Is your Magic Unmagical? 

By Bill Fienning


I believe that many effects which are supposed to be magical are distinctly “unmagical.”

What do I mean by “unmagical?” Much has been written in an effort to define what is magical. The magical effect must be clear and obvious to the audience, but the magical method must be covert and obscured. In essence, to be magical the effects must evoke a sense of wonder in the spectators. When the audience sees something magical, they should think, at least subconsciously, “That’s impossible.” Effects that fail to cause these feelings, whether through their intrinsic nature or their presentation by the magician, are “unmagical.”

Many things that make magic unmagical are difficult for the performer to detect. Because they are embedded in the performance and the performer cannot perform and observe at the same time, help from an outside observer is almost always required to spot problems in the following areas:

* Substitution
* Obvious methods
* “I don’t know what he did, but he did something”
* Telegraphing
* Breaking pace
* Excessive denial
* Surreptitious glances
* Incriminating evidence


Wherever you must substitute a “fake” for the real thing, examine the situation closely. The fake must look like the thing for which it substitutes. This must be true whether it is a coin shell, a body double or anything in between.

Obvious methods

Unfortunately, some magicians make no attempt to obscure their methods, or they employ techniques that are obvious to an audience that is analytical. For example, I have lost count of the number of times that I have seen a magician perform the floating dollar bill by obviously hanging it, like a piece of laundry, on the invisible thread. He then waves his hands furiously around the “floating” bill as if hoping this would distract people from the method. Compare the handling of the floating dollar bill with Blackstone’s handling of the floating light bulb. The sweeping movements of the lighted bulb over the audience defy any obvious solution.

There are some amazing mental effects that rely on numerical methods or psychological ploys. Performed correctly, these effects look like the real thing. But if you are going to employ such techniques as these, please study the psychology that surrounds them. For example, the “cross-cut” card force is strong if you know how to handle it. Magicians who do not allow a sufficient time lapse and diversion between the spectator’s cut and the examination of the forced card are ruining this method of forcing for all of us 

“I don’t know what he did, but he did something”

When I watch another magician, I try to sense the audience reaction. Sometimes, the audience is “sort-of” fooled, but they seem to think that the performer did something, even if they don’t know exactly what he did.

For example, a magician’s movements may look smooth and normal until he does his sleight of hand. Then his hands sudden jerk or move in an unexpected way. Alternately, he may try to hide the sleight by awkwardly turning away from the audience or blinking his eyes. This is the guy who handles the cups for the Cups and Balls naturally, as one would handle cups, until it is time to load a ball. Then he uses an awkward grasp, alerting the audience that something odd is happening. Some magicians use a very natural move to turn over the top card of the deck, but use a different move for a double lift. Even though the audience doesn’t know what happened, they know that something happened.

There are several common card sleights, such as the Curry Turnover Switch, that are likely to look unnatural unless done well. Some of the standard coin vanishes and billiard ball moves are sufficiently unusual to elicit the “he did something” response in the audience.

Many magicians are really uncomfortable when holding a palmed object. Their solution is to ditch the palmed object as quickly as possible. The problem is that, unless the ditching is fully integrated into another logical movement, the audience is likely to realize that he is doing something sneaky, thus killing the magic.

This is where I will attack that sacred and revered (and invisible) substance, Whiffle Dust. Magician’s pockets seem to be full of the stuff. Every magician should resolve never to use that ploy, because it informs the audience that the magician is doing something, even if they do not know what. It draws attention to the act of putting the hand into the pocket for no apparent purpose, since nothing comes out of the pocket.

There are only two logical reasons to put you hand into your pocket: to put something into the pocket or to take something out of the pocket. (Showing the pocket empty by pulling out the lining and replacing it, is a combination of these two actions.) Therefore, if you need to ditch a palmed object or fetch a secret something from a pocket, you can cover the action by actually having a small wand or perhaps an amulet in the pocket that you must use to effect the magic. Now the action has a logical basis. (A few performers, primarily mentalists, are able to stand around with both hands in their pockets while still looking natural. They use this ploy to disarm the audience when they do use their pockets for some trickery. However, unless this is your style, it doesn’t work.)


All too often I see magicians who alert the audience that sleight of hand is being performed. This is an extreme case of the situation that I discussed above. The most blatant is the magician who thinks that his classic pass is so fast that the audience could never see it. Therefore, he doesn’t need to provide misdirection or cover for it. I have seen some do a very fast pass, but it is still obvious that some sort of sneaky thing was done, even if the audience couldn’t see exactly what it was. Your pass may be fast, but it’s not so fast that the audience will fail to see a blur of inexplicable activity as you are supposedly holding the deck still. I have seen magicians do the pass immediately after the spectator has returned the chosen card to the deck, while the attention of the audience and the spectator is still focused on the magician’s hands and deck.

I have seen magicians whose entire body undulates when they perform a classic pass. Someone might think that they are suffering from some kind of medical seizure.

Then there are the ostrich magicians. They believe that if the performer cannot see the sleight, neither can the audience. So, the magician blinks his eyes when doing a sleight. Some performers may not even realize that they are doing it. However, it is obvious to the audience.

Breaking pace

Every performer has a pace of movement to which the audience becomes accustomed as they watch him. Abruptly breaking this pace (to fix a problem or think what to do next) breaks that flow. True, it may not put any secrets at risk, but it destroys the magical nature of the performance.

Excessive denial

Most lay audiences are familiar with very few magic technologies. Don’t make the mistake of suggesting methods that are probably unfamiliar to the audience. Magicians do this, combined with a denial that they are using the method. “You can see that there are no holes in the glass,” (referring to a piece of glass that it about to be penetrated). “This is not one of those trick decks like you see on TV, is it?” “You can see that no threads are attached.” “I didn’t force that card on you, did I?” Even if statements truthfully describe the situation, this kind of denial alerts the audience to techniques that may be used in other effects.

Assert the positive aspects, rather than attempting to deny the negative aspects of an effect. Sometimes, the magician’s casual handling can be much stronger than anything said. However, if a verbal comment is required, make it a statement that does not arouse suspicion. “This is a solid piece of glass.” “Shuffle the cards.”

As far as the audience should be concerned, magicians don’t have trick decks; threads are never used; and the choice of a selected card is always free. There is no reason to give the audience a hint at the techniques used for any magical effect. Introduce your equipment as if it were ordinary and unprepared. Put the emphasis on what you want the audience to believe. This does not have to be done verbally. In some cases, just giving the item to a spectator to hold will deflect suspicion even if the equipment really is tricked.

Of course, there are certain effects where it is crucial that the audience believes that a particular situation does not exist. In those cases, the magician must ensure that the audience understands the true situation. For example, use a simple procedure that produces a random selection of an audience member for a participant, thus demonstrating to the audience that this person is not a stooge. (These comments refer to a lay audience. There are certain circumstances where fooling an audience of magicians is important and extraordinary lengths to prove “innocence” are required.)

Surreptitious glances

The audience will tend to look where the magician looks and focuses his attention. This is a well-know principle of misdirection. So when a magician sneaks a glance to see if he is doing a secret action correctly, the audience attention moves there also. One of the worst cases that I have seen was a magician who was groping furiously at his lapels for the monofilament loop of a dove harness.  He finally tilted his head, looking downward to find it. It was not exactly a mystery when the dove appeared.

Incriminating evidence

Many tricks create waste that can reveal the secret. The pieces of “Card Warp” can help in reconstructing the secret. The crushed wand refill from the “Vanishing Wand” explains almost everything. Fragments from the Gypsy Thread Effect or a cut and restored rope could provide secret information. People scavenging through waste left on stage or in trash containers can learn secrets that they do not need to know. So make a habit of either taking your incriminating trash home with you or destroying it completely. I include the incriminating items that must be located for disposal in my “Cleanup List” for after the show.

Leaving equipment on the table for people to handle after the show can also be a problem. Put things away after a close-up show. This is usually less of a problem on stage, but stage hands, visitors or other performers may be tempted to examine your equipment. This can also be true before the show. An even worse situation is that someone handling the equipment may disrupt the setup needed for your subsequent performance.

Let me conclude this rant on unmagical magic by asserting that we are all responsible for protecting the secrets of magic. A frequent consequence of unmagical magic is unintentional exposure. I am unhappy when a magician, through carelessness or incompetence, exposes an effect. I am doubly distressed when it is also one of my favorite tricks. The close and meticulous analysis that I have described requires effort on the part of the performer. Yet, it is a technique that will reward not only you, but also your audience with a more magical performance. 

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