The Inevitable Surprise

By Joe McKay - Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Michael Weber mentions the idea of The Inevitable Surprise in a few interviews that can be found online.

This is my attempt to build on his wonderful insight. My interpretation is a little bit different to the way he clarified his thinking to me in a couple of emails. In the recent David Williamson Vanishing Inc. Magic Masterclass: Live - Williamson talks about “wrapping a bow” around the end of a routine to give it a surprising ending that wraps everything together in a satisfying way.

Jim Steinmeyer has also written that the best magic offers surprise, but in an expected, satisfying way.

I have been studying magic for the past 25 years. I have never really performed much. I was always trapped in that cycle that amateurs get into where they are continually learning, buying and studying. Going down different purposeless rabbit holes.

I have always seen magic as a fractal. You can zoom in or zoom out on the field, and you will always find interesting new details to obsess over. Whether that be coin magic, the history of the Zig-Zag illusion, Houdini, The Gilbreath Principle, mentalism, the work of Alex Elmlsey... or even kid show magic (the one area I have never really been that interested in).

I know that the level of detail that is ultimately most important is the one where you care about the spectator's experience.

I know this on a logical level.

That said - I think a lot of magicians never actually get to this point in their development as a magician. When magic is a hobby that gives you pleasure, it is hard to flip your relationship the other way round and to focus on how it can give pleasure to others.

Well - I eventually burned through all my distractions and interests in magic. Until I was left facing the one aspect I had never really thought about before. How can we make magic interesting and compelling for audiences?

It has been more fun than I thought it would be. To give an esoteric analogy - it is like when you listen to jazz and instead of listening to the notes, you start focusing on the silence between the notes.

As such - you end up not thinking in terms of tricks, principles and cool methods. Instead - you start thinking about the overall structure of a trick. This is why I find Michael Weber's concept of The Inevitable Surprise to be so compelling.

A good trick is rooted in the ideas explored in David Ben's The Tragic Rhythm essay (see Scripting Magic - Vol 2). These are tricks that have natural interest and drama built into them. These are tricks that create a rhetorical dialogue with the audience's subconscious.

But the best tricks are the ones that end with a pretty bow wrapped around them (so to speak), where they end in a surprising manner that makes satisfying sense.

My hobby other than magic is getting drunk by myself and watching pop videos on youtube. It's not much of a life, but I find it fun. What is interesting is that many of the best pop videos end with a twist that feels inevitable when you go back and listen to the song again.

One example would be ‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae Jepsen. A music video that has been viewed over a billion times on youtube:

So - that is one area where your subconscious can feed on this type of thinking. Shows like The Twilight Zone would be another. However - a pop video lasts about as long as a magic trick. So - I find that concision and compactness is more inspiring to me, than simply watching a story that takes place over 30 minutes.

Now - I was discussing Michael Weber's concept of The Inevitable Surprise with a friend via email. I am just going to take a break here to "cut and paste" those thoughts into here. This may seem a bit lazy, but really this essay is more of a brain dump than anything else.

The tricks I am focusing on all seem to have interesting twists to them. I feel like that is the type of magic I like the most. The ones that end with some kind of surprise that feels inevitable in hindsight (this is the Michael Weber philosophy).

My theory is this. Laypeople have no idea what we can and cannot do. We know we are limited by a few basic magic principles (eg roughing fluid and invisible thread). As such - if you perform a traditional trick - the spectator will consciously or subconsciously want to challenge the conditions of the trick. For example - you do the Brainwave deck and they hand you their own deck of cards and ask you to repeat it.

So - what magicians have to do - is frame their tricks so that the structure is playful and witty in some way. The surprise twist at the end of the trick gives the spectator a satisfying climax (insert joke here) - so that the part of their brain wanting to challenge what they have just seen is switched off.

Not only that - by demonstrating magical powers in such a playfully exuberant way - it gives the impression that the magician can perform much stronger miracles if he really wanted to. But instead he chooses to do something that is a lesser miracle because the magician thinks this particular trick is funnier or more playful in some way.

The idea is to leave the spectator with the idea of withheld power. They are seeing us perform magic - and we are not even trying.

It is like in those movies. The most impressive demonstrations of power are not when the hero (or superhero) does something incredible (like destroy the world). But instead it is when they do the small things so well - that the real depth of their powers is left unspoken for the imagination to exaggerate in the spectator's mind.

There are lots of examples of this in cinema. But I cannot think of many just now. But here is one. The Terminator is a time-travelling superhero who can pretty much do anything. Yet - the way he goes into a biker bar and easily beats up a few bikers is almost the most impressive thing he does in the film because he is not even trying.

Restrained power.

When you perform magic in a way that the trick is wrapped up in some kind of clever or witty structure - it gives the impression of you not only performing great magic but, in a way where you are just tossing it off in order to be witty, clever or funny instead.

Laypeople don't know what we are unable to do. So, by teasing them in this way - it leaves them with the subconscious impression that we could do much better miracles if that was the only thing we set out to do.

It is like if a seven-year-old kid asked Superman to impress him. He would do something impressive and witty - rather than go all guns blazing such as throwing the moon into the Sun as a demonstration of his incredible powers. Something like instantly freezing the can of Coke the kid has in his hands by blowing on it.

What we are doing here is using the magic effect to affect the spectator in such a way that we leave them with an even more impressive impression of us.

I think the mistake Bizarre Magick makes is that it focuses on presentation and not on plot.

As such - it often applies an interesting(?!) presentation to a boring plot. Personally - I don't even like most of these presentations since I feel it is offering a spectator a lesser version of what they can find in a much better format by simply reading a a story or watching a movie covering the same theme.

Therefore, since the plot does not make the trick engaging it just feels like a puzzle with a story tacked on to it.

Magic should be engaging and interactive. As such - the plot should be what drives the story and not the presentation.

This is what Penn & Teller are so good at. The plot and presentation intertwine to push each other forward. Their version of the Cups & Balls is a really good example of that.

When I look at magic these days - I strip everything away until I can just see the broad outline of the journey that the trick takes. And in about 95% of cases - the trick finishes exactly where you promised it would at the start of the trick.

So, in effect the plot is nothing but a straight line. This is where a trick enters puzzle territory, since there is nothing else for the spectator to focus on other than figuring out the secret.

As such - I only really pay attention to about 5% of tricks these days. My sense is that if your repertoire just consists of nothing but tricks with interesting and engaging plots - then you will be perceived as being much more entertaining since the choice of material is doing most of the heavy lifting for you.

Okay - let's get back to this essay...

I was thinking about a political cartoon I saw a few years ago. Yesterday, I dug it out again because I was really affected by how effective it was as a piece of political rhetoric. You can find a link to it here:

This is another excellent example of the inevitable surprise. I am not really an art guy. I don't particularly care for any painting I have ever seen. So, I was wondering why it was that I had remembered this cartoon for the past few years?

My sense is that the witty way the two stories merge in the final image provides your memory with a hook by which to hang the memory of the cartoon on.

I wonder if designing tricks so they pack an inevitable surprise does a similar thing?

As magicians - we are so focused on methods and effects, that it is easy to forget that 90% of a spectator's experience of a trick is made up of the memory of the trick as opposed to just the trick itself.

The present is rapidly being converted into memories every time you blink. So - by providing a witty ending to a trick that creates an inevitable surprise - it allows the memory to digest the experience and transfer it to the longer-term memory since there is something rich and nourishing about the experience that the brain wants to spend longer digesting it.

Compare this to the majority of magic downloads you see. You get the quick dopamine hit of the visual flash of magic. And your brain tries to unpick the method by treating it like a puzzle.

And as soon as the brain tires and gives up - it files the memory into a deep black hole never to be thought about again.

Why is this?

Well - not being able to figure something out is not a fun experience. So the ego part of your mind wants to flush away the experience and forget about it. If you think about the most vivid and rewarding memories you have - they are not ones where you gave up in frustration when you were unable to figure something out. Just as well, since it would mean my mind would be constantly replaying the many maths lessons I have struggled through.

So - by structuring tricks in a way that creates a pleasant memory - it allows a different part of the brain to absorb the experience.

And that makes for more rewarding magic.

This style of thinking reminds me a little of what Don Draper did in his famous Kodak pitch at the end of the first season of Mad Men. Since what we are doing here is trying to repackage the experience of the spectator, similar to how an ad executive may focus on selling a product by finding a way to communicate with the audience at a level deeper than simply offering something flashy and new.

You can see the scene here.

Here is another email I sent a friend exploring the topics in this essay. I just want to include this email since I raise the question of how to identify other tricks in magic that have these kinds of structure. There is no simple way to identity or label them, so it is a hard topic to research. As such - I would appreciate any pointers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Denis Behr’s brilliant Conjuring Archive site had a category devoted to this type of trick?

I often wonder what magicians mean when they talk about a trick being dismissed as a puzzle?

I think I have the answer.

If the trick has no plot (such that the trick is simply a straight line from start to finish) - the spectator has nothing to do other than try and figure out how it is done.

If you make a hole move on a signed card. That is a cool effect - but it is also something that can only be appreciated as an interesting puzzle.

So, this means you have the spectator trying to figure out the trick and subconsciously resenting you because you know the secret and they don't. Added to which - moving a hole across a signed card is ultimately worthless and unimpressive compared to say building an airplane or pretty much anything else science and engineering has achieved.

What I look for these days are tricks that start off in one direction and then end up somewhere totally unexpected. But also - a destination that is logically related to the starting point.

I think this engages the spectator such that they lose themselves in the magic, and don't simply observe it as a puzzle to try and figure out.

So, the way to stop a trick from being perceived as a puzzle and to turn into a piece of engaging magic is to make sure the trick has some kind of plot that finishes in a place that is surprising in some way compared to where the spectator thought they were going.

It's just a shame there is no simple way to identify or describe these types of tricks - since I think the real hidden gems in magic are these types of tricks.

I have started a list of tricks that I categorise as Inevitable Surprises. I will share some of them here so that you can go away and learn some tricks that utilize this type of thinking.

Check out "Back In Time" by Jay Sankey, "Thanks To Hofzinser" by Jerry Sadowitz, "The Smiling Mule" by Roy Walton, "Chinese Prediction" by Dave Campbell and "Infallible Prediction" by Dave Campbell.

Also - check out The Gambling Routine that David Williamson teaches on the first Vanishing Inc. Magic Masterclass: Live. I was getting bored of card tricks a while ago. But what I realise now is that cards are a tool. And luckily for us - they are the ideal prop to routine tricks in such a way that you can end with a satisfying and surprising climax.

I recently saw an example of this type of thinking in an illusion by Doug Henning. Jim Steinmeyer designed illusions for Doug Henning. So this is an example of the type of thinking that Steinmeyer has written about in the past.

Another nice thing about designing a trick, so it has a witty and surprising climax, is that it provides a reason for the trick to exist in the first place.

The subtext is this:

You wanted to share something witty and surprising with the spectator.

This removes the "sting" of magic which can occur when you perform a straight-line effect. These can often feel like a battle of wits between the spectator and the magician.

It can become a contest designed by the magician that has a winner... and a loser.

And guess who is always the loser?

When you share something that can be appreciated on a level other than, "Was I fooled?" - it allows the spectator to share in the enjoyment of the magic rather than feeling like he is a loser in a game designed by the magician.

The points I am making are obvious. And the reason more magicians don't make this point is because designing this type of magic is the hardest thing in the world.

It is about adding wit, charm and style to your deceptions. It is a totally different way of thinking to the usual obsession over methods.

Andy (over at The Jerx) is the only creator I have seen who regularly designs magic in this way.

You can learn a lot about this style of magic by studying the magic of Penn & Teller, Justin Willman and Barry & Stuart.

"The Big Surprise" by Michael Close is another example of this type of trick. Michael says he was inspired by an episode of The Twilight Zone when he invented that trick.

It shows. The trick has a wonderful recursive structure.

I will end by discussing some examples of this way of thinking from outside of magic.

One of my favourite directors is Edgar Wright.

You can learn a lot about inventive, creative and smart directing from his films.

It is this playful use of structure that magic needs more of.

Structure can be defined in this way.

You know where you are taking the audience.

And so does the audience.

Yet you still find a way to trip them up and deliver them there in a surprising way.

‘Rope’ by Alfred Hitchcock is one of my all-time favourite films. It is a movie that feels like a series of satisfying magic tricks - one after another. I once heard Penn Jillette say that it was his favourite film ever (along with ‘Fight Club’). That is a movie worth checking out if you want to see how a film can use witty structure to toy with the expectations of the audience whilst still wrapping everything up at the end into a satisfying conclusion.

Another hero of mine is Quentin Tarantino. I love his movies. But even more than his movies - I love hearing him discuss his passion for cinema.

He once said that most people who love cinema, really only love one or two genres of movie.

But he was different. He loves all genres of cinema.

I am like that with magic. But I have to remind myself that when you perform for laypeople - you have to choose those aspects of magic that laypeople might also enjoy - and then focus on sharing that.

That is why they are laypeople in the first place - and not magicians.

They are not obsessed with magic. So - you have to find the correct bait to hook them with.

"Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms.

So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn't bait the hook with strawberries and cream.

Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: "Wouldn't you like to have that? Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?"

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Reader comments:


Tuesday, 20 October 2020 10:04 AM - Reply to this comment

Thanks, man. An amazing read!


Wednesday, 21 October 2020 13:27 PM - Reply to this comment

Annie illusion. Just wow.


Thursday, 22 October 2020 00:33 AM - Reply to this comment

I just want to follow-up on the essay I wrote above with the following research that Josh Jay carried out.

When you study his findings you will see that "surprise" was the single thing that most appealed to laypeople.

I cannot post links here - so instead just search for the following words on google: magic convention survey joshua jay.

You will find a link to the survey that he published in the September 2016 issue of MAGIC magazine.

I am pleased some of you enjoyed the essay above.


Joe Mckay


Wednesday, 28 October 2020 10:32 AM - Reply to this comment

Un grand merci pour cette réflexion qui incite à la revoir sa façon de penser la magie.

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