One thing about this series that I attempted to make clear, but perhaps didn’t, judging by a couple emails I’ve received, is this: This is not how I approach every trick I do. There may be aspects of this approach that apply to much of my material, but I don’t run everything through this process. This process is for when I want to do something particularly special, that’s on another level from just a “great trick.”
In the past I’ve called this Tantric Magic, because, like tantric sex, you really want to take your time with it and plan every detail and create a more intense connection with your partner through the activity.
But you don’t want to spend four hours banging your old lady every night.
You don’t want Christmas every day.
You don’t want cake for dessert at every meal.
You don’t want to overdo this style of magic. What makes it special is that it’s something rare.
I think it’s important to cycle people through different intensities of magic. If you performed a genuine miracle every evening, people would be bored by day four. But if you space them out over time, you can keep people on the hook the rest of their lives.
For us, everything is under the umbrella of “magic,” but I want them to get a sense that there’s a little more distinction between these types of things. I want them to think, “Oh, he does these really cool visual tricks, and he knows some strange games, and he has some great card tricks, and he’s got a collection of really weird objects, and then…this one time… he showed me the goddamned craziest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”
But I don’t want them to think of that on a spectrum of “ok to impossible.” I want them to think of them as different types of experiences. Like if you knew a chef and you said, “She makes us dinner sometimes, and she’ll knock out a pizza late-night on Saturdays, and she makes a great cupcake, and this one time… she made us this incredible 14-course meal that blew me away.” You’re not saying, “The 14-course meal is amazing and the cupcake is just okay.” You’re feeling them as distinct things that are all great in their own way. Even though to the chef it might all just be “cooking.”
Here is the TL/DR version of the Surprise-Astonishment-Mystery spectator reaction pathway:
1. A spectator’s initial reaction to a trick is Surprise.
2. If that trick cannot be explained or undermined by their internal faculties, then Surprise morphs into Astonishment.
3. If the trick cannot be explained or undermined by any external factors (googling, youtube videos, asking around) or if the spectator just chooses not to seek out an explanation from external sources, then Astonishment will transform into Mystery over time.
Those are the two “gauntlets” you need to pass through: their internal knowledge/logic, and the external tools they might use to figure out a trick.
The “Mystery” pathway is just one you may want to pursue. There are other pathways.
Is a person doing manipulation on stage really trying to engender feelings of true mystery? I don’t think so (if they are, they’re doing a terrible job of it). I think their goal is probably something that puts a focus on esthetics as much as magic. There should be a flow and a rhythm and beauty to it. The Beauty Path is different than the Mystery Path.
Another path might be if your goal is to impress people with your supposed or real skill (influence tricks, gambling tricks, memory tricks). That might be a two-step pathway from Surprised to Impressed.
First they’re Surprised that you did whatever. For example, there’s the initial surprise when the four aces show up in your poker hand.
Then their mind processes what must have happened for you to get those aces and they’re Impressed with with how difficult that must be (or how difficult you suggested it was).
You’re not looking to create Mystery here. You want them to believe they know how it was done: via your exceptional skill.
The Mystery Path wants to leave them with no reasonable answer. The Impressive Path tries to lead them to one reasonable, but still impressive answer. The Beauty Path might not care what answers they come to as long as they’re engrossed in watching the magic.
I haven’t really thought these things out all that well, my point is just that Mystery isn’t always the end goal, and you’ll want to find whatever the path is for the experience you’re hoping to create.
The benefit of the Mystery Path is also probably its weakness. When you have something that really stays with people, they may feel compelled to research it and figure out what happened, depending how comfortable they are with mystery.
The nice thing about presenting an “average” card trick, for example, is that it doesn’t really feel like it’s meant to be anything other than a momentary pleasure. They’re not going to look up how you did your four ace trick. They’re barely going to remember anything about it other than, hopefully, “that was fun.”
But an immersive trick is intended to stick with them long-term so the inclination to figure out what happened might be very strong.
This is why, generally, I try not to do anything in these contexts that can be unraveled with an obvious google search. And I also try to limit my audiences for this sort of thing to the kind who seem to really embrace mystery.
A prime example (and I do mean prime hahaha…. oh wait… that doesn’t make sense yet… don’t worry you’ll get my hilarious joke soon) of a trick with a high Surprise response, and an almost non-existent Astonishment response is any trick built around the 37 force. This isn’t something I do regularly, but if I see the number out in the wild, say, on the back of a guy’s sports jersey, I might make a little moment out of it for someone. I’ve had people jump when they initially see the number, but then there is very little Contrecoup Astonishment. It succumbs to the Easy Answers pretty quickly.
The 37 force is a Broken Trick. What condition would need to be established for it to be truly impressive? That the spectator had a free choice of a wide range of numbers. What method is used for the trick? Limiting them to a small group of numbers. The method precludes you from establishing the condition which is the definition of a Broken Trick.
This reminds me of an Easy Answer that I forgot. It’s the Easy Answer of, “He must have got lucky.”
This is related to the, “I guess everyone says ____,” answer, although not identical.
How do you plug the “He got lucky,” hole? You use time. If I say, “Name a musical instrument,” and you say, “Piano,” and I turn over a picture of a piano. You might say, “Everyone must say piano.” If I remind you that i asked you to change your mind a few times, you might think, “Well, he probably got lucky.”
But if there is a build up in the effect that takes 15 minutes to occur, you’re not going to think I had us invest all that time on something that was strictly based on “luck.”
I have a trick coming in the next book where using time in this manner is essentially the only method, and it’s one of my favorites to perform.
Almost all magic trailers show you only the moment of Surprise. I think the lie of magic demos is that that’s the moment that matters. In reality, if they kept the camera on the people for 10 more seconds after the trick, then we’d get the real story.
An uncritical audience is the biggest impediment towards generating Astonishment. True “Astonishment” requires to process the trick and still having no clue how it was done.
The way to know a trick has gone from Surprise to Astonishment is to look for a secondary reaction. With Kolossal Killer (for example) you’re likely to get a reaction that looks like the diagram below. An initial high plateau of (Surprise) followed by a steep descent after their brain processes it. The line doesn’t fall all the way to the bottom because they haven’t (usually) figured out the trick. Instead it drops much of the way because they have an easy answer to account for generally what happened. Then, in the long-term, there is a gradual decline of the residual surprise.
With a trick that goes from Surprise to Astonishment, you’ll have a reaction like the one below. First, an initial moment of surprise. Then, when their mind thinks about it and gets no answer, you get their peek reaction. Over time, that reaction will turn to Mystery and gradually diminish to a point. But that’s more because it’s not at the forefront of their mind like when it just occurred, not because it’s necessarily any less impossible to them.
I know a number of people who do the Creepy Child version of Directed Verdict, as mentioned in the last post.. If you do, and you’ve been reading this series of posts, I’m going to reward you by telling you my favorite way to extend the trick.
First, you definitely need to include the initial drawing—the one that matches that day’s newspaper. I know it may seem like a small thing, but it adds a lot to the effect. It broadens the moment from just the few minutes the effect takes, to something that you set up, potentially, much earlier in the day. Instead of just saying, “Oh, and my niece predicted this.” You’re saying, “Oh, remember that kid I mentioned earlier tonight, the creepy one? Well, you’re not going to believe this but….” You’re re-introducing a character they’ve met.
Then a couple weeks later, you can reinvigorate this storyline by doing a headline prediction effect, but with the “creepy child” presentation on top. “My niece gave me this envelope, but she said not to open it until Sunday. Will you hold onto it for me? I think I’ll be too tempted to see what it is.” And then everything comes full circle. You introduced “your niece” by saying, “She predicted this would be the front page of the newspaper.” And then weeks later your spectator gets to experience that impossibility in real time. This is a very strong story construction. So strong that I’ve had a couple people say, “Wait… do you really have a niece who can do this?” What they were sure was just a fun storyline for an effect feels almost possible for a brief moment. (In Jerx-parlance, this would be them poking their head out the Little Door.)
Okay, we’re wrapping this series up with a mailbag post related to it on Monday. When I initially mentioned this series, I said it would consist of three “shorter posts.” I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. In my head it was going to be three posts of two paragraphs each. Bu obviously I ended up having much more to say than I expected.
I was asked to write about this subject by a couple friends who have seen and been a part of some of my performances of this style of trick, and seen how intense the reactions can be. I think if you just see the end result of that sort of performance, it may seem like I simply found or created some really powerful trick, and that makes it seem like an issue of luck or inspiration. But for me it’s really just a matter of finding a strong trick, and then applying this systematic process to it that will—in the best circumstances—transform it into an impregnable mystery.