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Routining (A How-To Guide)

Having read a number of books on the subject it has become clear that many magicians have different views on the idea of making a routine for an act. Darwin’s book Strong Magic says that in his opening effect it is a rule of thumb that the magic has to begin about two minutes into it, where Micheal Ammar follows what he calls “Eight Rules of Making Magic Memorable”. Jerry MacGregor in his book Real World Magic has a number of rules that are again different but do share some similarities. So who is right? The answer is all of them, sounds strange doesn’t it but having read each of the above books I can state that their reasoning for their ideas are sound and just shows how diverse the subject is.

It is better to think of making a routine as a living and breathing thing much like ourselves. We are constantly developing ideas and discarding others, growing in environments that have different problems that need solutions. Your individual personality itself may bring about things that you believe to be true and want to incorporate into your act, or things may change in yourself that might make a change in your act. All these things and many others affect a routine, but the one constant that remains true no matter how your theory of routining develops and that of entertaining your audience.

So what I present here is my ideas on the subject that I have gleaned from various sources and thought about and placed into practice, and what I believe to be the best way for me, at least in how I routine. Some others may find my ideas helpful.

An act starts as an idea, whether that idea comes from something you saw on TV or from what some had told you from the day before, an idea can come from anywhere. It may also just be an intention of doing something, like making a new act to keep things fresh with your repeat clients. If you have no idea as to what you want your act to be, then take some time now and think about it. What do you like doing? Maybe an act based around an interest of yours? You are only limited by your own imagination. So you have an idea, write it down on a sheet of paper.

To give you an idea of my own as an example, I was playing with the marketed effect “Hollow”. For those who are not equated to the effect, it is where a hole is punched in a playing card and the magician places a finger over the hole and seems to move it to various other locations on the card. So I was thinking of a story to attach to the trick to make it entertaining, and what I came up with was a crime story. A card is selected and signed and as I have this done I talk about how this particular card was walking down a dark ally one day a few loud bangs were heard. He had been shot, and so the story developed from there. Lets call this idea a theme, which I like to call “Crime does not pay”.

My theme is a crime story, now we are onto selecting the tricks. Where do we start in selecting tricks? The answer to that would be the first one in your act. How do we select our first trick in our act? That is a question we have to dive into a little theory to answer. When you have heard a car beep its horn have you remembered your reaction? The most common one is you would have turned around and looked for the car that made that noise, having found that car you would have simply turned back around and continued on your way. The car simply got your attention for a few seconds and nothing more.

But lets try that situation again but this time you hear a car horn to which you react as before but not long after the horn you also hear the car brakes screech then what appears to be a crashing noise. Questions would start to fill your mind like “I hope that person was alright” or other things along those lines. As you are thinking these things you are focusing on the car a lot, more than a few seconds as you did in the first example. So what I’m trying to say is that attention is an automatic stimulus where interest is selective, but both are required elements of an act.

How does this help in selecting the first trick in your act? Well what we first want to get in the audiences attention and later we can develop that attention into something more which will be the purpose of the effects and a number of other things that follow after. But how do we get that attention? Some of the most common advice given is to start your act with a flashy and sometimes quick effect, which magicians more often then not call "eye candy". Such effects along these lines are of a visual nature like a dove production, a fire effect or an appearing cane, and these effects are of course good at achieving attention we require. The thing about this advise is that it has been so often given, that magicians start to think that this is the only way to gain attention in their opening phases in their acts. This is of course not the truth since if it was how would a mentalist do it? So how else can we achieve this attention?

Remember in the opening first few paragraphs I talked about my idea based around my effect Hollow? Well that effect by nature is a visual effect and fits into the first bit of advice I gave, but what if it was an effect that wasn’t a visual one? How would I develop it into something that got attention? The answer is in what you say and do. Have you ever seen a movie where a school teacher walking among his students desks holding a stick, then suddenly wacks it on a near by table to liven up his pupils? It’s the same as the car horn principle. Using the latter in the context of magic, lets use it in my trick and how I could open with the following actions and dialog:

“BANG” accompanied by a loud thump on the table with my hand and followed up with “A shot was heard”, which then leads nicely into the reason of my dialog like, “Like in every good crime story there first must be a crime”, and so the act develops from there. In that case my actions and words got their attention and not the trick. That’s a more aggressive approach, but others will work just as well. So to summarize what I have just said there are three main ways to gain attention and they are:
  • By the trick
  • By what you say
  • By what you do
There is also nothing to say that you couldn’t use anyone of these three ways to get attention in calibration together, in fact you would be better off for it. The first effect also sets the tone of the show, as in my case it’s a tone of mystery and intrigue, which should run though the whole of you’re act.

The best way to see how attention is used and how people, signs, commercials on TV try to get that attention is a good observation exercise. See if many of the ways they get attention can be used in your magic act or visa versa and maybe more ideas will come to you. Of course attention will only get you only so far.

So from this point we have got their attention, now what? Well remember, attention is an automatic stimulus and interest is selective? What we are now trying to do is turn their attention into interest, and how we do that is in any number of ways, but let’s explore some. Darwin Ortiz in his book Strong Magic talks about what he calls interest catchers, and these are important because with out them, they will have no incentive to watch the show and will walk off not long after the opening effect. So to prevent that from happening, we will see what interest catchers are and how we can use them to our advantage.

The Intriguing Statement: I have a card effect that I open with that I say to the audience:

“Secrets and magic, they are synonymous to each other and tonight I would like to give you and in-depth picture of the way magicians do things.” Then lead into a spoof explanation of various things, that even explained seem to be very fictional. Who wouldn’t want to know something that they would usually be allowed to know? Wouldn’t that interest you?

The Intriguing Question: This is pretty much the same as the above but done in a form of a question.

A Solution to a Common Problem: Say you have worked out a solution to a problem that many can relate to. Never having enough money to spend on things you need or money burning a hole in your pockets is a good example. Find a way in an effect where you can overcome those problems. Another one could be magically able to do the entire housewife’s housework done in one wave of a magic wand. Just think how many housewives would turn up to your show if you could show them that?

There are literally billions of different things that interest people that a magician can incorporate into his act to gain that interest factor to maintain his audience focus, but they are well beyond the scope of what I can write here.

The criteria for selecting effects for the body of your act are hugely different to that of the first effect. We have already talked about how interest rather than attention plays an important role in the effects that come after the opener. In the body of your act this interest concept must be maintained until the end. But what else should we consider?

When renovating a room in your house, what things do you think about other than its functional aspects and appearance? How would it would stand in comparison to other rooms in the house. Would you paint one room with red walls and the others pink? I’m guessing you wouldn’t (and neither would I) but how those other spaces worked well together is what I’m explaining.

Routining an act is putting parts together so it can appear that the whole product is more than the sum of its parts. That’s what we are trying to achieve here. The audience will see you’re a person who knows what he is doing and in return will more be than appreciative of the effort you have put in. The best sign that you have actually done things right is to see them being entertained, then you know your effort has been worth it. How we do this is by transitions that link each effect together.

Remember the idea I asked you to write down at the very beginning? Well this is where is comes into play, by running through the whole act. To give an example, let’s just say we have a number of dice effects say Dr. Sak’s Spotted Sorcery, Irv Weiner’s Soft Dice, Matrix done with dice and Dice Stacking. Apart from the use of dice in each effect, these effects are unrelated, so how do we link them? Read this:

I had been told to make sure that the opposite sides of the dices added up to fourteen. But in the first dice game they kept changing. (Spotted Sorcery) When I went to play craps at a friend’s house where I knew I wouldn’t be cheated, his downstairs neighbour kept complaining about the noise of the rolling dice on the floor. (Soft Dice) After I gave up craps, I went into the neighbourhood bar. Even there temptation was put in my path. A couple of guys were playing poker dice with four dice and a cup. When I tried my hand, I couldn’t roll a pair; the dice kept stacking up. (Dice Stacking Routine)

So can you see how the theme can link unrelated effects? It does take some time to think about how the effects fit into the theme but it can be done. An easier way is to select your tricks in light of your theme. There are a heap of effects out there that with the right thought could be just right to fit into your theme.

Another form of transition is prop usage. After using a deck in your last routine, put it away and take out your next effect. Your audience can see that you are changing tricks, and therefore can make that jump, or maybe using something in your last effect in your next effect. Bridging words and phrases can make an effective transition—such as “of course,” “in addition” and “consequently”—can show that you're moving on. Transitions help that unified look of an act and not a thrown-together bag of tricks. It also helps your viewer to move nicely from one effect to the other and make that connection that we are obviously trying to make.

I remember a time when I did a first aid course, and the reason I remember it was because this one stood out as probably the most boring course on the face of the earth. I had done first aid before, and this was never a problem until now, but asking myself what made it boring I came up with this. There was no interaction with the students. Rather than get up and do a lot of practical we were just lectured on things we should and shouldn’t do and watch a multiple amounts of videos. What should have been done is put our theory into practice and mix things up a bit like watch a video here, take down notes here and do some practical there. What I’m saying is use variety and your act should be no different. Don’t go using a heap of ace effects or pick a card trick, mix it up a bit.

I could talk about what one could consider for their body of their act but it's best for the reader to just get a book on the subject of routining and read some of the advice out there for themselves. But now what I would like to do is move onto the finale and last element of an act, and that’s is the last effect. What your final effect should do should be your best piece, and leave your audience wanting more.

I have said quite a bit here and I’m guessing but this could be a lot to comprehend so I will summarize all the points I have talked about on a by points bases:


Gets attention
Must set the tone of your act

Body of Act

Fits theme
Uses variety
Maintains interest


Must be your best effect
Leave them wanting more
Leave on a high note

This is just a tip of the iceberg as far as routining is concerned, and if the reader wants to read further on the topic there are a number of highly recommended books on the subject which are:

Strong Magic by Darwin Ortiz
Real World Magic by Jerry Macgregor
Magic and Showmanship: A handbook for Conjures by Henning Nelms

I hope some of you have enjoyed my thoughts on routining and hope also that they have helped you in some way. I wish you all the best in what you do.

Peter Marucci
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A superbly well-thought-out discourse on routining a magic act. Probably the best and most significant line is near the beginning:

So who is right? The answer is all of them; sounds strange doesn’t it but having read each of the above books I can state that their reasoning for their ideas are sound and just shows how diverse the subject is.

And you did a first-class job of bringing together many of the facets of a diverse subject.

Craig Krisulevicz
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That was a nice thing of you to put in so much time and effort into that post Aus. I hope the beginners here read it carefully and give it the time it deserves.

Also, I highly recommend that everyone in magic pick up a copy of Strong Magic by Darwin Ortiz. Although it is out of print and very expensive, it is worth every penny if you truly wish to progress in magic.
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Excellent job. Enjoyed it.

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When you come to the point where you have no need to impress anybody, your freedom will begin.
Bill Thomas
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I concur...great job.

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Execellent post. I actually logged on to the Café today to post the question "How should a beginner go about building a routine?" Thanks for answering it before I could ask!
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Great job! I printed this one. I guess more books are in my future.
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Profile of Aus

I glad you found it helpful, this how-to guide is the fourth one that I have done in line with three past others dealing with, "How to get started in magic," "Magic on a Budget," and "Buying Magic". The main reason that I have done this work is that there are some very common questions that appear on this board that if there was a magic FAQ's section, a lot of people would have to ask. But I'm glad you find my posts helpful.



UPDATE: March 4, 2004

The Crime Does Not Pay Act.

Hi guys. In my first post I talked about how I routine and my theorys behind what I do and I also talked briefly about my crime does not pay act. The following act is still in development but I thought I would share it with people on this board so they could see for them selves how my ideas are put into practise. The Theme or idea that I started off with was finding a presentation for my effect hollow, which like many effects that one buys over the course of his/her life time, sit and gather dust never being used. I had a number of these sort of effects sitting around or effects that I have read that I really never had a great use for, so I thought I would dust them off and give them an airing.

I also had the intention to create a more formal act using things that usually were off limits to the more informal and impromptu occasion. I had up to this point been doing a 5 min or so anywhere, any time act with a deck of cards, which has been quite effective. But I wanted to expand a bit, and the following is what I am creating.

Effects in order of performance:

T&R card
Final Departure
Card Stab
John Hancock

I have not selected a closer as of yet because I’m still on the look out for an effect that would fit my act. I have also made no particular choice to what Torn and Restored card effect I would use yet other then a piece by piece one because I believe your able to dramatize the effect better then a more quick and flashy flash restoration. John Hancock is an effect of David Regal's from his book “Close Up and Personal” in which a card is signed and the signature jumps backwards and forwards between two cards. I have taken the signature out of the routine and replaced it with a thumbprint from the spectator using an inkpad commonly used for rubber stamps. This is of course just to conform to my theme. The following is my presentation.

Presentation ideas:

Hollow: You know one thing that is common among Murder Mysteries is that they all start with a murder. I want to share with you all today a story a magician once told that was part of an investigative team in his younger years as a police detective. The crime in question was apparently recorded by detectives as happening one moggy and wet morning at 9:00 am. In order to protect the names of those involved we will use cards as characters in this story. Would you mind selecting a card from the deck please? Great, now show everyone what this card is, it does not matter if I see the card or not. Would you take this pen and sign your name across its face? Ok, as I was saying, it was around 9:00am when the alleged murder took place and it was suggested that the victim was seeing his long time mistress of five years the queen of spades.

On his walk home, he decided to take a short cut home and take a back alley, which unfortunately was a mistake he would live to regret. Things at night seemed very scary, and it was for this reason that he was very nervous, and even the slightest noise by an alley cat would startle him. I was not long until three loud shots where heard, one after the other, BANG, BANG, BANG and with that the victim fell to the ground. The noise woke a nearby neighbour who rang the appropriate authorities.

His arrival to the hospital an hour or so later was the beginning of his battle to survive. The bullet started to travel throughout his body causing serious damages along the way. First it started here, and then travelled here, and then out of the blue it jumped to here, as a last attempt they tried a transplant, but unfortunately to no avail. His time of death was marked at 11:00 am that morning.

T&R Card: It was not long that an investigation was lodged into the murder of the king of diamonds (the card chosen in hollow), but one crucial part was the autopsy. The body was divided into four parts so they could it be meticulously studied to find any evidence (The signed card from the previous effect is taken and torn into four quarters). Close examination revealed the calibre of the gun used (the quarters are placed into one hand and given a little shake as a bullet falls from the torn pieces). Our first bit of evidence was found. But because the family of the king of diamonds wanted an open casket funeral, they had to place the victim back into a presentable state, so they put him back together, one piece at a time.

Final Departure: The autopsy only revealed the nature of the injuries, the time of death and the calibre of the weapon used. So from an investigative viewpoint, there was not much to go on. There was however the question of the neighbour who was witness to the crime, and it was her that their first and only lead started. Feeling that this crime was connected to a big crime syndicate, the detectives places the witness into police protection (the magician shows four aces as to represent the protection for the witness). Would you mind selecting a witness for use please sir? Thank you very much. In this case, the witness was the four of hearts and was placed under the aces protective custody (the aces are placed onto a nearby spectators flat palm up hand, which the chosen card placed with them also. The cards are then sealed with the other hand being placed on top). With all this protection the four of hearts felt smothered and just needed to get out of the situation. She decided to give her protection the slip (the four of hearts is revealed to be located in a near by card box, and not among the aces where it is seen but a moment ago).

Card Stab: The detective had the right assumption. The crime was part of a bigger scheme of things. The people responsible for the crime had been looking for the opportune time to take advantage so they could clean up loose ends (as these words are spoken, the magician pulls out his pocket knife, unfolds the blade with a suggestive glare). Would you mind shuffling the witness into main stream society please sir (with that the four of hearts in shuffled into half a pack of cards)? These guys were hit men and proficient in their job, and they always got there job done (the cards sprang from one hand and the knife held in the other is thrusted into the cards mid-flight, which after the knife is retracted soon shows the card impaled on the blade).

John Hancock: So now the investigation took a turn for the worst, we had two murders with no possible leads, and now the case was in the hands of the forensic team (the magician pulls out a card out of his pocket and places face down on the table). This is the CSI card (the magician turns over the card to see on the face written CSI). The detectives had a suspect in there sights for a while that had been related to similar crimes. Due to lack of evidence they could not convict him, but they did have his thumb print on file (a spectator selects a card and has it turned face down and with an ink pad places a finger print on the back of his selection).

Investigation of the crime scene also revealed a thumbprint (the magician takes a make-up brush and dusts the back of the card as if dusting for prints. Then the CSI card is turned over to reveal that the thumbprint has now jumped from the selection to the CSI card). Would you mind looking at this sir? It does look very similar to your print doesn’t it? We will just place it face up here. Just to make sure evidence is not tampered with just place your hand over the CSI card please. Great! Now lets have a closer look at yours (taking the chosen card face up it is waved over the hand of the spectator, which when turned over reveals the print back again and the CSI card having none). Looks like tampering with evidence is an issue (the magician looking at the CSI card). But another print was easily obtained from the crime scene (both the selection and the CSI card are placed in both hands and turned over to show there backs to once again show the thumb print has jumped from the chosen card to the CSI card). It was concluded without a doubt that the suspect in question was at the scene of the crime. He was later taken into custody for interrogation.

Routine Analysis: So why have I put effects there instead of here, and so on? Well let’s brake it down. The first effect attains the attention factor because of the visual nature of the trick which combined with the intriguing statement “You know one thing that is common among Murder Mysteries is that they all start with a murder. I want to share with you all today a story a magician once told that was part of an investigative team in his younger years as a police detective”. So the first goal is achieved, and that is gaining their attention by reasons already talked about in my first post. The tone is also set by means of telling them that what I’m about to tell is a crime story, in which they can gauge what to expect. A common problem with acts by many magicians is that there persona or characters they portray are not constant. There a practical joker one-minute and a man of wise wisdom the next, but I keep that continuity in my act to the end. My theme throughout the whole of the act transitions all the effects by making them the next chapter is the telling of the story, as well as some props usage that makes use of one effect to the next ie signed card from hollow used in T&R card routine.

Moving into the body of the act, interest is maintained by the constant one step ahead, two step behind cinereous. Verity is not an issue as there is enough difference between effects to keep things fresh. The theme and the effects fit well together in context they are placed in.

SO I hope you can see my theory in practise and hope you can now apply it in your own acts with equal success.


Aubrey de Wet
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Superb post Aus well done
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Mike Walton
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Nice job. Thanks for taking the time and effort to put together such a nice piece.
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I would love to watch your act.

Thanks for your time and energy
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Thank you,
I think we all can have a link to this post and offer it in other posts and questions in the Café. A lot of people will be very grateful because it has a lot of material that people ask for in other parts of the forum.
Thank you, really nice work.
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Hey Aus,

Wonderful Post! Must have taken ages in time and effort.

I sincerely appreciate both.


Nakul Shenoy
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As a new member on this forum I'm learning so much reading posts like this.

Thanks a lot for you time and experience.

Gavin K
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Thanks aus! In an other internet-forum ( a dutch forum) someone was asking something about routining. I thougth about your post, which I had read half a year ago, or so. So I copied it to that forum, and I said you wrote it. I even included your avatar, LOL! If you don't want you post to be on that forum, please send me a pm or an email michielkoersAThotmailDOTcom replace the AT for @ and the DOT for .

Richard Lucas
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I congratulate you on your unselfish act of sharing. I think that your articles epitomize the spirit of The Café.

Thank you from all of us.
"The only difference between a Card Cheat and a Magician is that the Magician shows off.".......... Jay Ose 1965

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This is a great post! Using your information, I'm converting my talent from a bunch of tricks I do to a show with a central far trying to use family dynamics. There's a lot of potential for comedy in that. For instance, my "Coin Matrix" patter involves fighting over the bathroom.

I need a stage name.

Joe Berkley
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If one of my posts has achive to help someone then they have suited there purpose. I'm glad it has been a help.

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Thank you.
It was an help for me.

grazie e ciao
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