This post describes the final step I take when I’m looking to create the most potent type of magical experience for a spectator.
First you find a structurally sound trick that you can perform flawlessly.
Then you take the steps to eliminate any potential Easy Answers via presentation or technique.
The final step is to put the trick in a context that gives the audience something to chew on.
Years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that this was necessary. I would have thought: “Well, sure, a good trick probably has an interesting presentation to go along with it. But the most overwhelmingly powerful tricks are probably just a hyper-focused moment of impossible magic.”
But that hasn’t been my experience. A “hyper-focused moment of impossible magic” will get a huge Surprise reaction, but it doesn’t seem to stick. That’s not the type of trick that people bring up to me days, months, and years later.
I have a theory about why that is. Imagine you had the actual ability to vanish a coin in your hand. You borrow a coin, place it in your hand, slowly close your hand, wait a beat, open your hand, and the coin is completely gone. You give it no presentation. It’s just a concentrated moment of magic. You open your hand and the spectator is initially blown away. But then there’s really nothing for them to consider. Their options are, “Well, I guess magic is real,” or “Well, that looked impossible, but magic isn’t real. So clearly I just missed something.” 99% of rational adults are going to go with, “I guess I missed something.” So even a genuine demonstration of real magic would probably be somewhat casually dismissed by most audiences.
Now, imagine this instead. You come over to my house and there is a line of tape down the middle of my kitchen. “What’s with the tape?” you ask.
“Oh, there’s something weird going on in my kitchen. Check this out.”
We go into my kitchen. I pick up a coin off the counter. We stand on one side of the tape line. I show you the coin in my hand. I close my hand and we step to the other side of the line. I open my hand and the coin is gone. “Look,” I say, and point back to the counter. The coin is back sitting on the counter.
“I thought I was going crazy. I would get a spoon to stir my coffee and the next second it would be gone. It kept happening with things. It felt like dementia. But I’ve narrowed it down to this point in the kitchen. Something happens when I cross this plane. I can’t figure out what it is.”
This is obviously much less direct than the “real magic” version. In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to come up with several workable methods (a coin with a shell on the counter, you pick up the shell leaving the regular coin, then vanish the shell with a Raven, or whatever). And it’s not like you, as the spectator, believe there’s some time-warp or weird vortex in my kitchen. You understand it’s a story to go along with a trick. But regardless, I still think it’s the sort of thing you spend more time thinking about and chewing over in your mind. And the more time you spend with a trick, the more chance it has to build into a sense of mystery. In an earlier post in this series I said that the way I see things is that the initial Surprise will grow into Astonishment if it’s not explained away after a few seconds, and Astonishment will grow into Mystery in the long-term. So giving people more reasons to think about a trick in the hours/days to come is what’s going to allow that feeling to build.
A pure magic moment may be visually stunning and surprising, but it’s completely unrelatable when it’s not put in some sort of context. The problem isn’t that the trick is “too perfect,” it’s that it’s too “one note.” It gives the audience only one thing to consider: “How was that done?” That’s a question that might be compelling to us magicians, but if you don’t have any underlying knowledge of the subject, how long will that be interesting to think about?
A compelling story, context, or presentation is how you weaponize surprise. It’s your delivery system. A strong trick without that element is like a chemical weapon without a delivery system. You have something that’s potentially powerful, but without a way to really disperse it effectively.
I think the brain’s natural instinct is to fight surprise/astonishment. But it’s drawn to story and narrative. So if you can slip the Surprise into a context/story, then it’s like sticking your dog’s medicine in with some ground beef.
But, Andy, I don’t have any good ideas for interesting presentations and contexts.
Aaaaggghhhh!!!!! You lazy slob. Do I have to do everything? Okay, below is a list of 100 to get you started. It’s a subset of a much longer list that I work off of. I’m not suggesting you should use magic to get anyone to believe in the reality of these things (although some are real). I’m suggesting using your tricks to tell unbelievable stories or present unbelievable manifestations of these concepts and phenomena.
Electronic Voice Phenomenon
Law of Attraction
Near Death Experiences
Our world is a simulation
Out of Body Experiences
Past Life Regression
Spontaneous Human Combustion
The Body/Mind Connection