Puzzle vs Miracle

Magicians often talk about the difference between a puzzle and a mag. ic effect. The cliché is that the difference lies in an entertaining presentation. In fact, a puzzle entertainingly presented is still only an entertaining puzzle. The real difference is that a puzzle merely deceives, while magic creates the illusion of impossibility. This point was beautifully expressed by Simon Aronson's observation that, "There is a world of difference between a spectator not knowing how something's done versus his knowing that it can't be done." Achieving the former produces a puzzle. Achieving the latter produces a magic effect.

There is even a physiological basis for distinguishing between puzzlement and astonishment. Body language experiments have shown that people tend to respond to puzzlement by "closing their faces." The eyebrows lower. The eyes narrow. 'Hie jaw tightens. But they respond to astonishment by "opening their feces." The eyebrows rise. The eyes widen. Hie jaw drops. (See, for example, The Nonverbal Dictionary by David B. Givens.)

Magicians love to go on about how magic should produce a "sense of wonder." In one Internet discussion, Whit Haydn asked: "What do you guys mean by this? What is the mind thinking about when it is in 'wonder?' We use this expression so much, and most of the time it means so little. What is going on in the head when there is 'wonder?'" This question provoked the same reaction that usually greets any particularly insightful observation in an Internet discussion. Everyone ignored it.

I've searched long and hard for a definition of wonder. The best one I have found for magic purposes came, not from a dictionary, but from psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman. He defines wonder as, "The feeling of being overwhelmed by something incomprehensible." If its not incomprehensible, it won't produce wonder, only puzzlement.

How do we achieve the former reaction instead of the latter? The first step is to realize that, while deception is necessary, it's not sufficient. It's possible to perform an effect in which every individual element deceives the audience yet which fails to create an illusion of impossibility. Whether individual deceptions add up to an all-encompassing illusion depends largely on design. I observed earlier that words and paint are only the tools that writers and painters use. Nevertheless, the words or colors have to be carefully chosen, skillfully combined, and properly composed if they're to achieve the desired illusion. Effective design means selecting, combining, and composing the micro-elements of an effect (sleights, gaffs, subtleties, misdirection) in such a way as to produce success on the macro level (the illusion of impossibility).

Most magicians tend to think that there are two elements to a magic trick: effect and method. The more enlightened recognize three elements: effect, method, and presentation. The underlying premise of this book is that there are four elements to strong magic: effect, method, presentation, and design. In practice, they intertwine so thoroughly that it can be difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. But the longer I perform magic and the more experience I have in creating original effects, the more convinced I become that design should be viewed as a separate element.

I don't think that magicians generally have adequately recognized design as an element separate from method. The best proof of this is the almost complete absence in magic literature of discussions of the principles of sound effect design. (The shining exception is Juan Tamariz's groundbreaking book Tlie Magic Way.) Ignoring design principles is, for example, why the results are so disappointing when a magician spins out version after version of a trick by simply combining methods mechanically.

For the rest of this book I'll explore the principles of effect design that, quite apart from the details of method, are the surest path to achieving strong magical impact. (I don't for a moment discount the importance of presentation in achieving strong magic. But I have, after all, already written a book on that subject.)

If you want to make the jump from puzzle to miracle, start by studying this wonderful passage from The Card Magic of Le Paul: "A puzzle may baffle by its cleverness or its intricacy, but its solution manifestly lies within the actions that have been shown. It does not suggest the operation of something outside of normal cause and effect." Never forget this. A magic effect, to be worthy of the name, must lie outside of normal cause and effect.

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