The Too-Obvious Theory

By Dominic Twose - Friday, January 17, 2020

The Too-Perfect theory was proposed by Rick Johnsson in The Hierophant in 1970. It is still referred today, fifty years on, which, given the vast number of words printed every year on magic, is quite an achievement. For those who have missed it, Johnsson’s theory was, in essence: Man must have a solution to things that bewilder him. People no longer think ‘magic’ is achieved by supernatural means. So it is inevitable that people will leave a magic performance with some view of how the effects were achieved; thinking objects went up or down his sleeve or whatever – likely the wrong solution, but good enough to satisfy their need for a method. Johnsson felt that some tricks are ‘too perfect’ in that they permitted of only one possible solution – the correct one. He recommended making the trick ‘imperfect’ by introducing a false solution which will give the magician credit for his skill.

He gives an example of giving a spectator a deck of cards, getting them to go into the next room, look at one of the cards, and return. The magician, without touching the deck, names the card. The method, a one-way forcing deck, is, to Johnsson, too perfect, because it is the only possible solution, and so is one the spectator will guess.

Johnsson offers a number of ways to make the trick imperfect. These include keeping the spectator in the room while he looks at a card, and the magician handling the deck after the card is replaced – both weakening the magical effect, but increasing the likelihood that the spectator thinks the magician is clever or skilful (it is worth adding something that is often overlooked; Johnsson says, ‘many effects need not be imperfected’). To me, the theory is misnamed. It shouldn’t be called the Too-Perfect Theory, but the Too-Obvious Theory. If someone takes a deck out of a room, cuts to and looks at one card, then you tell them what the card is, many will suspect you have a one-way forcing deck. They probably won’t call it that, but that’s what in their heads they will be picturing. They will guess because the method is the obvious one. Not too perfect, but too obvious. John Carney suggested thinking of it as the ‘One-Solution Theory,’ or the ‘What-Else? Theory.’ That matters, because re-identifying the problem leads to alternate solutions.

Rather than make the trick less perfect by offering a plausible solution, instead make the solution less obvious. And this is where it gets interesting, because there are many ways to do this, some much better than others.

Years ago I met a magician who claimed he deliberately chose to use obvious methods in his magic, thinking his audience would think ‘he wouldn’t do it that way, surely? It’s too obvious.’ ‘It’s a double bluff,’ he told me. He was an idiot.

Once I was totally fooled by a performance of Paul Harris’s Solid Deception, where the deck becomes solid. I completely missed the switch. Not because his misdirection was so good, but because his presentation was so poor I’d completely lost interest long before the denouement. I just didn’t care. This isn’t a route I’d recommend. You need to make them care enough about the effect.

One approach you could use if faced with a spectator determined to find solutions to your effects is outlined in Stephen Leacock’s story, The Conjurer's Revenge. It isn’t an approach I’d particularly recommend, but I remember reading it as a boy, and suspect it was quite an influence on me becoming a magician. If you are a performing a mentalism effect, your task is easier. Many in your audience will want the method to be ‘he read my mind’ – and will look no further. If you want to convince someone a lie is true, make it something they want to believe.

A far more interesting approach, as Erdnase pointed out, is to change the moment. A great example of this is Carlyle’s superb Homing Card, where a signed selection appears in your pocket. The method is the obvious one – you palm out the card and put it in your pocket. But the timing and psychology of Carlyle’s method means the spectator eliminates palming as a method…leaving him nowhere to go.

In applying the Too-Perfect Theory to floatation effects, Jamy Ian Swiss once argued that floating an object was ‘too obvious’, and animating the object was a better way to go. However, Steve Dusheck marketed an effect called Wonderbar, where a silver bar floated. The ‘obvious’ solution, that it was on a thin thread, was eliminated by putting the bar in a tube and stopping up the end with a cork – the tube still floated. Copperfield adopted similar thinking in his wonderful Flying illusion.

Then there is Tamariz’s superb False Solution approach, where you lead the spectator down the path of a possible solution, which you later make clear is false. I strongly recommend reading his Magic Way to understand this better.

Part of my personal approach is to recognize that the audience is not homogenous - different people will approach a magic effect from different standpoints. As a basic categorization, some will be happy to be entertained, others will fight to catch you out. My aim during a performance is to move people from the latter to the former group. One of my favourite examples of seeing this at work is with the psychological stop card trick. I love this effect and do it a lot. But I learned a long time ago that if I perform it as a standalone, or near the start of a set, people are likely to shrug and say, ‘You got lucky.’ Coming half-way through the set, when you’ve demonstrated what you are capable of, the audience themselves dismiss the ‘obvious’ solution.

Similarly Decramps in his Testament advises against using the Classic Force at the start of a performance, but instead use it later when the audience is more likely to have suspended their disbelief. On the Revelations DVDs, Vernon shows how his Ambitious Card routine in Stars of Magic is structured to quickly identify and ‘convert’ the people trying to find the solutions.

The final, and widest, solution I want to touch on is presentation. A strong presentation in itself can misdirect from the actual method. And for this I want to come back to Johnsson’s example in his original article. It makes me wonder if he was writing tongue in cheek throughout. In 1933 Al Baker’s Book was published. In it is a trick called ‘Impossible Card Discovery.’ The effect is that a spectator goes to another room, takes a card from a deck and the performer names it. The method is a one-way force deck. But Baker cleverly eliminates this as a method through a presentation which covers a very natural deck switch.

If you have a trick where spectators guess the method, instead of turning to the Too-Perfect Theory, think about the Too-Obvious Theory, and the range of possible solutions available to you.

Reader comments:


Tuesday, 21 January 2020 14:58 PM - Reply to this comment

That's a great take on this topic, thanks for the post.


Sunday, 22 March 2020 11:18 AM - Reply to this comment

I suggest that people who read this article read Darwin Ortiz's book Designing Miracles. In one section of the book he discussed the "Too Obvious Theory."


Thursday, 18 February 2021 17:48 PM - Reply to this comment

Thank, you, prahlad! Sorry I've taken so long to respond. I didn't know about Darwin's discussion. I have a high regard for Ortiz, although I don't always agree with him. As is true here - I agree with the first half of his article, not convinced by the second half!

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