I use most of the time now and will be explained in my next book.)
5. “Everyone must say that.”
When a trick involves a clearly free choice of something, and the “it must have been forced” answer doesn’t provide any relief, spectators will often resort to this Easy Answer. “I named the 4 of Spades, and that was the only card face-up in the deck. I guess everyone names the 4 of Spades.”
This one is frustrating, because it’s particularly illogical. It’s really a last gasp attempt for coming up with some sort of answer for what happened. “I guess everyone says ‘Angela Lansbury.’” Thankfully it’s not as common as some of the other Easy Answers on this list.
Plugging this Hole: Because it is so illogical, it can be hard to fight. There are three techniques I will use to avoid it before it becomes a potential issue.
Don’t use psychological forces to carry a lot of weight in your tricks. It’s hard to combat the “Everyone must say that,” answer, if that is, in fact, the correct answer.
Call it out early on. “I want you to think of any playing card. You can think of a common one, like the aces, or an obscure one. It’s your choice. You may think everyone thinks of the same common card or the same obscure card. So whatever you settled on, make some changes to it, if you want. Increase or decrease the value, change up the suit until you’re positive I couldn’t know what you’re thinking.”
Add some true randomness to their selection. Having a flip of a coin or a roll of a dice or the spin of a roulette wheel (even imaginary versions of all these) affect the final version of some freely named thing is a good way to eliminate the “everyone must say that,” answer. “I asked you to think of a number. Then you rolled a die in your mind and chose to either add or subtract it from the number you’re thinking of. This is kind of a double-blind experiment. Obviously I couldn’t know what number you would think of. But coming in here, you wouldn’t know what number you would end up thinking of either, because you didn’t know there would be an element of chance that would affect that number.” And so on.
6. “He must have done some research on me.”
This Easy Answer affects mentalism primarily. If you name someone’s astrological sign, and you’ve known them for more than 90 seconds, it’s barely an effect these days. If you ask them to think of a favorite relative or a pet they had or the first concert they went to, often people will think, “Hmmm… could he have figured that out by looking at something on facebook or instagram?” I wouldn’t say this is a default solution when telling someone something about themselves, but I think it’s looked at more and more as a possibility as more of people’s lives are shared online.
Plugging this Hole: Don’t predict or mind-read anything that could conceivably be found online. Look into my concept of the Unknown Personal, which is about predicting things the spectators do not yet know about themselves.
Further Reading: The Unknown Personal
7. “It’s just math.”
This isn’t super common, but it’s an explanation that has come up enough when testing tricks to know that people think it more frequently than you’d imagine (even when it’s a trick that isn’t math-based.)
Plugging This Hole: I find this particularly challenging and wouldn’t say I’ve come up with any great techniques to handle it yet. Obviously if the trick does use math, this might be an impossible hole to plug. Even if it doesn’t, it can be difficult to convince people otherwise.
I have found, on a couple of occasions, that just the presence of numbers on playing cards can have people’s minds thinking in a math direction. If you can use a different type of card (alphabet, esp, flashcards, etc.) that might help.
8. “It’s just technology.”
“It’s an app.” “It’s voice recognition.” “You hacked my phone.”
Plugging This Hole: Good question. How do you? You might say, “Don’t perform for people who are well versed in modern technology.” But in my experience, that’s often a better audience for these types of effects. For young people, the phone is an everyday object. In fact it’s essentially an every-moment object. It feels very natural to say, “Hey, let’s look something up online and try something,” or whatever. But with Grandma, the phone is already sort of powerful and mysterious. What are the limits of its capabilities?
I once performed Wikitest for an older woman, and when I named the word she was just looked at (never spoke, typed, or wrote down) she said, “Oh my god!” (Surprise.) Then as she processed what just happened she said, “The phone must tell you what my eyes were looking at.”
Bitch, it’s YOUR phone!
So yeah, I don’t have a good way of handling this Easy Answer. I would just not build a “big” effect around something that could be explained away in this manner.
9. “It really happened.”
I know many people would be ecstatic to get this response, but if your goal is to move from Surprise to Astonishment to Mystery, then it sucks. “Mystery” doesn’t come from people really believing something happened. “Mystery” comes from knowing something couldn’t have happened, but still having the experience of it and having no rational explanation for it.
I had a wildly unsatisfying performance recently where I performed a trick where the spectator would read my mind. This isn’t intended to be the most profound effect, but it almost always gets a really strong reaction.
“Holy crap!” I said, “That’s incredible. All the cards match. That’s never happened to me before.”
“Oh, i smoke a lot of weed. It makes you good at stuff like this. Look it up.”
Plugging This Hole: Give them a premise that is too impossible to really believe. (Unless they smoke a truly gargantuan amount of weed.)
Further Reading: The Sealed Room With the Little Door
10. “I guess there’s a way to do that.”
In the list of Easy Answers, this is the easiest of them all. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how it happened. But it couldn’t have really happened, so it’s a trick.” In the past I referred to this as the “Non-Explanation.”
Plugging This Hole: You can’t really. Eventually people are going to believe you really did it, or come to the conclusion that it must have been a trick. Those are the two options.
But you don’t want people to just jump to the Non-Explanation in the moments immediately following a trick. If they do, it suggests they’re not receptive to the experience of really powerful magic. If that’s the spectator experience you’re shooting for, then you’re trying to make them experience something they have no interest in.
So this is a hole you plug when you choose your audience. You don’t have to choose uncritical audiences. You just have to choose audiences that enjoy the potential of experiencing astonishment. And because in social magic you build up to the big effects over time, you have the chance to weed out people who aren’t open to a more profound sort of experience.
Further Reading: Dissonance
So those are the generic “Easy Answers” that you will need to address to move from Surprise to Astonishment. (In addition to addressing any specific “obvious solutions” for whatever particular trick you’re performing—threads, magnets, duplicate objects, etc.)
Next week I’ll discuss the last requirement for exceedingly powerful magic. And I’ll walk you through the full process with an example trick from the archives. I’ll also give you my rationale for why I bother. You might think it’s obvious, but I think a question worth asking is, “Do people even really want to see a magic trick that truly rattles them? Or is magic better as a more superficial form of amusement?” I’ll discuss my conclusion and how I came to it as this series continues throughout next week.