There’s more to magic—and how to describe it—than just calling everything a ‘trick’. That’s why we’re highlighting and exploring important terms, concepts, and ideas every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.
Nearly everyone likely knows the trick where a magician saws their assistant in half. It’s a classic to the point of parody in Bugs Bunny cartoons or deconstruction by Penn & Teller. But not everyone knows how the magician makes it look as if one person is sliced into two pieces. The steps behind pulling off a feat such as this is known to magicians as the method.
There are two elements to any magic trick—the method, which is the technical workings of a magic trick, and the effect, which is what the audience sees—and there can be many different methods for achieving the same effect. For instance, if a magician wants to find a chosen card out of the deck, their method could involve memorizing the deck order, or using marked cards, or using a second deck of cards that they switch out mid-trick, and so on. All of these methods are viable, but they all achieve the same effect for the layperson watching the trick: the magician finds the correct card.
It’s the magician’s job to decide which method is the most appropriate and least detectable for the situation. A method can be clean—that is, it requires as little set-up or gimmickry as possible—or it can require props or other gaffs that need to be disposed of during the performance. Method can be deliberately secretive, or it can be hidden in plain sight as part of the performance. And while method can often contain the secret that makes the trick work, not all methods have to contain secrets. The method a mentalist uses in a memorization routine, for example, could just be the way they actually memorize things around them.
Because method is the backbone of what makes magic tick, many performers prefer to keep their methods secret from those who aren’t practicing magicians. In fact, one of the longest and most important debates in magic is about how magicians protect method from exposure. Should anyone who reveals method be ostracized for potentially destroying someone’s livelihood? Or is keeping method hidden from the general public holding magic back from further evolution? Some magicians like Penn & Teller even enjoy revealing certain aspects of method as part of their act, using their detailed breakdowns of classic tricks as a form of misdirection for the real trick at the end.
There are even debates on whether method can be considered the intellectual property of the creator, and some magicians have sued copycats and exposures to varying degrees of success. Right now, the legal recourse magicians have to protect themselves from theft are often full of loopholes, or in the case of patents, end up exposing the method to the public anyway.
That said, both the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians adhere to a jointly-issued ethics statement, which aims to prevent exposure of method to the general public, either through willful disclosure and accidental negligence. Because while there’s more to magic beyond the method, once it’s exposed, a lot of what makes magic special is lost.
Here’s Penn Jillette talking about how Kostya Kimlat fooled them using a method they’d never seen before on a trick they’d done on the Today Show two months prior to Kimlat’s appearance:
And here’s a Penn & Teller routine explaining the method behind Teller’s sleight of hand, except… not really: