Editing Our Scripts

Eugene Burger
Originally published in Genii Magazine, April, 2000

When I reflect upon most — and I do mean most — of the bizarre magic performances that I have seen over the years, one sad similarity comes immediately to mind: most of the scripts performed needed a great deal of editing. Sometimes for grammar and sentence construction but always for length. Too many words! Too many words before something happens and, especially, too many words after the magic has happened.

This is particularly unfortunate since, for most attempts at bizarre magic to succeed, the story which surrounds the magical effect must itself be an engaging story and one that is well told by the performer. Overwritten stories quickly destroy any real engagement. Yet for many magicians the editing process — which might transform their overwritten stories into stories with real power — seems itself to be a thing of great mystery. Many magicians don’t seem to know where to begin.

Let’s begin with something utterly basic: I think that good writing is always the result of rewriting. Don’t expect what you write to have much merit when you first put it down or type it out. The important thing is to get your thoughts down on paper — and then to start playing with the words. It is at this stage of working on a script that I experience the deepest enjoyment from my involvement with magic. Here, for me, is where the real joy appears. I repeat: Good writing is rewriting.

There is an old Chinese proverb that "One showing is worth a thousand sayings." Consequently, rather than talk about the editing process, I thought it might be instructive for you to see an example of a real edited script from my own work. If you compare the first script with the second, I think you will begin to see how I work when cutting down a script that is too long

The effect that I have chosen is one that I have been intently working on recently. It is from Bob Neale’s thoroughly enjoyable book, Life, Death and Other Card Tricks. This book, I must add, is filled with marvelous examples of how to meaningfully connect card magic with existential, life and death stories. Even if you were never to do a trick in the book, a careful reading of it will teach you a great deal about how to connect your own words in a presentation with your actions.

When I read his effect Thirteen at Dinner, I immediately decided that I wanted to develop this off-beat version of the Six Card Repeat into a performance piece of my own. I spent a great deal of time reading and studying Bob’s script and then set about writing a version of my own. At first, I used much of his phrasing. I wrote the first version out and then began editing it. When I was finished, I (mistakenly) thought that I was finished! Here is the first script that I finally developed.

THIRTEEN PEOPLE AT THE PARTY

Adapted from Robert Neale’s, Thirteen at Dinner from Life, Death and Other Card Tricks (Seattle: Hermetic Press, 2000)

Superstition is a fascinating subject. First of all, just what is superstition? Mostly, I suspect, it is a label we use for other peoples’ beliefs — beliefs that we find find objectionable. But superstition can change a person’s life in ways that can never be imagined beforehand.

Using these playing cards, let me tell you a story about a superstitious woman. We’ll call her Mrs. Smith. Of course, she didn’t think of herself as being “superstitious.” Superstitious people never do.

Mrs. Smith invited some of her young, lively, red-blooded friends for dinner in the private dining room of an expensive restaurant. As they were being seated, she looked around and counted the number attending. On her right were one, two...six. She was number seven. And on her left she counted eight, nine...thirteen. Thirteen people at the party! That would never do! Frankly, the number thirteen gave Mrs. Smith the creeps.

A bit embarrassed, she asked two of her guests to leave. Somewhat fearful of the number thirteen themselves, they were happy to do so.

Relieved, but still concerned, she counted again. Thirteen! Could she have been distracted? Had more guests arrived? Now, somewhat confused, she again persuaded two people to leave.

Having kept her eyes open, she knew no additional guests had arrived, but she counted the number present anyway. Thirteen!

Now she was really frightened. Suspecting her own senses, she asked a friend to count the number of people present. Please count them aloud onto my hand. There were still thirteen people! So she asked two more guests to leave.

Then she panicked. Was she caught in some hideous, cosmic joke? She decided to leave the party herself!

When she arrived at home she was feeling foolish and guilty. How would she explain her absence to her guests? To calm her nerves, she turned on the television set and was stunned by the evening’s top news story. There on the television screen was the private dining room of that expensive restaurant—containing only ten people...all blackened by death from food poisoning.

When I finished the above script, I must confess that I felt genuinely pleased with myself. After performing it several times, however, I realized that it was definitely over-written. If I wanted to perform this quite marvelous piece of magic for real-world audiences of strangers, I knew that I had to make some changes. 

So the task before me was to tighten the script: to tell the same story but to do the telling with far fewer words. The first thing to go was the wordy introduction. Other changes and shifts will be obvious to you. There is also a change in the delivery of the timing of the last line. Here, then, is my revised edited script:

VIEW THE TWO SCRIPTS SIDE-BY-SIDE

SOME TECHNICAL NOTES FOR 13 AT THE PARTY

I use a different switch of the packets during the first count from the one suggested by Bob. My switch was inspired by the one used in Edward G. Brown’s, Wandering Card, in

Willane’s Complete Methods for Miracles

(London: Davenports, 1985). This switch makes it much easier to keep the packets square (and not prematurely show the hidden black cards).

Begin by holding the (17) face-down cards in the left hand. The left thumb pushes the top card to the right and it is taken by the right hand, with fingers at the top narrow end and the thumb at the inner, bottom narrow end. The card is then held up so its full face is displayed to the audience.

The left thumb then pushes the next card to the right. Again, the right hand comes over and takes it below the first card. The two cards are squared by moving them to the left and squaring them against the left thumb. The right hand then moves away and displays the full face of the second card.

After the 6th card has been taken, the right hand packet moves over the left hand packet and slightly to the left. Two things now happen at once. First, the left thumb pinches the top packet, thereby holding it in place. Second, the right 3rd finger releases its grip on the upper packet and takes hold of the lower packet. In one continuous action the right hand moves away to display the Queen of Hearts to the audience. The 10 black cards are held squared behind the Queen. This happens as the performer says, “She was number 7.”

After the first two cards are discarded (from the face of the deck), the 15 cards are false counted as 13, with their backs toward the audience.

I have also eliminated the repeat counting of the cards by the spectator since I envisioned this as a stand-up piece performed without audience assistance.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

You might wonder whether this second script represents the end of the process for me? Am I now finished with the editing process? Is the script now “set”?

Absolutely not! I fully expect the script to change and grow as I continue to perform it—and as I change and grow. In performance, I must be attentive to the reactions each of the lines of the script receives from my audiences. Which lines are connecting? Which ones are not connecting? These questions go on forever.

And tomorrow, Max Maven is coming to Chicago to spend eight days. I have a strong suspicion that he will suggest new and exciting changes, not only in the scripting but also in method here described.