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Thomas Wayne
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On more than one occasion it has occurred to me that magicians often misuse (or perhaps misunderstand) the phrase “Suspension of Disbelief”.



I’ve heard and read this phrase in various discussions about magic and about relating to one’s audience, but there seems to be a dichotomy of understanding about what this phrase actually means.



The term “suspension of disbelief” does NOT have it’s origin in magic; it’s a theatrical and literary term that was first coined by Samuel T. Coleridge, an English poet and literary critic. The exact quote, taken from his “Biographia Literaria”, written in 1817 is: “That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”



The term specifically addresses that requirement of an audience, in order to have a story (or play, poem, movie…) make sense in an overall fashion. It addresses the need to overlook small, imperfect details in order to make the larger picture… well, perfect.



For example, in order to enjoy the drama, excitement and full storyline of the play “Peter Pan”, we must ignore the cables that allow the characters to “fly”. They are unimportant tiny details that are insignificant to the story and to the theatrical experience, but darn it, we can see them! So to make the experience work for us we have to be willing to suspend our disbelief in unaided human flight and accept that, for this moment and for the purposes of this story, they really can fly.



Now, on the other hand, if the point of the stage presentation was only to demonstrate impossible human flight, the cables would not be visible and you would NOT want your audience to suspend their disbelief. If the audience just agrees to believe (exact definition of “suspension of disbelief”) that David Copperfield can fly at will, well it’s not nearly as magical is it?

It’s magic because it can’t be done, and we know it.



Magicians, as performers, know a good line when they hear one, and “suspension of disbelief” just has that ring of truth about it that makes us want to grab it and make it our own. Indeed, the suspension of disbelief IS important to magic in one sense; the audience must be willing to believe the basic premise of the presentation, that is, the “framing”.



They must accept that they are witnessing a real crooked gambling demonstration, or that this really is a small jewelry box passed down from my grandmother, or that some stranger really did demand to shuffle my deck of cards while my back was turned. This “emotional hook” that Dai Vernon, and others, have spoken of is an example of suspension of disbelief that IS desirable and beneficial to the performance of strong magic.



That concept, however, is NOT what many magicians mean when they use the phrase

“suspension of disbelief”. Many magicians, even some famous and well read, use the term “suspension of disbelief” to mean - in a manner different from it’s original intent - that the audience has accepted the possibility of what the performer is doing.



They are, for the moment, believing that the magician can do the impossible. For example, they believe that those solid silver coins really can pass right through that solid tabletop. Unfortunately, by definition, if it can be done it’s not magic. It’s only magic if the audience knows it can't be done, and if they know it can’t be done, then disbelief has not been suspended.



Of course, not every magical performance is meant to attain a level of demonstrating the impossible. Comedy magic - lighter fare - certainly is not targeted to shake the audience’s faith in the physical laws of the universe. Tenyo demonstrations and balloon animals aren’t meant to make the crowd question their basic understanding of nature.



But if I am are striving for a strong, memorable magical experience – ala Paul Harris’ “moment of astonishment” – I shouldn’t want my audience to suspend their disbelief. I don’t want that at all.

I want them to know - to the very core of their being - that what I am about to do is impossible; and then I want to do it.



Regards,

Thomas Wayne
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Stephen Long
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That is loads to think about and take in all at once.



But there’s some gold in that essay, Thomas.

As a theater and english student, I have spent alot of time on suspension of disbelief. In fact I have been studying stuff like this for three years.



Quote:

On 2001-12-23 12:42, Thomas Wayne wrote:

That concept, however, is NOT what many magicians mean when they use the phrase “suspension of disbelief”.

Many magicians, even some famous and well read, use the term “suspension of disbelief” to mean - in a manner, different from it’s original intent - that the audience has accepted the possibility of what the performer is doing.





Isn’t that exactly what suspension of disbelief is? When you are watching a sci-fi movie, for instance, you are willing, for the moment to accept that this is real, that what you are watching on the screen is real.

You are laying aside your previous ideas on what the world is REALLY like, in order to accept and enjoy what is happening on screen - you are, for the time, suspending your disbelief.



Similary, when a spectator is watching magic, they do exactly the same thing

(to begin with), they are forgetting for a moment that what they are seeing is impossible just to enjoy it.



I know you say that if they believe it CAN be done then it’s not magic.

But they HAVE to believe it can be done, because you have just shown them.

A willing spectator usually sits down suspending their disbelief, but sometimes it is nice to break through it.



If I have misunderstood you, please don’t hesitate to correct me. I am young and arrogant. I think the essence of what you have just written though, is something that really needs to be read and understood by everyone here at the Cafe.



Wonderful stuff.

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Tom Cutts
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Let me get this straight.



In the presentation of an impossibility (disbelief in it being possible) an audience at the end decides not to suspend their disbelief in it being possible, "Nope, I know it is impossible, you must have tricked me."



Where does that leave you? Smile



I am not saying that I blindly agree with S.O.D. It was meant for a stage drama that had a beginning and an end. After that things return to "normal". Stage magic is like that still today though there are little changes in that taking place. Perhaps there is some coercion from the safety of the fourth wall?



Close-up magic is different. The frame is different, the timing is different. SOD must be understood differently to adapt to this type of intimate theater (of reality).



I guess it is a matter of perspective.

Is SOD just dirt and refuse or is it a fertile soil from which to work and farm the staples of great magic.



I have a much stronger stratagem harvested from good soil and yes lots of fertilizer.

:lol: It is called The Willful Investment In Belief. Much more empowering.





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Thomas Wayne
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Quote:

On 2001-12-23 14:08, Gonzolo the mediocer wrote:

[...] Isn’t that exactly what suspension of disbelief is?

When you are watching a sci-fi movie, for instance, you are willing, for the moment to accept that this is real, that what you are watching on the screen is real.

You are laying aside your previous ideas on what the world is REALLY like, in order to accept and enjoy what is happening on screen - you are, for the time, suspending your disbelief.

Similary, when a spectator is watching magic, they do exactly the same thing (to begin with), they are forgetting for a moment that what they are seeing is impossible just to enjoy it.

[...]

I am young and arrogant.

[...]





There is, I think, a significant difference between helping your audience believe the FRAMING of your presentation (like the scenery, background and special effects of a movie) and hoping they’ll also believe that the "miracles" you’re demonstrating are, in fact, physically possible. For this reason I don’t openly perform coin rolls or hot-shot cuts; if I can demonstrate that sort of dexterous control over the physics of coins and cards, then surely the "magic" I’m performing is really just a similar - but hidden - form of juggling.



Perhaps the words of some other, better known magical thinkers will help illustrate what I mean:



"There is a world of difference between a spectator’s not knowing how something’s done versus his KNOWING that it can’t be done." Simon Aronson, ’The Aronson Approach’



"...consider a spectator watching a magician make a dollar bill float through the air. The spectator could willingly suspend his disbelief and pretend that dollar bills can float. If he did that, it wouldn’t matter if he saw the thread attached to the bill, anymore than it matters that he can see the wires atached to Peter Pan [in the stage play]. However, if he took that attitude, the magic wouldn’t have much impact on him. The floating bill is strong magic precisely because the spectator will not WILLINGLY believe that bills can float. It’s the fact that his intellect doesn’t want to believe, yet his senses force him to, that gives the magic its power." Darwin Ortiz, ’Strong Magic’



"To achieve as high an impact as possible, belief is not enough. Conviction is needed... To achieve high impact, we need conviction as a prerequisite. For the highest impact to become attainable, total conviction is needed." Tommy Wonder, ’The Books of Wonder’



Who among us would NOT love to be able to perform real magic; to be able to undo a tragedy, or fly un-aided, or snatch wealth from thin air? Of course we can’t do those things, but to be able to emulate them so closely that the end result is indistinguishable from the real thing is what strong magic is all about; I prefer strong magic.



Finally, Gonzolo, you needn’t be young to be arrogant; I’m 46.



Regards,

Thomas Wayne
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Thomas,



You are chewing on some circular gristle there. Smile



On one hand you quote Ortiz, "The floating bill is strong magic precisely because the spectator will not WILLINGLY believe that bills can float. It’s the fact that his intellect doesn’t want to believe, yet his senses force him to, that gives the magic its power."



Yet moments later you state,"...undo a tragedy, or fly un-aided, or snatch wealth from thin air? ...to be able to emulate them so closely that the end result is indistinguishable from the real thing is what strong magic is all about..."



I’m unclear what you are putting forth here. "Strong magic" emmulates real, therefore since it proves the impossible is possible by seemingly real repeatable magic, it ceases to be magic any longer. Proven, by the way, by the average performer’s blazé reaction to his own "miracles".



The magic of a floating bill however is because one is forced to believe what one’s intellect resists.



The theories seem to be at odds with each other. Can you shed some clarity?



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Thomas Wayne
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Quote:

On 2001-12-23 19:18, Tom Cutts wrote:

Thomas,



You are chewing on some circular gristle there.

[...]

I'm unclear what you are putting forth here. "Strong magic" emmulates real, therefore since it proves the impossible is possible by seemingly real repeatable magic, it ceases to be magic any longer





Sorry Tom, I'm not interested in being drawn into this particular game; I prefer to stand by my own words, not be asked to defend a distorted, re-worded version created by you. The only "circular gristle" (a mildy offensive characterization by anyone's standards) jumps up when you take some of my words, some of Darwin Ortiz's words and a distorted interpretation in your own words, and try to make steak out of them.



Regards,

Thomas Wayne
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Tom Cutts
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Just askin' for some clarity there partner as I don't buy what I think you are saying.



Sorry you took offense at the "chew the fat" take off. Might be too obtuse of me. Smile Price of trying to be clever, I suppose.



Cheers.
Thomas Wayne
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Quote:

On 2001-12-23 22:27, Tom Cutts wrote:

Just askin’ for some clarity there partner as I don’t buy what I think you are saying.



Sorry you took offense at the "chew the fat" take off. [...]







"partner"?



Well, apparently you think I’m saying that closely emulating real magic is proof that the impossible is possible. I’m not saying that at all... you’re saying that.



And "chewing on circular gristle" is clearly not a "take off" on "chew the fat"; rather, it is a thinly disguised suggestion that what I am saying is founded in circular logic. So of course I took offense at that.

Regards,

Thomas Wayne
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Sorry guys, I’ve got to go with Gonzolo and Tom on this.



Thomas, it just sounds like you’re not taking things a step far enough. I think when a magician says he’s suspending your disbelief, he means that he’s forcing you to do so. I’m well versed and experienced in drama, writing and film.



A person will not suspend their belief in Peter Pan flying unless the play is done well, the actors act well and the story draws them in. People do not simply walk in and suspend their disbelief.



A magician does the same as an actor. A dollar bill cannot be floated, but if done well, we can make it look as though it does, thus creating suspension of disbelief. The very fact that magic is impossible, is indeed one of those little details you spoke of.



I agree with your statement on flourishes too, because it hurts the suspension of disbelief. The stage is an illusion as much as magic is and they work on exactly the same principals.



A good book makes us feel as if we were in another place as another person, just as a magic trick makes us believe something is happening that isn’t. Illusion is illusion. Suspension of disbelieve is suspension of disbelief no matter how you word it.



Sable

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Well, being new to this forum, I have to say it was funny to see such an illogical concept just fly out at me. After all aren’t actors and magicians both part of the entertainment industry? Isn’t the meaning of entertainment bringing another world to life? So why can’t S.O.D. apply to both actor and magician alike?



The idea of believing that dollar bills float is illogical in and of itself. It is however the magician’s job to make you believe that he can make it float or that the bill does indeed float on it’s own. Therefore S.O.D. does apply because your senses see the bill float and thus the magic occurs. Magic on the stage and in the theater, like Lord of the Rings, causes the mind to believe in the imposible and thus escape the mundane world it is used to.



When I go to a show, whether that be to see a movie or a magician, I still am there to be mystified by a world that is not my own. I therefore allow myself to believe in things that I would not in normal life.



Just as the actor paints the world with his movements, characterisms and speech with help from sceenary, does not the magician do the same with props, a good smile, sometimes funny antics and the same charisma that makes you want to believe?



Sincerely,

Dreamspire
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Quote:

On 2001-12-24 05:18, Dreamspire wrote:

When I go to a show, whether that be to see a movie or a magician, I still am there to be mystified by a world that is not my own. I therefore allow myself to believe in things that I would not in normal life.




Bingo.

Hit the metaphorical nail square on its figurative head with that one, Dreamspire.

It is the audience’s allowing themselves to believe something they wouldn’t if they saw it (read it/heard it) under any other circumstance.



Can I just say that ULTIMATELY this whole conversation does not matter on the greater scheme of things.

It is thoughts like these, thoughts that get too bogged down with the technicalities, that cause magicians to lose sight of what magic should be all about.

Look at magic through the spectator’s eyes.

If you start looking at everything through a magician’s eyes then the magic disappears.

It is in a spectator’s eyes where the magic truly happens.



Gonz



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Gonzolo,

I think you're right. In the end I think Thomas is just taking things from a different angle, and we're probably arguing semantics, but it's good to be arguing on your side this time. Smile Smile



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Respect.

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Quote:

On 2001-12-24 02:14, semianimus wrote:

[...]

I think when a magician says he’s suspending your disbelief, he means that he’s forcing you to do so. I’m well versed and experienced in drama, writing and film.

A person will not suspend their belief in Peter Pan flying unless the play is done well, the actors act well and the story draws them in.

[...]

Sable





The difference - which I believe is a significant one - is that suspension of disbelief is necessary in Peter Pan for a number of reasons unrelated to his "flying".

First, we can SEE the wires; without suspension of disbelief he (or she) is just some actor swinging in a harness. Second, the flying is incidental to the specific information the audience is being asked to take in; that is, it’s NOT desirable to have the audience dwelling on HOW the "flying" is accomplished, but rather on the flow of the storyline. Finally, the entire point of Peter Pan is NOT to demonstrate the actors "flying" in an impossible manner; the story has a beginning, middle and end - complete with moral - all of which are unrelated to the MECHANICS of the "flying" scenes. Indeed, if the "flying" scenes in a stage production of Peter Pan were accomplished using John Gaughan’s flying system (ala Copperfield) it wouldn’t be the same theatrical experience at all. The goal of the stagecraft allowing Peter Pan to "fly" is to have the audience nonchalantly accept such human flight and move on to the more important stuff: the plot. In my opinion, the "flying" in Peter Pan MUST be done with visible wires or the audience would become too caught up in wondering how it was done.



With the "Floating Bill", on the other hand, the entire point of the routine is to demonstate impossible animation of an inanimate object. The unnatural movement and "flying" of the bill is not incidental to the plot, it IS the plot. So my point is - and has been - that I don’t want the audience to suspend their disbelief and accept that dollar bills can fly. I want the audience to be stunned and baffled by what their eyes tell them is happening but their brain says CAN’T be happening. That CONFLICT - between what they’re witnessing with their own eyes and what they know to be impossible - is the very ESSENCE of magic; the last thing I want them to do is suspend their disbelief and just nonchalantly accept that dollar bills can fly.



Finally, I agree that there may be some semantical speed bumps that have muddied this discussion. I further agree that suspension of disbelief is important for certain aspects of a magical presentation, in order to establish the framing and logic of that presentation. But I’ve tried to be clear in the above statements regarding the core of my belief and I’ve yet to see any argument that would convince me otherwise. If you guys want your audience to just accept that dollar bills can fly (a trick I don’t even perform) be my guest.

But it ain’t magic.



Regards,

Thomas Wayne
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Quote:

On 2001-12-24 10:58, Thomas Wayne wrote:

With the "Floating Bill"... the entire point of the routine is to demonstrate impossible animation of an inanimate object. The unnatural movement and "flying" of the bill is not incidental to the plot, it IS the plot. So my point is - and has been - that I don’t want the audience to suspend their disbelief and accept that dollar bills can fly. I want the audience to be stunned and baffled by what their eyes tell them is happening but their brain says CAN’T be happening. That CONFLICT - between what they’re witnessing with their own eyes and what they know to be impossible - is the very ESSENCE of magic; the last thing I want them to do is suspend their disbelief and just nonchalantly accept that dollar bills can fly.



If you guys want your audience to just accept that dollar bills can fly (a trick I don’t even perform) be my guest. But it ain’t magic.





But isn’t that the whole point of the conflict you yourself described?

They HAVE to accept that dollar bills can fly because you are forcing them to.

And the "it ain’t magic" statement.

It is not up to the magician to define magic.

It is up to the spectator.

After all if something is not magical in a spectator’s eyes, it most certainly will not be in a magician's.



I don’t want to get so far into this that I start nit-picking.

But you have something important to say, and I’d like to understand it as best I can.



Gonz





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Again, a step is being lost here.

The Peter Pan play has a different point than a magic show, so of course the SOD is used differently. In magic, SOD is simply being carried to different extents.



You are forgetting that not only are people ignoring that Peter Pan is hanging from a wire, but also that he is just an actor, and the stage is just a stage and everything is fake. The SOD is not automatic, it is earned by the performers.



A magician earns his SOD. You act as if SOD is just something that happens and therefore detracts from the magic show.



When a bill floats, that is the point, just like in a play, whatever is to be gleaned from it is the point.

Here I won’t even get into the magic theory side that might state the magic wasn’t the point either and that like a play, the magic is simply being used to tell a story, but that would muddle things further.



The point is that you are confusing flying with flying. Peter Pan flying is not being used the same or for the same purpose.

In the play, Peter Pan flying is a mere detail to be overcome by the convincing aspects of the play (how well it’s done), and this is no little feat of skill.



In magic, the impossibility becomes the detail and it must be overcome by the performer.



We are not in the business to fool people, we are in it to make them believe in magic for a few shining moments.



We are actors, hopefully playing our parts so well, that for a moment the people suspend their disbelief and see something that can’t be.



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Thomas,



Bend an ear toward your audience. You have several folks saying your thoughts are unclear to us.



Again, you say you do the impossible, then you say you don’t want your audience to believe it is true.



"I want them to know - to the very core of their being - that what I am about to do is impossible; and then I want to do it." I ask you, once you’ve done it, doesn’t it cease to be impossible... if they really believe?



"I want the audience to be stunned and baffled by what their eyes tell them is happening but their brain says CAN’T be happening."



I see a confusing conflict in the above two statements and have yet to discover your bridge that resolves that. If their brain sees you do the impossible why would it say it can’t be happening? ...unless they were in a state of suspended disbelief.



Here is something I agree with: "That CONFLICT - between what they’re witnessing with their own eyes and what they know to be impossible - is the very ESSENCE of magic."



For this to exist beyond the performance, as I believe is your applaudable desire, the audience member must return from the state of astonishment to the state where he knows what you did is still impossible. What he is left with is the quandary we call magic.

"I know that is impossible but I just saw it with my own eyes, I believe it in my heart."



The problem in executing this is that most magicians don’t react to their own magic as if it were miraculous. They act as if it were everyday. Is it a wonder their audiences react in a similar manner? Another strain of this is something like the Linking Rings. People know magicians link those rings together. The don’t know how but they have seen it several times. It is not Earth shaking magic. It can be great entertainment but only in the most rare and most creative of circumstances where it looks "new" is it magic. Otherwise ’tis but a delightful puzzle.



Just so you know, I consider the fly wires in Peter Pan to be a moot point, totally void of the point of modern SOD. One is not asking to suspend the disbelief in flight. One is only being asked to ignore the method. Now if the actor never left the ground and feigned flying then we might be asked to suspend our disbelief of his flight, to pretend he actually has left the stage and gone into the air to fly. That would advance the story. But it does take place and we are just asked to overlook the specific manner. One does not doubt Peter flys about the stage. The method is clear, wires. One is asked only to overlook those wires. In fact one isn’t even asked, one does so automatically.



Actual SOD would be where, in a play, someone is killed. We know it is phony, an actor pretending to be dead but we are asked to suspend that disbelief in his death to advance the story.



I believe that just like theater has changed in the last 185 years, so may our concepts and implementations of SOD.



Certainly for those of us who perform more intimately than on a stage tucked behind the footlights, the premises must at least be altered if not totally updated. To which end I direct your attention once more to the phrase The Willful Investment In Belief.



I note that you have looked for an "argument that would convince me otherwise". The Cafe is a place for sharing and discussing ideas, not for arguing. Many here, yourself included, have come forth to share their ideas and understand others. Together we may keep this passionate subject from becoming an argument by checking our emotions and our egos at the door. There will always be those that agree and those that do not. As long as they can discuss with civility and an open mind the subject at hand, then we have learning.

Smile Smile Smile



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Tom Cutts writes: ". . . most magicians don’t react to their own magic as if it were miraculous. They act as if it were everyday. Is it a wonder their audiences react in a similar manner?"



As the late, great Tony Slydini put it:

"You must gotta believe!"



The magician should probably be the instrument of the power, not the source of the power.



In which case, he/she would be as amazed when the magic happens as the audience.



Given the advances in computer work in films, of camera tricks, and of other technological breakthroughs, the audience no longer "suspends disbelief". That’s too hard, apparently; it must be done for them (take the Jurassic Park series of films for example).



Therefore, the magician must always strive for perfection -- and achieve it. Otherwise, it’s just juggling (not that there’s anything wrong with juggling!).



Today’s audiences must be convinced beyond any doubt that "magic" is truly taking place; and that’s the REAL challenge for today’s magician.



cheers,

Peter Marucci

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(Thomas, I'm not meaning to put words in your mouth so please don't shoot me).

I think what Thomas is trying to say is that he sees the theater term of SOD as something which allows someone to enjoy a play and take it as a type of reality. Something people do somewhat on instinct so they can experience a show the right way. This as opposed to magic, where the magician must force a person into believing the magic (as it were). I think I see his point, I just think in more abstractly terms. Though SOD (theater), may be somewhat instinctive, as opposed to magic's earned SOD, it is still an SOD that is quickly lost if the show is bad. Because (theater) SOD usually has to be lost, where as (magic) SOD has to be gained, I can see coming up with a different term for them both (perhaps T-SOD and M-SOD), though for me it would not be necessary. I think most of us use SOD to mean both because we see it as the same concept even though it is used somewhat differently. It was probably coined by theater oriented magicians who saw how the theater concepts, in general, applied to magic and indeed most performing arts. Perhaps this makes sense. This may not be what you're trying to say at all Thomas, so throw something at me if I’m wrong, but I'm hoping I'm on the right track.



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I think the term (SOD) as appropriated by today’s close up performer, is meant to imply a way of working that does not challenge the spectator to view the effects as a puzzle to be solved, but as a moment to view and enjoy without attempting to break down the "how’s" with their conscious mind--as Paul Harris might put it, "the moment of astonishment." If their disbelief is not suspended, they are not astonished (though they may be surprised) because they are too busy watching the movements of the hands and trying to determine where they are not supposed to be looking.



To a great extent, this becomes a simple matter of semantics. The term "misdirection" isn’t really used in the sense it was originally intended-- "Hey, look! The good year blimp!"-- but has come to be kind of an all-encompassing term meaning direction, or even audience management. A "color change" is any change of a card, not necessarily to a different color, etc.



Ideally, we need to attempt to understand the roots of the terms and phrases we use (as Thomas has so eloquently done with SOD in his above posts) and merge that with the evolution of the terms (as Tom Cutts and others have done above) to get a complete understanding of the meaning and usage. But I don’t think we need to be "married" to one definition to the exclusion of the other. We do, however, need to clarify through context the meaning we intend if we are to be understood. That is where the creative process of the writer comes into play.



In the end, everyone here is right, depending on the context and usage in which the phrase or term is being used. At least, that’s the case as far as I’m concerned.
"Love God, laugh more, spend more time with the ones you love, play with children, do good to those in need, and eat more ice cream. There is more to life than magic tricks." - Scott F. Guinn
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