Was given the advice that the appendix to the Jolly Almanac of Card Knaveries could be heavily edited down, and it made some sense. So, this passage that talks exclusively about routining your set or act is being printed here, for free.

Because I love you.


Assuming you’ve progressed from magic effect to magic trick to magic routine successfully, the final step in figuring out the dynamics of your act is to start figuring out how those routines fit together. There’s a lot of different thought in how to go about this, and it’s one of the more fascinating areas of magic theory that’s still in development. There are some similarities between these patterns (they pretty much all recommend closing with your strongest routines) but they’ve got some different ideas about the route to get there.

Nelms’s Upward Slope

As described in Nelms’s Magic and Showmanship, this idea is fairly straightforward. Take all your routines, figure out the order from weakest to strongest, and that’s your set. The idea is to create a constant building pattern, leading up to the peak moment, which is your climax. The graph isn’t really a straight line, it does allow for slight dips that naturally occur after key moments, but otherwise the overall trend is of gradual build. On the surface it’s self-evidently logical… do you want to start with your strongest effect and gradually get weaker and weaker? That said, are there any other patterns one could adopt?

Tarbell/Osterlind Shifting Dynamics

Osterlind credits Tarbell with this idea for structuring an act. The idea isn’t to rank routines in terms of strength, but instead to sort out routines according to their internal dynamics. Specifically, you open strong, then move into an intimate routine, then do something with a lot of razzle dazzle, then move into something thought-provoking, before ending with the effect you want them to remember you by.

Billy McComb’s Razor

Billy McComb made the intriguing suggestion that an audience can only handle one really strong piece of magic in a show. If this is true, then it opens up new possibilities — if you’ve been responsible and read your Darwin Ortiz and taken it to heart, you start thinking about how to turn every magic trick into strong, baffling magic, but is it possible that you can really only do it for just one routine? What do you do with everything else in your act leading up to that routine? Very interesting artistic opportunities in this one, since you’re not restricted to a specific quality of magic.


This is like Nelms’s Upward Slope, but is slightly more nuanced. Nelms’s Upward Slope doesn’t make any distinction about the sort of routines you use, or the powers you’re claiming as a supposed magician. The Pyramid Structure, on the other hand, is all about building conviction in your ability. You start with the plausible, and grow to the more and more implausible until you reach your desired endpoint, either the extremely implausible to the outright impossible. (I got this from Tyler Erickson, he credits Jamey Ian Swiss and Chuck Hickok)


Might as well include this one. Basically, you do tricks one after another. This would be a casual thing for a casual performer. Probably not feasible in most professional situations, but if you’ve got a wide enough repertoire and you can infuse people with the joy of watching you fly by the seat of your pants… Dai Vernon did talk about how a good enough understand of card principles can allow you to make card tricks up on the spot — an obvious statement, perhaps, but there’s an interesting idea at the core, there, that one of magic’s great figures is saying it’s okay to do a bunch of card tricks that you’re making up on the spot. Read up on texture elsewhere in this book to look into one of the great potential risks of this sort of thing. One of the great advantages to this is that it can create a sort of organic show that might not be available in a more structured environment. If you’ve got a vision in mind, then interruptions or challenges of any kind might be your enemy — in Magic Ranch, Tommy Wonder used a double-faced revelation of the small card within the plastic egg, for no reason other than he didn’t want there to be anything distracting from the appearance of the selected card, including having the card land face-down on the spectator’s hand. No reason to do with “magic” handling at all. If, on the other hand, you want to tap into the energy that can come from impromptu performances, then jazzing can allow you to create a feeling of life that everyone is convinced is tied directly to this specific moment. If there were real magicians walking amongst us, wouldn’t we want to see if they could do what we wanted them to do, right on the spot? Wouldn’t it be exciting if they could meet our demands as we made them? Darwin Ortiz made the point that you can create the feel of an impromptu moment without actually being impromptu. Read up on your Strong Magic to get more about that.

Inverted Pyramid

Also described as “Every trick’s a closer.” If you’re working tables at a restaurant, you don’t always have the luxury of being able to put together a set of pre-determined length that has the dynamics of one of the aforementioned sets, which aim to have a proper climactic moment at the closer. Since dinner can come at any time, it might make sense to treat every routine as if it’s the closer. Shouldn’t every routine be as strong as possible? Not necessarily, if you’re a fan of one of the other dynamics that has more of a build to it.

Wonder’s Table-to-Table Progressive Story

Another great idea for people working tables. It stands to reason that people sitting at adjacent tables might notice if you do similar tricks at nearby tables and at theirs. A little thought will show that this situation presents trouble, particularly for those who don’t want to get busted by people who pay too much attention. Wonder had a great idea for his Wild Card presentation. Basically, you go to one table and change the chosen Five of Clubs into the Jack of Diamonds. Then, you go to the next table and change all the Jack of Diamonds cards into the Nine of Spades. Then you go to the next table and change all the Nine of Spades into the Queen of Hearts. Basically, anybody who’s paying too much attention actually gets a richer experience from following you around — there’s the story inherent in the routine itself, but also a progressive story of watching the same routine being performed from one audience to the next, since the set of cards that just got changed seems to change into a completely new set. Eugene Burger uses this same idea in a different way. He has a magical appearance of messages from the spirit world, and the magical appearance is one effect. The second effect is when the message is opened up and people get to read what their message is. By having all the messages different, all of a sudden the experience for somebody watching the routines being performed successively for different audiences is enriched because of the new organic situations caused by audiences reacting to contrasting magical messages from the spirit world. It’s quite ingenious.

R. Paul Wilson’s Connection-Building

In a discussion on three-fly in a thread on the Magic Pebble, Wilson identified that a set can take on the dynamic of gradually building a connection with the audience. According to Wilson, the opener should involve little-to-no audience participation, so that the magician basically starts with a routine that basically proves to the audience that he’s worthy of attention, and then proceeds to build a connection with the audience and draws them into the performer more. Three-fly was an interesting case study in that regard, since it’s basically a shut-up-and-watch trick, which Wilson thinks is a suitable way to open, before progressing into effects that are more interactive. However, if you’ve managed to build the connection, moving into three-fly (or something similar) would be a mistake since it’d be breaking the connection.

Roy Benson’s Four-Parter

This is an approximate take on what was described more thoroughly in the Roy Benson By Starlight book. The idea is to have four parts, although they’re not all equal. First, you establish yourself as a magician (some brief opener that lets them be passive); second, you have a routine that builds a connection between you and the audience, lets them get to know you; third, you present your strongest mystery; and fourth, you present your big send off. I’m actually very, very partial to this as a base outline as it solves a few problems. Strong mysteries don’t always elicit big applause — they can, but not always, as people might have their reactions divided between “Yay!” and “WTF?”. The function of the last piece should really be to get you a strong “Yay!” reaction, and every now and then that happens best with something that gets people’s emotions engaged, builds tension and energy, and then offers a single identifiable “Ta-da!” moment to release that energy. Mysteries often benefit from focus and simplicity, but that can also dampen the tone (again, not always, but it can). What’s more, strong mysteries frequently benefit from having somebody up on stage to verify that things are fair, but a lot of people, when they close, don’t want to be sharing the stage. Really, what this sort of thing encourages is the idea of finding a routine that feels like a closer.

UF Grant’s Programme

From Valuable Information for Magicians, UF Grant gives two fairly specific programmes, if you need something less abstract than the above. For a smaller act, open with a snappy effect or two which uses no patter. Then move on to something involving the audience, either in terms of participation or the borrowing of items. Next up is a sucker trick followed by a comedy effect. Close with a colorful production, as these get applause far more than a vanish. (Grant also offers ideas for a full evening show, and if your career takes off to that level, you may want to hunt it down).

That ought to be enough to start you off. As you can see, there’s a lot of variance in there depending upon the goals of the artist and the venue where the performance is happening. For more ideas, there are libraries online that will allow you to check out the programmes of famous magicians to see their philosophies in action.