Shortest Distance from A to B: a detour
A while back, when I was starting to get into mentalism, I spent a long time thinking about a bunch of the classic mentalism methods (mostly billet switches and c-tears). One thing that always kind of puzzled me was why they had gone so out of fashion. In the eighteen- and nineteen-hundreds there had been people who literally made entire careers out of pretty much just a good billet switch. Now I was hard pressed to find anyone who even practiced them. (This is certainly partially due to who I hang out with and how magicians interact, but that is a discussion for another time.) At the same time as I was wondering this, I was also trying to come up with new clever uses for these old techniques, and it was this pursuit that I think led me to an answer for my first question, and that is this: it is pretty hard to make effects that use those methods feel like anything other than exactly what they are. By this I mean it’s hard to make a c-tear effect feel like anything other than a question of how you secretly read what was on the paper you tore, or a billet effect that doesn’t just feel like a question of when you secretly looked at the billet they write (if not the complete idea of a full switch and peak). There are certainly effects that use these methods in clever, oblique ways, but much of the published material on these methods definitely falls into a category of effect I started calling “Shortest Distance from A to B”.
“A to B” effects are literally just the most direst, simple, and often obvious application of their method. (Have a way to switch two billets? Have your effect be that two billets switched places! How did it happen?) So many mentalism texts boil down to the quickest way to have someone write down a piece of info, you to secretly look at it, and then tell them what it is. I think this is a fundamentally flawed way of approaching mentalism. Effects like that tend to be unsatisfying for the participants and therefore rarely get the reactions the magician wants. This is because, aside from the fact that having the participant write down their thought is, as Derren Brown would say, an unaddressed visible compromise (why do they have to write it if you are going to read their mind!?!?), the focus on speed of method tends to cause a push towards speed of effect, which loses sight of the importance of process, and with it story.
Method speed (the overall time the method actually requires) impacts effect speed. As these techniques pushed towards faster and faster methods (“…allowing you to have switched the billet before they have even recapped the pen!”) so to where they pushed towards faster and faster effects (“Don’t waste any time with superfluous stuff. If you know the thought, reveal it!”). But here’s the thing: with a very few exceptions, mentalism effects should not be done quickly. First of all, you have already had billets taken, written, folded, and moved around (giving you an opportunity to switch, tear, etc). The effect is already not going to feel “quick.” Additionally, if you do a mentalism effect fast, chances are you skimped on the most important part: the actual “mind reading.” No matter how fast you switch the billets, you have to show the participants the supposed process of you reading their minds. Otherwise all they saw was a magician write down something he wasn’t supposed to know (just about the ultimate form of magic-as-puzzle*). If the process you give them is quick and half hearted then no matter how deceptive the method, the effect is basically just a puzzle. No matter how fast the real process is, give the pseudo-process its due time and space.
Tied up with the question of mind reading process is the story you place it into. (I mean story as in context, not literal Sam the Bellhop or Exclusive Coterie story presentation.) When I started mentalism it was all about finding new methods (and I do still love learning about clever new techniques), but now almost all my time is spent thinking about presentations, and there the magical literature is sadly lacking. I have half a mind to write the presentational equivalent of 202 Methods of Forcing, but it’s just a list of presentation possibilities with zero discussion of method. There are enough clever mentalism methods out there to achieve juuuust about any effect (if you find one you can’t crack just drop us a line, I literally love figuring shit like that out), but what we really need more of are compelling ways of presenting those effects. We have 202 ways of secretly finding out their thought, now we need 202 ways of telling them how we found out their thought. The best part is, those presentations would each basically just be short stories that connect to weird, interesting, and fun magical moments. And while the magic literature might be lacking in those, luckily the rest of literature is not.
So next time you are stuck on how to create an interesting mentalism effect, set down Corinda for a minute and pick up a novel by Neil Gaiman or Victor Lavalle, listen to a modern folk-opera version of a Greek myth, or read a ghost story that might just be about the big brass key you bought from an old lady at that yard sale last week.
*The other contenders in my book are card tricks without real presentations and impossible objects without pseudo-creation story. But card tricks without presentations still have the implied art of sleight of hand, meaning while they are a puzzle they are also an impressively dexterous exhibition, like juggling, even if a hidden one. Impossible objects are literally puzzles, but since they are physical they take on the aspect of a kind of art-piece that you can just look at and contemplate, and (depending on the object) have the same idea of implied dexterous skill (people can guess you disassembled the Rubik's cube and re-assembled it in that bottle). Mentalism without process doesn’t imply the same display of skill (even if it still required it) and doesn’t allow the same kind of physical appreciation since it’s not static.