All of Your Bees Wax
In a world where everyone is so insecure and desperate to have you follow them on social media, Tyler Wilson is no different. Here's his Twitter account: twitter.com/UnrealTyWilson - And here's where you can find his latest and/or greatest book, Reinventing the Real: cherryvillain.com/buy.
The magician makes a coin vanish.
A spectator selects a card.
A straightjacket is tightly secured around the performer.
These are three different scenarios across three different areas of our craft, yet they all share one major feature. Can you spot it? Think about this, and we'll come back to it later.
I recently watched a couple of films. One was called The Avengers. A few superheroes get pissed when a villain steals a powerful object. The other film was called Tub. After being rejected by his girlfriend, a man resorts to jerking off in the shower. The tub gets pregnant. Spoiler alert: I'm about to do some spoiling. The Avengers played out by the superheroes going after the badboy. In ended with an epic battle between good and evil and Gweneth Paltrow looking hot in her short shorts. Tub played out with the tub giving birth. The man wanted nothing to do with the baby but was forced to take care of it, putting a strain on his work and relationships. Eventually, the baby went back from whence it came, leaving the protagonist distraught.
What's the difference between these films? Well, a lot: budget, box office receipts, and short shorts to name a few. But let's focus on the main separator: predictability. When we hear the premise for The Avengers, we know exactly what's going to happen. There might be a few minor events that we weren't expecting, but when it comes to the major story arc, we know what we're getting ourselves into before we step foot in that theatre. By contrast, when we hear the premise for Tub, we have no idea what the heck is about to happen. It's a premise we haven't seen before and therefore have no preexisting expectations.
Knowing this, let's revisit the three magical scenarios that kicked off this essay. Have you found the common thread tying them together? Yes. They're all predictable.
If we vanish a coin, the audience will expect us to bring it back. If we have a card selected, the audience will expect us to find it. If we get into a straightjacket, the audience will expect us to get out of it.
Now, it doesn't matter if we have no intention of finding the card. We could be starting a Torn & Restored Card trick; it doesn't matter. If we plainly ask for a card to be selected, that's all our audience can go on. This is why we can spread the cards for a selection and hear, “Oh, I've seen this one before.” To us magicians, that sounds absurd. But we have to appreciate the audience's perspective: we haven't given them a single reason to expect anything else! It's our fault, not theirs. If we don't give the audience a premise to clutch onto, all pick-a-card tricks look identical. Imagine watching a dozen films where the first ten minutes are identical. You'd keep thinking, “Wait, I've already seen this movie.” You'd be wrong, but there's no way for you to know that.
I call this the Daryl School. He certainly didn't create it, but watching Daryl's six-volume Revelations DVD set will convince you that he's mastered it. He begins every explanation with some variation of, “Have a card selected and controlled to the top. Now start the trick.” This is a deeply detrimental way of approaching magic. What needs to be understood is that having a card selected is part of the trick. Controlling a card is part of the trick. The “trick” starts before we even remove the cards from the case. The sooner we hook the audience into a premise, the sooner they know they're not watching a rerun.
Try this out: lay three random face-up cards on the table along with a quarter of a double backer. Assuming this is the beginning of a trick, do you know what's going to happen? No? Great! Then neither will the audience. Try creating a unique scenario—be it with props, words, or delicious short shorts—then think about where those scenarios can take you. The example with the cards above is only one tiny example of a non-obvious opening gambit. When you start with one of these open-ended opportunities, there's no doubt you'll veer down many dead ends before you find the most exciting route. The dead ends aren't failures, however, they're extra layers preventing our magic from being predictable. They're extra layers of edge-of-your-seat excitement.
Starting from scratch isn't the only option. We can also apply this same thinking to existing material. It doesn't take much for a common trick to seem fresh. One of the worst enemies of creating magic is thinking of it as a linear path. We focus on the end effect. That's all we care about. We create the shortest line to that end effect, treating all things before it as procedural necessities, peppering them with jokes just to seem palpable. Let's take a break from that for a moment. Let's stop thinking of the beginning as the beginning, the middle as the middle, the end as the end. The goal isn't to get from A to B. The goal is to explore the alphabet. Yes, even that elusive letter, elemenopee. You'll soon find that this exploration can turn the “boring procedures” into a captivating journey. We're not just taking the audience down the garden path to get hosed, we're letting them enjoy the garden while they're already there. Our magic can still make a bee line, we just need to first spike that bee's nectar. We want him flying around so much he stops being so damn chubby.
Take a look at one of your tricks. Try it with one of your own, but for explanation purposes we'll use a Sandwich routine with a standard structure: a card is selected and lost back in the deck, the two sandwich cards are introduced, and the selection magically appears between them. This can be a wonderful trick, but those first few beats are incredibly familiar. Try mixing up the sequence. Start at the middle by introducing the sandwich cards before anything else. Instead, you could start at the end by openly creating a sandwich with an unknown card to set up the final aesthetic. You could even start at some strange undefined point. For example, what if you tried to “find” the spectator's card before she even picked one? You then try again, leaving you with two cards on the table. Finally realizing no cards have been chosen, you offer for one to be selected. These alterations will push the beginning (having a card selected) into the middle of the trick. Granted, these examples assume the audience has never seen a Sandwich trick before. If you're performing for a more savvy audience, try introducing seven sandwich cards. Where will you go from there?
This isn't restricted to card tricks. In fact, the more Sherlock-ish of you will recognize that I used such a re-shifting strategy with the intro of this essay.
None of this suggests our magic should be solely built up of surprises. We can still create suspense by telling our audiences exactly what's about to transpire. We can still start at the start and end at the end. We can still strap ourselves into straightjackets. We just need to make these decisions consciously and intelligently. If we're so focused on the end that we don't care about the beginning, the audience will be so focused on the beginning that they won't care about the end.