It’s what you say

by Ariel Frailich

Every trick needs a presentation. Without one, the trick is merely a trick, a demonstration of ability, a puzzle. That makes it very difficult to convey the illusion of magic.

To find a presentation for a trick, I start by trying to understand the effect. This may seem obvious, but sometimes the technical aspect of the trick is so overwhelming that the effect gets lost, particularly in descriptions of card tricks. Taking Vernon’s Twisting the Aces as an example, the effect is that four Aces turn face up, one at a time, when the cards are counted from hand to hand.

Once I understand the effect, I try to distill it, find its essence. Using the example above, I can generalize by saying that cards turn over repeatedly. This too is obvious, but it will be very helpful in the next step.

Now I try to find a premise for the trick. One approach is to simply explain what is happening: the cards turn over. But that doesn’t strike me as being particularly interesting: ‘these cards can turn over’ is really no different from saying ‘this pen writes’ or ‘this Walkman plays music’.

I like to use parallels from real life, because then my spectators can relate what I’m talking about to themselves. But how does Twisting the Aces relate to real life? Although the original description doesn’t help me at all, the distilled version does: ‘cards turn over repeatedly’ is a good first step in trying to find a real-life example. If I isolate the key idea — ‘turn over’ — I can find several examples: pancakes, records, tapes. But also turning over a new leaf, leaving no stone unturned, and from there, turning around, rolling over, and so on. Each of these can lead to many different premises. One idea that appeals to me is that of trained dogs, triggered by ‘rolling over’. This leads to a premise: the four Aces are my trained dogs… and they can do tricks.

The most basic script consists of showing the ‘dogs’ in action, proving their prowess. The first dog is called Heart; Heart, roll over! — and she does. Club, roll over! — and he does. You too, Diamond. Finally, Spade rolls over as well, but he’s a bit lazy, so he has to be told twice (before showing that the fourth ace has turned over, I do an additional Elmsley count to show four face-down cards). It’s a bit dull, but nevertheless a good starting point.

Adding some human traits is always a good idea, because it helps make the characters come alive, to some extent. I can use the four suits as a starting point. Hearts is happy and loving. Diamonds is rich, therefore snooty. Clubs is harder to work with, since the graphic is rather abstract. It could be interpreted as a clover leaf, thus food, which leads to eating, or as a paw print, which leads to walking, running, playing. Another approach is to start with the word, rather than the image; ‘club’ leads to ‘belonging to a club’ and thus to sociable. Spades is even more abstract, so I’ll settle for lazy, as mentioned above, or perhaps hard-of-hearing or even contrary, which sets the stage for the climax. Now I can write a second draft of the script. The first dog (Hearts) is charming and loving, the second one (Clubs) is sociable, the third one (Diamonds) is snooty, and the fourth one (Spades) is lazy. A bit better!

I’m going to add some interaction by asking the spectator to help cajole the ‘dogs’. The first dog (Hearts) is a sweetheart; just smile — spectator does so — and she rolls over. The second dog (Clubs) is very sociable; the moment his friend Hearts rolls over, so does he. The third one (Diamonds) is snooty; repeat after me: Diamond, would you be so kind as to please roll over for me? (card turns over) — and don’t forget to thank him! And now the fourth one — he’s easygoing, just tell him to roll over… as lazy as ever! You’ll have to tell him again… there he goes!

This is a good start for a presentation. I would add some humorous lines about the dogs, find reasons for the preliminary actions (the display of the Aces at the start of the trick), and especially, a reason for launching into the topic of dogs.

Many variations are possible. Instead of dogs, I could talk about trained penguins, Mexican jumping beans, or dancing bears; the more ludicrous, the better. At the other extreme, I could borrow an idea from Punx, and present a philosophical piece about fame, honour, wealth, and love, the latter being the hardest to attain, because it’s the most worthwhile and enduring of all.

The story approach is one of many presentational devices. Another approach is that of the ‘incompetent magician’: the trick only works with four face-down Aces, but this never happens. There’s also the sentimental approach: the trick my grandpa showed me that started me off in magic. And many more.

Once again, I can go in any direction I like. As long as it suits my style and my personality.

[You’ll find many different kinds of presentations that you can use as is, or adapt to your own style, in my book Card Stories.]

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