Story magic hasn't always had a good reputation. Story magic isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does lose power when not properly employed.
Probably the biggest complaint about stories in magic is that they're so passive compared to routines in which the audience makes choices. If that were true, story magic would have died out long ago. Psychologists have actually studied the matter in great detail, and found that stories aren't actually passive at all. Many people think that, when hearing a story, simply pictures the story in the same manner as a movie screen.
It turns out that the brain simulates the story as it hears it! In one study, people were asked to read one of two stories. In one story, there was the sentence, John put on his sweatshirt before he went jogging. Another group was given a story that included the sentence, John took off his sweatshirt before he went jogging. This was the only difference between the two stories. Later on, while John was still jogging, both stories made reference to the sweatshirt as a part of the plot. People who were given the story in which John had taken his sweatshirt off actually took longer to read that sentence that the other group!
If people were just picturing the story passively, the latter reference to the sweatshirt wouldn't be a problem. The sweatshirt would just be pictured, and they would move on. However, in the minds of the second group, the sweatshirt was still back at the house, so it was harder to understand. If you've ever perused a Nitpicker's Guide, you know how powerful this tendency can be!
In the Made To Stick book, where you can read more about these studies, Chip and Dan Heath explain the two most powerful aspects of stories. First, they describe how to act in a particular situation, and second, they also inspire people to act.
If you're trying to move people to action, as when you're advertising your services, stories are the best way to do this. In story magic, we're not trying to take advantage of the power of stories to act. Instead, we're taking advantage of the simulation power of the stories to engage the audience. Interactive routines engage the audience by letting them make choices that affect the outcome. Story routines engage the audience by letting them put themselves in the role of a hero!
Great stories obviously have the power to engage the audience, but what makes a great story?
First and foremost is the classic story structure: 1) Get the hero up a tree, 2) Throw rocks at the hero, and 3) Get the hero down from the tree. It sounds far too simple, but this is the structure of almost every one of your favorite stories. In the Situational Meaning section of Strong Magic, Darwin Ortiz goes into great detail in how to structure a good story.
One other secret to a good story is to structure it so that it moves the audience from common sense to uncommon sense. Effective stories explain why common sense isn't always the best way to go. In fact, moving from common sense to uncommon sense is an idea that can be applied not just to stories, but also to all the concepts we've discussed in this series. You can make simplicity, the unexpected, concreteness, credibility and emotions far more effective by applying this concept (aren't you glad you read this far?).
Unless you're going to be a professional screenwriter or novelist, you're probably not going to be creating your own original stories. While you should certainly study the principles of effective stories, at places like Dramatica.com and Story Fanatic, your time will probably be better spent in looking for stories you can use effectively in your routines. The question then becomes, what types of stories are most effective in engaging the audience?
There are three basic types of stories that will prove the most effective. These aren't the only styles, of course, but you will find that these constitute the majority of stories you enjoy.
The first type is the classic challenge story. In this story, the hero meets up with an obstacle, deals with the complications, and resolves the situation in their favor. When you hear the classic hero-and-tree story structure, this is usually the first type of story that comes to mind. The following routine, Triumph, is a classic card trick that gets a large part of its power from a challenge story:
I've seen too many amateur magicians who perform Triumph without the story. The presentation is usually along the lines of now, I'll give the deck a few cuts, and now I'll shuffle the cards face-up into face-down, now I'll make a magic pass over the cards, and so on. As I suggested with the Inquisition video from my Concreteness post, watch this video again with the sound off, and see how much power it loses when reduced to simple actions.
The second type of story is the connection story. In this structure, the focus is on two people trying to establish a relationship despite the barriers between them. Romeo and Juliet and Titanic are great examples of this structure. In many of the pieces that David Copperfield performs to music, he employs this structure. My favorite example of a magical connection story would have to be Metempsychosis, also known as The Blue Room:
In this case, the late husband's ghost is trying to reconnect with his widow, and death is the barrier. Especially interesting is the fact that the entire story is told without saying a word. This routine is also a story within a story, as this routine was lost to history in 1878. It wasn't until the mid-90s that magicians were able to discover and decode the notes on how this illusion was created.
The final type of story, the creativity story, isn't seen much in magic. The creativity story could also be called the MacGyver story. As you might guess, this is where the hero overcomes the major obstacle through the use of ingenuity and creativity. Since I couldn't find an example of this routine for you on video, and because stories also work well in words, I'd like to share with you the script from Robert Neale's Pebble Puzzle, from Tricks of the Imagination (comments in italics are mine):
Sometimes we do get tired of being stuck with our own perspectives. I see a glass half filled with wine, somebody else sees it as half empty, and neither of us can appreciate the viewpoint of the other. Worse, there are problems that cannot be solved without a shift which gives us a fresh point of view. Remember that hungry chimpanzee with a banana placed outside its cage and just out of reach? It tried and tried to get it. Finally, it picked up a stick, put it through the bars, and pulled the banana within reach. It would be nice if we could always make that shift when it was needed. We try all our usual approaches to no avail, then, like magic, a flash of insight comes with a new perspective. There is an old folk tale that illustrates how new insight can solve an apparently impossible problem.
There was a young woman with a most magical mind. Her father owed a very large debt to an evil moneylender and had no way to repay it. The moneylender offered to cancel her father's debt if he agreed to a wager. A red pebble and a white pebble would be placed in a bag, and the daughter would select one. If she got the red pebble, the debt would be canceled. But if she got the white pebble, she would have to marry the moneylender. The father and daughter agreed that they had no choice but to take the risk.
The moneylender picked up two pebbles from the ground. One was red and the other was white. He tossed them into a bag and then handed the bag to the young woman (One red and one white pebble are shown, and placed into the magician's fist). She shook it up to mix the contents. Being no fool, she also took a peek. To her dismay, both pebbles were white (The magician opens the hand, and both pebbles are shown to be white)!
The dilemma was terrifying. If she exposed the moneylender as a deceiver, he would have her father sent to prison for not paying the debt. If she took one of the identical pebbles, she would have to marry an evil man. What could she do?
Fortunately, she had a most magical mind. So she thought and then acted. She reached into the bag and took out a pebble. Then, feigning nervousness, she dropped it before anyone could see its color. It was now lost among all the other pebbles on the ground (The magician makes one of the white pebbles vanish).
Oh! It is all right, she said. We can determine what my choice was. It would be the opposite to what is in the bag now.
She reached into the bag and took out the remaining pebble. It was white, so the debt had to be canceled.
Magicians have always been told not to turn their tricks into puzzles or challenges, however this puzzle has successfully turned a puzzle into a trick. The audience is never challenged to figure out how to solve the moneylender's dilemma. Further, the magic is used to illustrate important points in the story, and not to challenge the audience. Finally, the story helps the audience associate with the hero. They're inspired by the story, and may even pass it on as happening to them!
Stories are the best way to go, if you want people to associate and get inspiration from your magic. For more on the power of stories, check out the story category of the Made To Stick blog.
Memorable Magic: Simplicity
Memorable Magic: The Unexpected
Memorable Magic: Concreteness
Memorable Magic: Credibility
Memorable Magic: Emotions