Part IV: Weaponizing Surprise

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.

  1. Agnosia

  2. Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

  3. Aliens

  4. Angels

  5. Animal instincts

  6. Apophenia

  7. Astral Projection

  8. Astrology

  9. Auras/Kirlian Photography

  10. Automatic Writing

  11. Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

  12. Bad Luck

  13. Bibliomancy

  14. Biorhythms

  15. Body Memory

  16. Brain Gym

  17. Brainwashing

  18. Capgras Delusion

  19. Chakras

  20. Chronokinesis

  21. Clairgustance

  22. Clustering Illusion

  23. Cocktail Party Effect

  24. Coincidence

  25. Cryptophasia

  26. Cryptozoological Phenomena

  27. Crystals

  28. Déjà Visité

  29. Deja Vu

  30. Demonic Possession

  31. Dimensional Anomalies

  32. Dropped Marble Sound

  33. Drugs

  34. Electronic Voice Phenomenon

  35. Energy Manipulation

  36. ESP

  37. Fairies

  38. Fate Feng Shui

  39. Fortune Telling

  40. Fregoli Delusion

  41. Ghosts

  42. God

  43. Good Luck

  44. Granting Wishes

  45. Graphology

  46. Hallucinations

  47. Haunted Locations

  48. Haunted Objects

  49. Hypnosism

  50. Intuition

  51. Jamais Vu

  52. Kuleshov Effect

  53. Law of Attraction

  54. Lie Detection

  55. Lucid Dreaming

  56. Lunar Effect

  57. Mandela Effect

  58. Meditation

  59. Mediumship

  60. Memory

  61. Multiple Universes

  62. Near Death Experiences

  63. Numerology

  64. Optical Illusions

  65. Orgone Energy and Orgone Boxes

  66. Other Dimensions

  67. Our world is a simulation

  68. Out of Body Experiences

  69. Out-group Homogeneity Effect

  70. Past Life Regression

  71. Perpetual Motion

  72. Personality Tests

  73. Phrenology

  74. Prosopagnosia

  75. Psychic Healing

  76. Reduplicative Paramnesia

  77. Reincarnation

  78. Remote Viewing

  79. Rituals

  80. Rumpology

  81. Scriptural Codes

  82. Scrying

  83. Seance

  84. Sentient Objects

  85. Sexual Energy

  86. Solfeggio frequencies

  87. Spells

  88. Spontaneous Human Combustion

  89. Strange Face in the Mirror Illusion

  90. Subliminal Messages

  91. Sympathetic Magic

  92. Synesthesia

  93. Tantric Energy

  94. Telekinesis

  95. Tetris Syndrome

  96. The Body/Mind Connection

  97. Time Travel

  98. Uncanny Valley Hypothesis

  99. Wormholes

  100. 366 Geometry