Thematic Thinking

How to develop a strong theme for your magic, using a puppy-inspired presentation for "Twisting the Aces" as an example.

In my last post, I talked about the literary concepts of premise and plot and how they relate to magic. In this article, I will focus on the next piece of the performance puzzle: theme.

Most performers use this term in reference to an entire act, but it is quite possible to develop a theme for an individual magic trick. When a magician mentions the word theme, he's usually referring to the clothes he wears or the appearance of his props. This preoccupation with the visual elements of a trick is deeply unhelpful. Instead, it suggests that the concept of theme is chiefly concerned with what your audience sees when the truth is the exact opposite.

The theme is about what your audience doesn't see, what is happening beneath the surface of your trick. But, most importantly, the theme is largely related to how your audience feels when they watch you perform.

Of course, the theme you choose does affect the appearance of your props (and costume, if you decide to wear one). But aesthetics shouldn't be the sole consideration when selecting a theme for your magic trick.

Note: If you haven't read my previous post on scriptwriting, I recommend doing so before reading any further (see The Power of Premise & Plot). This article will make a lot more sense if you do!

Love, Hate and Fate ❤️😑⭐

To understand the term, we need to return to the world of the writer. The theme is what a story means. It is the main driving force behind the plot and usually manifests as an insight into life or human nature.

Most stories have more than one theme. For example, the central themes in Romeo and Juliet are love, hate, and fate (Shakespeare alludes to all three of these themes in the play's Prologue). The story is driven by Romeo and Juliet's love for each other, the grudge between their two families, and the futile attempts of the star-crossed lovers to defy their own destinies. Most writers do not implicitly state the themes being used in this way. It is more common to leave the reader to discover the story's hidden meaning for themselves.

Death at a Dinner Party ☠️🍽️

One of my favourite tricks is "Thirteen at Dinner" by Bob Neale, which can be found in Life, Death and Other Card Tricks1. The theme of this off-beat version of Six-Card Repeat is superstition (as well as life and death, of course). The trick tells the story of thirteen ill-fated individuals at a dinner party and how they came to a decidedly gruesome end.

The enigmatic Eugene Burger. Photo Credit:

I discovered this trick thanks to Eugene Burger. I was fortunate enough to see Eugene perform it several times at the Blackpool Magic Convention many years ago—his treatment of the trick was brilliantly bone-chilling. In the cold and echoey Horseshoe exhibition space of the Winter Gardens, he performed a short close-up show which included this trick. Even though the location was poorly suited to close-up magic, Eugene put on a fine performance regardless. His words were the same every time he performed the trick (I sat and watched every performance). However, Eugene sounded fresh and unscripted each time. His performances were all captivating. This incredible experience convinced me of the benefits of writing a script. Here is Eugene's script for "Thirteen at Dinner":

A superstitious hostess invited some of her lively, red-blooded friends for dinner in the private dining room of an expensive restaurant.

She looked around and counted the number present. On her right were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. She was number 7. And on her left, she counted 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13... people at the party!

Frankly, the number 13 gave her the creeps, so she asked two of her equally superstitious guests to leave—which, under the circumstances, they were happy to do.

(Two cards are discarded)

Relieved, but still concerned, she counted again. 1, 2, 3... 13!

She hadn't noticed any additional guests arrive. Confused, she persuaded two more people to leave.

(Two more cards are discarded)

She was now absolutely positive there were no additional guests, but she counted the number present anyway. 1, 2, 3... 13!

Was she caught in some hideous, cosmic joke? She asked two more people to leave...

...and then, frightened, she decided to leave the party herself!

(Two more cards are discarded; then the Queen)

The next day, she was stunned when she saw the morning newspaper. They had discovered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 people in that private dining room—all blackened by death...

(Display the faces of the 10 black cards)

...from food poisoning.

Eugene's words demonstrate that a script doesn't need to be complicated or overly long to be effective. In fact, the opposite is true. This script first appeared in Genii Magazine (April, 2000). More information about his technical handling of the trick can be found in Eugene Burger: From Beyond by Lawrence Hass and Eugene Burger2.

"Twisting the Aces" Doggy Style! πŸ˜‰πŸ•

So, how does the literary concept of theme improve a magic trick? A coherent theme can strengthen every aspect of a trick. It can make it more appealing, more memorable and more engaging. It can help you shape the effect and sometimes cause you to rethink your premise. This happened to me when developing a theme for Dai Vernon's classic packet trick, "Twisting the Aces" 3.

As I stated in my previous post, "Twisting the Aces" is a great trick but lacks a compelling theme. This is partly due to the lacklustre premise; the fact that the Ace of Spades is more difficult to control than the other three Aces is of little interest to most people. However, taking a thematic approach to the trick, I've developed a more interesting premise: "What if the four Aces behaved like pet dogs?"

This premise gave me more opportunities to develop the plot of my trick. The cards don't mysteriously turn face-up anymore. Instead, they "roll over" on command! Three spectators adopt a pasteboard puppy (the Ace of Hearts, Clubs and Diamonds). I adopt the Ace of Spades. Each person chooses a name for their dog and then writes this name onto their card. Everyone's puppy does as it's told, apart from mine, which refuses to do as I instruct!

Hopefully, you can see that the specific theme I want to explore here is "the embarrassing relationship between a man and his dog". However, I also have a secondary theme in mind that is less obvious: the power of names. This theme is related to the Japanese belief of Kotodama (that mystical powers, or spirits, dwell within words and names). Speaking the names written on the cards actually causes them to turn face-up. Even though the effect is essentially the same as before, the new presentation has greater mass appeal, especially if you're a dog person. It adds some much-needed emotional content to the trick and a humorous ending that pokes fun at the performer.

Developing this concept further, I've now started using Fours instead of Aces because the pips look like paw prints (I tend to use the Four of Clubs as my dog because the pips on this card look the most like little doggy paw prints). There is also more white space on these cards, which makes the dog names easier to read. After each card turns face up, I get the spectator to rub the dog's belly, which often gets a little giggle. You can also have a lot of fun by making the cards bark!

Dalmatian card from the Dogs Top Trumps Card Game. Photo Credit: Winning Moves.

I like asking my audience to use their imagination to pretend that the cards are puppies. However, if this is a little too abstract for your liking, you can take a more literal approach and use cards with dogs drawn or printed on them. For example, I'd recommend buying the Dogs Top Trumps Card Game (see the photo above for an example card from this game). Ask your three helpers to "pick a dog, any dog!" then perform Vernon's routine with the oversized Top Trump cards. While this is technically still a card trick, the Top Trump cards add a certain amount of novelty and interest that regular playing cards lack.

The handling I use is very close to Vernon's original, but it has evolved over time; I have changed it slightly to re-enforce the premise, as follows: 

After two dogs have rolled over, I perform a brief ambitious card sequence (one of the dogs is put on the bottom of the packet and jumps back to the top when his owner says, "Here, boy!"). Next, I ask one of the puppies to roll over; the dog doesn't respond to me because I'm not his master. Finally, I tell my third participant to say the magic words "roll over", followed by the puppy's name, to which the dog dutifully complies. This strengthens the idea that the sound of the name is causing the card to turn face-up. 

I cannot make my dog roll over, so I get everyone to shout the magic word "walkiees!" When this happens, the face-up Four of Clubs pops out of the packet (this uses a colour change I invented called the Tongue Change).

Once I've finished, I let each spectator keep the dog they adopted as a souvenir of the magic. 

While I do love presenting the trick in this way, the fact that the cards are written on makes it less practical than Vernon's original. For this reason, I'm working on a script that doesn't rely on members of your audience naming the dogs but still revolves around the same premise. The four cards will already have dog names. These names will be used to make the cards turn face up one at a time.

I'm also playing around with some alternative endings. The first is an idea from Darwin Ortiz's book Strong Magic4. I'm unable to make my dog roll over, so I put him "in the dog house" (the card box) along with the rest of the dogs (if one dog misbehaves, every puppy gets punished!). While the cards are in the case, I give my misbehaving mutt one last chance to make good. I tell him to "roll over" and then carefully tip the cards onto the table. With one finger, the cards are spread, revealing that the Four of Clubs is finally face up. Clearly, my dog is sorry for his bad behaviour.

Another possible ending also involves the card box. After my dog refuses to follow my commands, I put him in the "doghouse" until he decides to play ball. I then offer to do one last trick with the other three puppies. The Four of Spades is sandwiched face down between the two face-up red cards and fails to roll over a couple of times. When the card is turned over, it is discovered to be the Four of Clubs; my disobedient dog has escaped from the "doghouse"! The innocent Four of Spades is found cowering inside the card box. I haven't tried out this ending yet. It might work well, or it may overcomplicate things.

New Dogs, Old Trick πŸΆπŸΆπŸΆπŸΆ

A logical trick to perform after "Twisting the Aces" is the two-by-two transposition of the red and black Aces (more commonly known as Dr Daley's Last Trick). This new dog-inspired premise also works well with any handling of the trick. I refer to the two red cards as "Red Setters" and the two black cards as "Black Labradors" (or "black spotted Dalmatians")  as I perform the transposition. This makes the relative location of the Fours easy to remember.

In Summary

The theme of your trick is not just concerned with how your clothes and props look; it is primarily related to how your audience feels when they watch you perform. In addition, a good theme can make an intellectual trick more emotive. Finally, a strong theme might cause you to change your trick's premise, plot and method, as it did with my "pasteboard puppies" presentation.

In my next post, I'll continue exploring alternative presentational approaches to "Twisting the Aces" by sharing three "presentation plans" for the trick.


  1. Robert E. Neale, Life, Death and Other Card Tricks (Hermetic Press, Inc., 2000), 136.

  2. Lawrence Hass and Eugene Burger, Eugene Burger: From Beyond (Theory and Art of Magic Press, 2017).

  3. "Twisting the Aces", by Dai Vernon, was first published in the book Dai Vernon's More Inner Secrets of Card Magic by Lewis Ganson. It can be found in Chapter One, page 5.

  4. Darwin Ortiz, Strong Magic (Kaufman and Company, 1994), 71.