The Power of Premise & Plot

Writing a script is one of the best ways to improve your magic. In this short article, we discuss the concepts of premise and plot.

I believe the biggest mistake most amateur magicians make is failing to write a script for each of their magic tricks. If you don't pen a script, then it is doubtful that you'll have anything interesting to say when you perform your magic. This is why so many magicians describe what they're doing with their hands, which is the dullest form of presentation.

But let's face facts, writing a good script is difficult and time-consuming, which explains why most people, especially amateur magicians, don't bother to do it. So, I thought I'd write a series of posts focusing on scriptwriting and how we can all get better at it. In this first article, I'll discuss the concept of premise and plot, the difference between the two, and how these important concepts are connected. However, before we do that, let's discuss the many benefits of scriptwriting.

Why Should I Bother Writing a Script?

Most stage magicians do some level of scriptwriting due to the fear of failure and the public embarrassment that follows it. It is more unusual for close-up magicians to write scripts. Instead, they tend to "wing it, " hoping their presentations will evolve and improve over time. This approach works for charismatic individuals who perform the same tricks for different audiences but is less helpful for hobbyists. It can also result in drawn-out presentations with too much dialogue. In other words, your early audiences pay the price for your lack of preparation.

There's a misconception that following a script will constrain you as a performer. In reality, a good script does the opposite—it liberates you. It makes it much easier for you to add lib during a performance. You can stick to your planned route or wander off into the forest, safe in the knowledge that you can return to the well-trodden path if things don't work out. Even if you don't write a script, you end up following one anyway—the one you make up in your head as you perform. It might not be written down, but this mental script still dictates the quality of your performance. So, I think scripting your magic is the most important thing you can do to improve as a magical performer.

My mother was a primary school teacher. She used to write detailed lesson plans. One day, I asked her why she bothered to do this because writing them was onerous (she often stayed up late to finish them off). She said that, while she didn't enjoy writing them, the lessons with a plan were always more successful than those without. I think the same holds true for scriptwriting. If I write a script for a trick, the probability that I'll have a successful performance increases. Equally, the chance that something will go wrong also diminishes significantly. In short, the effort is well worth the reward.

Many professionals agree with my mother's approach. For example, Jason Ladanye nearly always scripts his magic. He does this because he wants to know that he will nail his presentation. Rehearsing with a script gives him confidence; if he makes a technical error, his script gives him the time (and mental space) to find a solution on the fly.1

We often have to give our volunteers precise instructions to follow. If you don't script these instructions, there is a strong likelihood that you'll have to repeat yourself or your helper will make a mistake. A solid script will make your instructions crystal clear and minimise the chances of your participant doing something they shouldn't, such as shuffling the cards when you only asked them to repeatedly cut the pack instead.

Writing a script can help you reduce your use of filler words, helping you mind your "uhms" and "ahhs" (professional speakers call these disfluencies). There are three types of filler words:

  • Simple filler words: ah, er, uhm
  • Bridge filler words: and, but, so
  • Meaningless filler words, used out of context: actually, basically, like, literally, you know

Similarly, working from a script helps you avoid repetitive words or phrases. There is power in repeating words and phrases (the Greeks called this technique "anaphora"). For example, who could forget Winston Churchill's famous speech "We shall fight on the beaches". However, when it happens accidentally, repetition can become distracting. 

When we perform or speak to others, we tend to develop bad habits and repeatedly use the same words and phrases. This is a form of mental crutch that we fall back on when struggling to find the right words or things to say. Simple filler words are neutral vowel sounds. We use them as a natural way to bridge a speech gap while figuring out what to say next. Filler words are an essential part of everyday conversation. Rather than pause, we use them to avoid losing our turn in a conversation. They also signal to others to pay attention because we're thinking carefully about what we're going to say next.

Bridge filler words are also used to keep our turn in a conversation. Unfortunately, after a great deal of repetition, these words become habitual. They will then find their way into your magical presentations. Stringing together sentences with bridge words can lead to incredibly long run-on sentences. These can be particularly tough for your audience to comprehend.

In addition, several other common words are frequently used out of context and serve as filler words. Using these meaningless filler words is nothing more than a bad habit. Such words can be eliminated with a small amount of conscious effort.

Why is it important to avoid repetition and filler words? Well, so long as they don't affect comprehension, then most people won't even notice them. However, when your presentations are full of disfluencies, they detract from the magical moments in your routine. Worst of all, they can cause your audience to lose interest in what you're trying to say.

In this way, a script will help you communicate efficiently without babbling. It will also enable you to clearly communicate and will avoid confusion when asking someone to do something for you. Finally, a solid script can remind you of the moves you need to perform during a routine; this is particularly useful when attempting a trick involving long sequences of complicated sleight of hand.

While I firmly believe that writing a script for each magic trick in your working repertoire is a worthwhile goal, you don't always have to do it. Scriptwriting is essential if you're performing a formal show (or you're a beginner who would benefit from the confidence a script provides). However, if you have a reasonable amount of experience as a performer, you might get away with a basic "performance plan". This document should include a clear premise for your trick and a bare-bones script: a list of essential words, phrases, one-liners, jokes and other patter related to the presentation of the trick.

What is the Premise of a trick?

Many magic authors talk about the "premise" of a trick. But what exactly is a premise in this context? This is an important question because a good premise can mean the difference between a fantastic trick and a boring one. When a magician talks about the premise of his trick, he uses the word in much the same way a writer would. The premise is the foundation of a story and gives it substance; it is a single concept that drives the plot forward. Writers often pose a premise as a "What would happen if…" question. Below is an example of a premise from the film industry—can you guess the motion picture it describes?

"Three eccentric parapsychologists start a ghost-catching business in New York." 👻

Professional writers, especially screenwriters, usually start with a premise and develop a story from it. As magicians, we typically have to do the opposite; take a trick and discover a premise that gives a reason for the magic to happen. This is much more difficult to do. As a result, many magic tricks are performed without a clearly defined premise. I believe this is the cause of a lot of bad magic. Defining some kind of premise gives your trick a hook and provides a starting point for developing an engaging presentation.

It is worth pointing out that, while many writers start with a promising premise, others begin by writing a single scene, imagining a world for their story to take place in, or fleshing out a compelling character (or, maybe, something else entirely). As magicians, we can do the same. Sometimes it is best to start writing and see where the words, sentences and paragraphs take you.

In his excellent book Approaching Magic, David Regal supports this idea by saying, "Deciding on a premise is perhaps the most valuable and pragmatic act one can make when seeking to develop or improve a presentation." 2 David has written for television shows, such as Rugrats and Everybody Loves Raymond and co-wrote the screenplay for the film Angel of Mine. He also served as head writer and co-executive producer for The Carbonaro Effect and has been named Lecturer of the Year by the Academy of Magical Arts. Therefore, I think it is worth listening to what he says on this topic!

Another performer that I admire is Arthur Trace. I met Arthur at Blackpool Magic Convention and spent time chatting with him about his unique presentations for classic effects. He is adept at developing compelling presentations that explore the relationship between reality and imagination. His manipulation act, called Postmodern Art, is an excellent example of his creative approach. In it, he uses magic to paint a piece of modern art. The magic is well-motivated, unlike most acts of this kind. This is because the theatrical premise of his act is strong ("What would happen if a magician painted a piece of modern art using his magical abilities?").

The premise of your trick should not be confused with the theme of your trick. That is something altogether different. Your theme is the emotional or intellectual concept that you're exploring. For example, the theme of Arthur's manipulation act is art. It is entirely possible to develop more than one premise for the same theme, especially one this broad. 

Your premise acts as the starting point for the development of your presentation. For example, another magician might have explored the theme differently and attempted to answer the question: "What would happen if a person discovered a cursed painting by a dead artist?" While this premise might result in similar magical effects, the end result would likely differ.

Maybe the painting would be more disturbing or gothic in appearance. In this case, the premise might change the trick's specific theme. For example, rather than a homage to the postmodern era of art that emerged during the middle of the twentieth century, this act might explore Victorian gothic realism. Or the painting might look more like The Scream by Edvard Munch (pictured below) or the supposedly haunted portrait known as The Anguished Man3

The premise can also alter the effect or act itself. If we further develop this horror-inspired act, a dark version of David Devant's "Artist's Dream"4 might be more suitable than a manipulation act. Maybe a shadowy figure emerges from the painting and dances around the stage before climbing back into the portrait (echoing the character of Sadako, who crawls out of a TV screen in Hideo Nakata's supernatural horror film Ring). Or perhaps the magician disappears completely, then reappears in the picture, trapped in the cursed canvas for eternity!

The Scream by Edvard Munch. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

So next time you practice a trick, why don't you try and think of a premise that might make it more powerful?

The Plot Thickens

Another term used in magic books is the word "plot". But what exactly do we mean when we talk about the plot of a magic trick? Like premise, the word also comes from the world of literature. It refers to the events that make up a story. Also known as a storyline, the plot is the central narrative of a dramatic work, such as a play, a novel or even a magic trick. The plot of a simple magic trick is, essentially, the same thing as the effect (as experienced by your audience).

To advance the story, writers use something known as a plot device. This is an object or character that drives the story forward. Returning to Postmodern Art by Arthur Trace, the plot device is obvious; it is the large abstract painting on the stage (Arthur created this painting himself).

Plot points (objects or events of significant importance) also help to develop the story. For example, in Arthur's routine, the appearance of the coloured balls, the paintbrush, and the tin of paint are all significant plot points. Usually, the individual magical moments function as the major plot points within a performance of magic. 

The ultimate purpose of the plot is to accomplish an artistic effect or emotional response (a great artist can sometimes achieve both of these lofty goals).

The Relationship Between Premise and Plot

So, how does the plot of a magic trick relate to its premise? The easiest way to understand this relationship is to look at a simple example. Let's look at one that is more relevant to the close-up performer.

Vernon's "Twisting the Aces" is a true classic of card magic. In his book Dai Vernon's Inner Card Secrets, Lewis Ganson makes the premise of the trick very clear: the Ace of Spades is more powerful than the other three Aces. It is more conspicuous, therefore, is the most difficult to manipulate.

The plot of Vernon's trick is also very straightforward: the four Aces mysteriously turn face-up one by one. The trick contains four plot points, namely the reversal of each of the four Aces. It is also interesting to note that the twisting motion used in the trick acts as a plot device and successfully pushes the narrative forward.

The theme of the trick is more difficult to discern because the magical effect (cards reversing) is an abstract concept and more intellectual in nature. In other words, there is no real emotional content. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Not all tricks need to be deep and meaningful.

Which Should Come First, the Premise or the Plot?

In an ideal world, you should start with a clear premise and then develop the plot of your trick. However, this isn't possible when trying to improve a trick you already perform. However, this doesn't mean you can't modify your existing plot to better serve your premise. Remember, your plot should never undermine your premise!

Also, it is tough to use theatrical techniques like suspense if you don't have an apparent premise before developing your trick. And a trick without a strong premise is also liable to have a weak structure—the hallmark of bad magic.

In Summary

Scriptwriting is not just for stage performers. Everyone, including amateur magicians and close-up workers, could benefit from writing scripts for their magic.

It is wise to start with a premise (or find one that works with an existing trick). This is the foundation of your routine and gives it substance. Your premise is a single concept that drives the plot, or effect, forward. The plot refers to the events, actions and moments of magic that make up your trick. The ultimate purpose of the plot is to accomplish an artistic effect or emotional response.

In my next post on scriptwriting, I'll look more closely at how using a strong theme can improve your presentations.


Footnotes

  1. Jason Ladanye, a full-time professional magician and student of Darwin Ortiz, has written an excellent blog post on scriptwriting in which he shares his thoughts on this important topic.

  2. David Regal, Approaching Magic (Blue Bikes Productions, Inc., 2008), 421.

  3. The Anguished Man was painted by an unknown artist who reportedly mixed his blood into the paint used to create it. The painting is said to be haunted by the ghost of the anonymous artist, who took his own life shortly after completing it.

  4. David Devant first performed his trick "Artist's Dream" in 1893. In it, a picture in an artist's studio comes to life. The illusion was a scaled-down version of his previous trick, "Vice Versa". The "Artist's Dream" was scripted by Mel. B. Spurr. Later, Alexander Herrmann developed his own version of the trick and, more recently, Jim Steinmeyer created "Artist's Daydream" for the Pendragons.