Can You Build a Better Mousetrap? The importance of structure.

October 18th, 2010 | Sean Fields | Filed Under Uncategorized


In my last entry, I mentioned that virtually all magicians today are missing a theme to their acts. This time around, I want to talk about something that they all have, but most have it wrong; structure.

Structure of your performance is paramount to the overall effectiveness of said performance, and unfortunately most magicians today simply misunderstand how to structure a performance.

Throwing your favorite effects together, ending with your biggest trick is not structure, it is not a routine or a show. It is a magic demonstration. How many times have you seen a magician simply wheel different boxes on and off the stage?

Structure is inherently intertwined with theme; if you have a strong theme, the structure will almost come automatically.

What exactly is structure? Simply put, it is the order of your show. It is what tricks you do in what order, and why. Structure is there to act as a vehicle for theme, and ultimately deliver the big finish.

The traditional three act story structure (setup, conflict, resolution) is how most magic acts should be organized, but sadly are not.

In ‘Magic & Showmanship for Magicians’ (a book all serious magicians should own), Henning Nelms touches on act structure, and while it is not overtly stated, the structure he encourages readers to follow is indeed Aristotles 3 story act structure.

The whole idea behind the three story act is to introduce an idea, explore various ideas within the idea, and end with a satisfying demonstration or conclusion. You want to be building to something, something relevant to the rest of your show. Each act should build on the idea developed in the previous act, building to the big finish. Not just your biggest illusion, but the best possible illustration for your entire show.

For example, a show about gambling might look like this:

Act 1 – The Setup

Performer introduces the idea of gambling, and how for as long as people have been gambling, others have been cheating. Cards, dice, cups & balls; if people are willing to bet on it, people will try to cheat at it.
(Routines performed would be ‘Guess Which Hand’, ‘Cups & Balls’ or 3 Shells)

Act 2 – The Turn

Performer explains that soon after, gamblers graduated to cards, and card games. And so did the cheats.
(Routines performed would be a standard ‘Gambling Demonstration’, ‘Card Calling’)

Act 3 – The Sting

Performer explains that today, there is no shortage of what people can, and will gamble on. Casinos and lotteries are more popular today than ever before…
(Routines performed would be a ‘Lottery Prediction’)

This is a very sparse and basic example, but hopefully you can see the progression of theme, along the structure, building to the best illustration of the theme possible. The performer is discussing the history of gambling, and cheating. He starts with a simple game of ‘Guess Which Hand’, progresses to more difficult, and impressive, card cheating, and ends with the most logical conclusion for a cheat; to cheat the lottery, by predicting the winning numbers.

One needn’t look any further than Darren Brown to see this structure in action. In ‘An Evening of Wonders’, Brown introduces a banana, stating that before the end of the show, a gorilla will come out on stage, and take the banana, and they won’t see it happen. This is all introduced in the first 5 minutes, and it perfectly frames not only the show, but the conclusion the show comes to. It is brilliant, and I recommend all readers to check it out. He has a similar structure in his show ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, but this time the whole show revolves around influence. Again, I won’t spoil the surprise, but rest assured it too kicks ass.

Do you structure your show? If so, does the structure follow your theme? Does your show naturally build to a logical conclusion? Do you even agree with me?

Let me know in the comments section; let’s talk about this.


  1. RT @ellusionist: Can You Build a Better Mousetrap? The importance of structure in magic.

  2. Can You Build a Better Mousetrap? The importance of structure.: In my last entry, I mentioned that virtually all m…

  3. Dude, you keep referring to him as Darren in your posts. His name is Derren 😉

    Other than that, awesome article!

  4. Ridwaan Adam Umaduth on:

    I agree with Sean here. Consider all the effects and sleights you know. theres probably alot and if you’re a regular purchaser of effects you will know you definately have more effects than needed to fill in a 1 hour timeslot. The question is how to use them.

    Im going to apologise now for this long post but the topic made me think alot about how i started performing magic. At first i just purchased a whole lot of stuff from ellusionist and other sites and then i had this entire collection of books and dvd’s and knowledge of effects but when it came time to perform i wouldnt know which to do and in what order. It was overwhelming. My first lesson in structure came from Brad Christians Ninja 1 dvd. Since then ive always used that effect and built on it from there. Heres a an overview of what i do.

    I will refer to Ninja 1 by brad christian here (mainly because sean has used card gambling in his structure example but it is a good example nonetheless) Watch the vegas card cheat routine, both the performance and the teaching. That is a perfect example of structure and at the same time how structure ultimately can affect and aid your misdirection (think about it, the routine is structured to show the pass, over and over again and then it ends with a completely unexpected topper). The routine is structured to keep the performer flowing from one effect to another but more importantly it keeps the audience in a line of reasoning. This is something you can definitely use to your advantage, like in the brad’s vegas card cheat routine. Structure creates an expectation from the spectator and if you structure properly you can lead them to expect one thing and then do something completely different.

    As an example, I sometimes do the vegas card cheat routine explaining how gamblers are so good etc. And of course when you do the pass in one hand it totally blows people away. then i move on by indicating thats the way card experts do things, magicians do it differently, i.e they use magic. I then prove this by continuing with this ambitious card style routine by doing about 2 more effects. almost always the Braue pop up move is used to emphasize the difference between sleights and “real magic” (i mean honestly, how can a bent card possibly pop to the top of a deck without magic!?). i then try to do some visual effects with cards (personally i prefer impromptu stuff to gimmicked) and after a 2 ambitious effects i would do a quick sandwich card to emphasize real magic has the ability to transpose objects which even gamblers cant do. Then just for more fun i do search and destroy by aaron fisher. now they really believe in the difference between sleight of hand and real magic because such an effect takes place in their own hands. At this point i tend to emphasize how magic can teleport things and launch into my all time favourite effect, the biddle trick (simple yet so damn effective i think this trick should get a lifetime achievment award!). At this point im complete. Ive shown how a gambler can manipulate cards using the pass. Ive then used “normal” sleight of hand to decieve them into believing there is a difference between the two. Ive then let them feel the magic and finally did an effect where sleight of hand is not a reasonable explanation for them (there is just no way 5 cards magically become 4, its just not possible to them, even with sleight of hand!). At this point im ready to call it but sometimes just for fun, in the right mood i do mindbender. This really takes it to the next level as now im using “magic” to bend a card without touching it. Also i like the nature of the performance of mindbender as a closer as there is little patter going on. its more the acting of concentration etc. But thats my routine. It works for me and more importantly It works for my spectators.

    Once i had this routine in mind then performing became so much simpler. When i started i would do some effect for the spectators and then think “okay so what to do next?”. the thing is like i said, too many effects, no structure. No with the structure i tend to go with it and find an effect that will fill the need at a certain point in the routine. What helps is to make a list of everything you can do. Then think of the themes they represent. you should also do this with sleights. Then rather than learn an exact sleight or effect to fit in an exact point in the routine i like to have a range to choose from. I dont do every pass in the vegas card cheat routine. I just know i need to demonstrate about 2+ passes and i recall the passes i want to use at the time of performance. I then perform the passes that come to mind at the time. Similarly i try to do the same with sleights. dont become dependant on specific sleights, rather have a range of sleights and list their purpose. then when you reach a point in your routine that requires something use the first sleight that comes to mind that fulfills that requirement.

    Please dont think of structure as some “writ in stone” type map and script you have to follow. Thats not structure, thats imitation. Rather Map the direction you wish to follow with routine and take note of certain points you would like to achieve in the routine. Structure how those points will flow. Then believe in yourself, your skill and perform bearing in mind those points you wish to reach. How you get to those points is up to you and master not just one path to get to a point in your routine but many. This way if something goes awry you wont have the “oh no my perfect script and pathway to magical greatness is ruined and the world shall pay for my failure” type of scenario but rather you have backups and get out of jail cards. Keep in mind your structure and let your mind perform the magic needed to get through it.

    One final piece of thing id like to share on structure. I really really believe that magic is more in the mind than in the hand. Also i know that when first trying to structure a routine people tend to get panicky and self criticizing more than usual. A great aid to me in this was learning Hypnosis. Particularly conversational hypnosis. Here structure in any form of communication is explored and will take your magic even further. Crowd control becomes so simple its laughable. To that end i recommend Igor Ledóchowski’s Courses in conversational hypnosis. These are excellent at teaching subtlety and believe it or not a bit of mentalism.

    With that said, Kind regards to everyone from sunny South Africa, and i apologize for my long long post.

    Take care now,

    bubye then.

  5. This is etalxcy what the world of magic/cardistry needs! If I had this when I started magic I would be light years ahead of where I am now! No more searching YouTube learning moves incorrectly from 12 year olds. Now you can learn it here, correctly, from the best there is! The perfect tool for anyone getting into the art.

  6. Amazing.We have been wiitang this for a long time.Happy it is finally up.I recommand everyone to really look through every of these video.they may be simple or you already learned it but some of the moves here will make you do stuff like a pro..and dan and dave mean it..Beautiful.

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