Today I want to talk about a topic that has been on my mind for a while now.
It’s a technique of magic that I’ve found tends to be used instinctively by a lot of people who don’t actually realize they’re doing it. This technique is the perfect way to seriously strengthen your effects without adding or removing any aspects of the trick itself.
What am I talking about?
Subtleties. Or as others refer to them, convincers.
What are subtleties?
I first ran across the idea of magicians subtleties whilst studying books on Magic Theory, and it was one of those ‘lightbulb’ moments for me.
As far as I understand the term, a subtlety is an offbeat moment within your magic where you intentionally do something that appears accidental or unintentional, for the purpose of increasing the strength of the effect.
I know. Sounds confusing, right?
But don’t worry. Subtleties are far easier to demonstrate then they are to explain.
Let’s imagine you’re performing a card trick in which you intend to make the spectator’s card appear in some crazy location; your wallet, perhaps.
You ask the spectator to choose a card, and show it to everyone; yourself included. Let’s imagine it is the Queen of Spades. You take the card back off him and perform a Top Change.
You hold the switched card in your hand, and as you are about to push it in to the middle of the deck, say something along these lines:
‘Now I’m going to place your card, the…’
You act for a moment as if you can’t recall the card, and lift it up to take a glimpse at it.
‘…Queen of Spades, into the deck.’
What was the point of that?
Well, picture the situation from the point of view of the spectator. The little act of ‘forgetting’ their card and taking a glimpse at the switched card to recall it has just solidified in their mind, the idea that the switched card really IS their original card. From here, the routine is made much stronger as the spectator will swear they SAW you place their exact card into the middle of the deck.
This move takes mere seconds to do, but can seriously improve the overall impact of the trick.
This is a subtlety. A seemingly insignificant act you put on to convince the audience that you really are doing what you say you are (even though you NEVER are!). These subtleties are almost always presented as unintentional and improvised, when in fact they are the result of meticulous planning.
So, now that you have an idea of what subtleties are, how do you go about incorporating them into your magic?
How To Incorporate Subtleties Into Your Routines
Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably already using subtleties without realizing it! For example, for any of the mentalists out there, how many of you will intentionally make small mistakes in your predictions in an attempt to convince the audience that the whole thing is real?
This is just another example of a subtlety, or convincer, in action.
For those of you who aren’t already using subtleties, or want a better grip on how to add them to your routines, here’s a four-step technique that has worked well for me. I’ll use this as an opportunity to develop a new subtlety for one of my own magic routines so you can see how it works in real time.
Step 1: Identify Weak Spots Within Your Routines
Within most magic routines we perform, there are one or two ‘weak spots’ that we tend to either rush over, or hope that the audience won’t draw attention to. Most of the time, we are afraid of them noticing that something isn’t quite right, or perhaps asking one too many questions about an aspect of the effect.
A great way of identifying these weak spots is to listen to the questions a spectator will ask you once you’ve finished the trick. For example, if you’ve just done a Book Test, they might say ‘But that wouldn’t have worked if I had picked a different page, right?’
In this case, this question indicates that the weak spot within your Book Test is the moment at which the spectator picks their page.
If you’ve just done an Ambitious Card Routine and the spectator says ‘that was great! But I bet you couldn’t have done it with MY deck of cards’ that suggests the weak spot within your ACR is the way in which you try to convince your audience that the deck is a normal one.
Whilst I was brainstorming ‘weak spots’ within my own magic, I realized that the very beginning of any trick I do with a Rubik’s Cube tends to be an uncomfortable moment for me.
For example, one of my favorite pieces of magic is displaying a mixed Cube, placing it inside a bag, and letting the spectator ‘solve’ it with their mind. Now, this trick requires a certain amount of ‘preparation’ work and I need the Cube to be in a very specific pattern.
However, as soon as I tell people I’m going to do magic with a Rubik’s Cube, the first thing they say is ‘Can I mix it up?’
I’ve had a lot of trouble getting around this question in the past so I could do with creating magicians subtleties that should stop this problem.
Step 2: Identify What This Weak Spot Is Communicating To Your Audience
The second step is to step backward and try to see the weak spot from the point of view of your audience. What is it that you are communicating to them through this weak spot? The questions they ask are a reflection of what you are communicating.
In the case of the Book Test we mentioned, it appears you are communicating that the page they land on is important to you. This creates a suspicion that they don’t have complete control over the page they choose, which weakens the effect.
In the case of the Ambitious Card Routine we discussed, it appears you are communicating that the deck is in some way special or gimmicked. This weakens the effect as they believe you are in some way ‘cheating’.
And in the case of my own Cube routine, it appears I am communicating that the pattern of the Cube is important to me; and maybe even set up. Which is not what I want them to think! I want them to think that the Cube is completely and randomly mixed.
In all of these examples, these are things we DON’T want the audience to imagine.
Step 3: Figure Out How To Communicate The OPPOSITE
In the above cases, we have identified what our weak spots are communicating. The next step is to reverse engineer it and work out how to somehow communicate the opposite through our performance. This is where the subtleties come in.
In the case of the Book Test, we are creating the suspicion that the page the spectator lands on is not entirely their choice. We need to find a way to communicate the opposite; that the page they land on is completely insignificant to us.
This is the perfect place to add magicians subtleties to your routine. Subtleties do an amazing job of communicating something to the audience without the magician saying a word.
In this case, the subtlety could be as simple as reading the page number wrong, or remembering the page number incorrectly later on in the trick.
If the magician says ‘So, let’s recap. You chose a random word from page 27…’ and the spectator corrects them by pointing out they actually chose page 26, it communicates to the audience that the page isn’t important to them and that the trick could be accomplished on any page.
In the case of the Ambitious Card Routine, the subtlety could be as simple as asking the audience if any of them have a deck of cards. By asking them to borrow a deck, it creates the impression that the deck you use isn’t important to you.
This is one of the easiest magicians subtleties to incorporate into your routine; 99% of the time no one in the audience is going to have a pack of cards. It won’t impact the effect in ANY way. But what it does do is communicate to the audience that you could just as easily perform your tricks with a borrowed deck.
On the off chance that someone does hand you a deck, you could simply move into a different trick that can be done impromptu.
For my own Cube routine, I was able to develop a subtlety that communicates that the pattern of the Cube isn’t important to me.
I decided to go with the following presentation.
As I reach into my bag and pull out the Cube, I say ‘I’m going to show you a great magic trick you can do with ANY solved Rubik’s Cube’.
As it comes out of the bag mixed up, I act surprised. ‘I could have sworn this was already solved! Oh well, I’ll see if there’s anything else I can do with this.’ I then go into the trick as normal.
This extra second or so should add a great element to the trick; that it is being improvised, and it isn’t quite what I was planning on doing. For this reason, if done right, no one will even think to ask to mix up the Cube when I pull it out; as far as they’re concerned, it already is!
Step 4: Refine
The next step is simply to try out the magicians subtleties you’ve developed during your performances. Try to get a gauge on what is working and what isn’t. From here, it’s just a process of slowly developing and refining the subtleties over time.
I think you’ll be surprised at just how powerful this can be for your magic. Subtleties are a great way of selling your magic without acting overly dramatic or adding anything to your routine; they’re simply little moments on the offbeat that really make your magic real to the audience.
I hope this four step process made sense to you! If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section.