Fancy yourself a storyteller? If you’re one of those magicians who believes magic is the story, or if you’re looking to refine your magic to the coveted “single-sentence” simplicity, then I have the technique for you. Somebody But So!
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As you know, in addition to creating and performing magic, I also write short stories and novels. Over the years, I have learned even long books—genre fiction over ninety thousand words—must have a simple plot. And like all those legendary magicians tell you—the giants of our craft’s history—the same applies to magic tricks.
Now, it’s important to differentiate between a simple plot, and a simple trick. Cups and Balls is a good example of both . . . gone wrong. In its simplest form a ball or balls vanish and appear under a cup or cups. For the magic to build, we introduce conditions that make the trick look more and more magical—difficult—with each phase.
But what is the audience supposed to think our motivation is? Why are we doing this? Is it just to show off how well we can do these moves? They don’t really believe we’re using magic, right?
What we’ve done, then, at least in most versions of Cups and Balls, is we have complicated the story for the sake of the stunt. The trick becomes messy. Muddy. The audience may have trouble understanding what the magician was trying to accomplish, or why they were trying to accomplish it.
If you read Clean Magic, then you know I really don’t like Cups and Balls. The problem for me, and this is only my opinion, is the way the trick is setup traditionally is really just a bunch of moves. There’s no why. There’s no reason. It needs a story to separate the magic from the magician—otherwise, it’s obviously just sleight of hand and gimmicks. Magicians doing magicy things. And when there is a story, the stories aren’t always entertaining because the magic came first instead of the reason for the magic.
You can apply this same critique to other famous effects—Linking Rings, Chinese Sticks, and Ambitious Card. Especially these three, mostly due to their popularity.
The reason I think these [potentially great] tricks go the route of boringness, is because to us magicians the trick is what is important, rather than the magic. Maybe we didn’t all get into this craft for the sake of telling stories. As long as the physical technique—specifically the sleight of hand—is good, then so must be the trick. But that’s like saying if the writing is good, so is the book. Or if the tomato is good, so will be the sauce. Many a tomato has seen ruin by a poor cook.
Having a story doesn’t automatically fix these problems. There is a famous Linking Ring routine that uses a poem. Even though it has a story, the magic isn’t very good in my opinion. It has more of a story than say, Whit Haydn’s Comedy Ring Routine, which is the best Linking Ring routine I have ever seen. It’s funny. Engaging. Pure entertainment. It goes to Whit’s cleverness, he makes the event the story. The retelling of the performance becomes the performance in some ways. He has elevated magic and storytelling all in one product.
Remember, I am only talking to magicians who want to be storytellers. If you’re not into narrative, then really none of this applies to your art or craft or hobby, or however you view magic. You might be asking yourself, what good is a story when the audience expects to see magic?
Well, first, I don’t think the audience sees magic. I think they experience it. Thus, magic relies heavily on the why—the motivation behind the trick. When magic is performed well, in my opinion, the magician is removed.
A novel is not about the author. The author is a layer removed. A movie is not about the director. The director is a layer removed. When you incorporate storytelling in your magic, the trick is not about the magician. The magician is a layer removed. In my opinion, this increases the magic. Takes it to a whole new level.
The tradeoff for this heightened level of magic performance, is the story can get the credit instead of the magician. While I prefer this element, other performers might want their magic to be about them and their skill or their cleverness. I don’t mean that to sound like a bad thing. It’s not my thing, but it’s not automatically a negative. For me, I would rather perform a trick the audience has no idea is actually a trick, than would I perform a stunt that’s all about my sleight of hand abilities. I think this is the big difference between magic and puzzle. If I’m on stage as a character in a play, I want the audience lost in the magic of the story. I want them to see me as the character, not as the actor playing the character.
For all those reasons, story is important to me. If you are a storyteller too, then even if you are performing a silent act, story is a vital element. Buster Keaton is one of my favorite actors. Give that man ten seconds and he’ll have you laughing without a word spoken. Can you name a magician with the same power? I can think of Cardini, Johnny Thompson, Teller, Raymond Crowe. There are other great magicians with incredible silent acts, but they don’t make me laugh like those guys.
Okay, so if I’ve done my job here, I have established why story is important to magic, or you already knew these things and you want to know how you can use storytelling in your magic.
The nuance of acting and storytelling is for a future podcast, or several podcasts. In this episode, I’m going to teach you an easy way to summarize your story, which is valuable not only in analyzing and discussing and marketing your show, but also in the creation of the story itself.
Stories cannot just be thrown together. You can’t toss some words out there and expect them to be coherent story. Fortunately, there are some techniques for constructing stories—keeping them as simple as possible—without omitting necessary plot components.
One of my favorites is “Somebody But So.”
The technique is often lengthened to “Somebody wanted, but, so, then.”
Nearly all fiction stories may be summarized using the “Somebody But So” technique, which is also a great way to construct just about anything with a plot. A classic example:
CINDERELLA WANTED to go to the ball, BUT her stepmother and stepsisters kept her from attending. SO her fairy godmother used magic to make it possible. THEN her and the prince fell in love, and they lived happily ever after.
In episode one, “From Where Does Magic Come?,” I talked about the origins of magic plots from a trick point of view. I provided methods to force a magic trick into existence. It’s not the way to, for lack of a better term here in the moment, organically create magic. Art can evolve from those methods, but it doesn’t have to, and honestly, it’s much more rewarding when it doesn’t. That’s why this episode is listed in the Elements method. This is magic as theatrical art.
Probably the best way to explain it is that I feel magic is my science. Performance is my art. There are gray areas here too, because I like to think of my magic products as an art form—certainly the pieces are there. Writing and graphic design. The performance, to me, is all about the story.
Thus, if I’m putting together a magic trick at an artistic level, I’m focused on the story. In non-fiction, we try to bring our readers from 0% knowledge to 100% informed. In fiction, I like to start at about 25% knowledge, and bring my audience to 90% informed.
What that means is that unlike in non-fiction, where I begin with the idea that my reader knows nothing, in narrative I begin mid-story, since that’s where the most relevant action will surface. I use a shocking, opening line to grab attention, but since all the information isn’t exposed yet, there is also an air of mystery.
For instance, one of my tricks begins with the line, “The first time I died, this coin was placed in my coffin.” This opening grabs my audience’s attention. A hint of mystery. Then I say, “Had I been properly buried, I wouldn’t be able to show you this coin today. I would be using it to carve out a never-ending game of tic-tac-toe on the lid.”
Imagine the reactions I get when I hand the coin out for inspection; the audience pictures a dead person holding the coin they now hold. Had it been washed? The audience becomes part of my story. Part of my death. They want to know more. While the coin is being passed around, I say, “Much later, I learned I wasn’t the first person to hold this coin between my cold fingers.”
Then, in the course of the story, I introduce the first owner of the coin—somebody who wanted to live forever. But we’re all mortal, which means he too would die. So he developed a medallion capable of reviving the recent dead. Then he grew tired of life eternal, and gave the coin to me. He fell to the floor at my wake.
To apply this technique to your own magic, a card trick for instance, you think of somebody. Yourself perhaps. What does the somebody want? Why can’t they have it? So what will they do? Then?
Apply the technique to magic you already perform. Lets say you have a pretty good Ambitious Card routine. Who is the somebody in your version of the trick? What do they want? Remember, objects can’t want things. It’s important not to swap somebody for something. But why can’t they have it? So what did they do? Then what? Within this paradigm, we see characters introduced, developed, conflict, climax, and resolve. All tied up with a nice-and-neat Somebody But So ribbon.
Answering these question about magic you already perform will help you refine your magic. You will be able to describe a trick magically in a single sentence. It will reveal the art in your story, and help you develop it further. If you can’t answer these questions about the tricks you perform, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Were you already familiar with Somebody But So before this podcast? I would love to hear how you use it in your magic, or if it is new to you, how you plan to use it in your show from now forward. Use the comments to share your thoughts and experience.