The Unbelievable-ness of the Believable

Elliott Hodges

The process of learning magic is odd. We all get into magic for different reasons but for a lot of us there is an inherent interest with magic tricks and showing tricks to people to impress them or to try and be more popular than we currently are. There are many other reasons of course but a large part of our reasons for initially getting into magic is about desiring to show tricks to people. Then we learn a bit more, read a bit more, possibly join a club and an online forum or two and are suddenly told that we need to make our magic entertaining and think carefully about our patter. As we continue on our journey we are also told that tricks aren’t the most important things about magic and we are also told to pick tricks that suit our character. We begin to hear magicians say things like “I like the chop cup but it doesn’t suit me.”

Now of course I agree with all of that; they are all important things. But my goodness haven’t we come a long way from learning a few tricks to show our friends? When I started magic I remember wanting to learn some cool things that not everyone could do but I had no idea that all of this was involved as well. The tough thing is that generally, we are told what to do but not how to do it. I wanted to learn some tricks, I never wanted to look at something and think about making it entertaining, and even if I had realised it how would I go about it anyway? And as for presentation-what on earth IS it? I’ll be honest, I’ve been doing magic for ten years and I still can’t give you a definition of presentation if pressed for one. Neither have I ever heard a definition of presentation that enlightens me. If we merely encourage each other to go and read the work of Eugene Burger for presentation then I don’t think it is quite enough. Because Eugene (who I absolutely love) is a story teller and very few of us are. I remember my early days of learning magic and feeling lead to believe that presentation is telling stories with your magic. Again, I started magic because I wanted to learn some tricks-how am I meant to do all of this?

What I want to explore is, to my mind, a vital area of amazing magic and also very practical in helping us with all of the above aspects of our magic. I want you to ask yourself how believable your magic is. Of course we want our magic to be unbelievable and incredible and yet I’m convinced that the more credible your magic is, the more incredible it will seem. Think back to when David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear in 1983. I have just watched it again to remind myself of it. It was an impressive display and yet I don’t think that it was ever quite the successful piece that it should have been in theory. Think about it for a second-the magician made one of America’s most famous landmarks completely vanish! It should be history masking stuff? Surely such an illusion should become part of America’s school curriculum and all the children learn about this amazing event in schools. Let’s face it-It is still talked about today by non-magicians and most of the comments that I have heard about it are both positive and negative. Quite often they run along the lines of “I remember when that American guy made the statue of liberty disappear-it was really good but I think it was a very clever mirror.” The truth is of course, that the statue of liberty can’t really be made to disappear and we all know that instinctively. I’m not slating David Copperfield-how could I with such a creative team behind him and the illusion? I’m merely trying to illustrate that magic must be credible for it to be incredible.

Instinctively, I think we all know this. Think about the advice on performance given in beginners magic books. One of the tips given is often “if you’re a young magician, don’t use patter about being in the Far East or this special skill you learnt off an old magician.” Why not? Because it won’t sound believable, your audience will know it’s all made up and suddenly our trick is seen for what it is, a magic trick with a fake, made up story. So credibility or believable-ness is important in our magic if we want people to see it as magic. We want our patter and our presentations to be believed and our magic to be believable. Too big and too grand or too unrealistic-sounding it simply loses its credibility.

Credibility affects other things too. I think it also affects how you look holding a prop and whether it suits you or not. Be honest with yourself. I think sometimes we can tell even before we even think about what we might say with a trick whether we look natural holding a particular prop or not. It also applies with how we justify a prop. If we feel the need to justify a particular magic prop then does our explanation or justification of the prop sound believable? Does it sound crazy or believable? One of my current favourite tricks is an oldie that I’ve enjoyed working on and is now getting superb reactions. It goes by many names but I know it as the “magic maths sticks.” Essentially the trick consists of four 4-sided wooden sticks with different numbers running down them in a column. The spectators can arrange them to make any number they like and the magician adds the numbers in seconds. My presentation is based on the given presentation in the instructions but extended greatly and personalised to me. I ask the spectators if they remember these from primary school and describe them as a resource used to teach addition in schools. The great thing is that very similar things ARE used as maths resources in primary schools-I know because I am a teacher. Many people do have memories from primary school of different equipment used so while the sticks are not really used in schools (although they could easily be-I’m tempted to incorporate them into a maths lesson) they really do look like they could be.

So how do we make our presentations believable and how do we make our magic credible? How do we truly know what material suits us and whether our presentations suit us as well as suiting the trick? It’s a tricky business but let’s get practical. Two practical suggestions to help you as I close. I’ve found them both invaluable.

Firstly-you MUST know how you sound as you perform your magic. I guess most of us have taped ourselves or seen footage of ourselves performing magic at some point and very few of us enjoy the experience (even though it’s invaluable) Today I am going to suggest that you do not even need to go that far to find out whether your magic is credible or not. I don’t particularly like my voice, in fact I hate my voice but for our magic to be believable, I need to know whether I sound believable performing it and whether my presentations sound credible or not. My suggestion is to use your phone to record yourself reciting your patter lines from the tricks that you are working on. It does not need to be the whole trick, sometimes hearing the first line of your presentation is enough to tell you to scrap the effect all together. Perform your tricks to your phone and listen back to them. Don’t worry about doing the trick but just speak the trick. It is then will we really start to begin to work out whether our magic is believable or not. Let me give you an example. A popular effect in card magic is to get a spectator to shuffle a pack of cards and to give the illusion that we have memorised the cards and can recall them, sometimes with our backs turned. You will know as well as I do that there are many different ways of achieving this effect. I liked the plot and started playing with a couple of methods. At one point I recorded myself saying something like “you’ve shuffled these cards and I’m going to try and memorise their order.” I played it back to myself and I cracked up laughing hard. I sounded ridiculously fake and I quickly realised that whatever combinations of words I used, I just do not sound realistic telling people that I am going to memorise the order of a pack of cards. I suspect that the message I’d be giving was that I had learnt a clever way to make it look as if I’d memorised the order of a pack of cards. Do the claims you make in your magic sound realistic? I can only urge you to use your phone to record yourself saying your patter-it is honestly the best use for a smart phone in magic that I have come across to this day. You will really get to appreciate whether it sounds like you or not. Occasionally you won’t even need to go that far-I dropped a potential trick straight away once because I couldn’t run through any kind of patter for the effect without going into a Northern accent and copying a Northern performer who I’d seen perform it. Listen to yourself, ask yourself hard questions and be ruthless in the cuts you make.

Here’s the second piece of advice for making your magic sound believable. Don’t use words in your magic that you wouldn’t normally use in everyday conversation. I never quite understand why many magicians seem to use slightly more old fashioned words in their magic than they do when you talk to them normally. A couple of examples might be helpful. The word “attempt.” Why do so many magicians attempt to do something magical but try to do something in everyday life. “I will attempt to find your object while blindfolded” or “I will attempt to tell you what word you are thinking of.” Very few of us when asked what our plans were that day would say “I am going to the shops and seeing a friend for coffee and I’m going to attempt to mow the lawn to.” I know some would but for most of us, the word “try” slips in more naturally.

Here’s another word that I always feel is overused. “Treatise.” I am pretty sure that I ONLY hear magicians use that word today. We say things like “this book is a complete treatise on the top change” whereas we would almost certainly never say “this book is a treatise on how to bake bread” when describing a cookbook. Of course there are exceptions as we all talk in different ways but for all of us, we would do well to keep our magic vocabulary the same as our every day, conversational vocabulary. The reasoning is surely obvious, it will make us sound more “us” and you’ve guessed it, ultimately make our magic more believable.

As I write this, I’ve just come back from a few days holiday and I took Michael Close’s “Workers Volume 1” to read. In the introduction Michael suggests that everyone has their own philosophy of magic and insists that everyone’s philosophy is different to each others. The reason given is that having a personalised philosophy on magic will make sure our material does not seem false when we perform it. It must be believable to us. Of course we can do anything with our magic but to make it truly unbelievable, I am absolutely convinced we need to make it believable. The believable-ness of the unbelievable.


© Elliott Hodges, August 2015