Magic Blueprinting: Using MML for scripting routines

The history of magic and the history of language go hand in hand. Language started with verbal communication, supported by dance, painting and rituals. Ancient shamans passed their craft on to the next generation in this very same way, initiating their apprentices step by step through one-on-one instruction via words, dance, painting and ritual.

Writing as we know it first developed about 6,000 years ago in present day Iraq. From then on, people wrote about every aspect of their lives, including magic. But, no writing about how to perform magic has ever been found in ancient documents. It seems that the pact of secrecy between magicians prevented them from committing their knowledge in permanent form. It is interesting to note in this respect that magicians have always been at the forefront of technology when it comes to creating the illusion of magic. When it comes to explaining secrets, however, magicians are a lot more conservative. The first magic book was published more than five millennia after the invention of writing! Since then, writing has been used prolifically by magicians to teach each other about their secrets and  initiate new magicians.

The twentieth century brought new technologies and with new means of communication came new ways of teaching magic. In a span of only a few decades, magicians moved from books to video and now to DVD and on-line technologies to share their secret knowledge. This proliferation of technology in magic teaching has made it much easier to pass on knowledge, but also raises problems for the craft, as there is a fine line between teaching magic and blatant exposure of magic secrets.

Magic Blueprinting

The evolution of language is still ongoing and as our world becomes more complicated, people seek new ways to present knowledge beyond verbal communication and text. One of the most popular tools to communicate a series of actions over a period of time is ‘flowcharting’, a technique that was first used in 1921. This time, however, it took magicians only 87 years to adopt this new form of knowledge presentation, when Alvo Stockman developed the Magic Modelling Language, magic blueprinting.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Presenting a series of activities in a graphical way is used in many different disciplines and is known under many names. Some call it a flowchart, others an activity map or a process map, while marketers prefer the term service blueprinting. I use these maps in my non-magical professional work to outline processes and illustrate where improvements can be made. Some of the questions that can be asked when looking at a process map are: Are there too many steps? Are all steps necessary to reach the end goal? Is the right person taking this step? Where can this process go wrong? These are also relevant questions for a performer when developing a magical routine.

After reading Alvo’s pamphlet I immediately developed flowcharts for some of my favourite magic routines, such as A Card in Hand by Theodore Annemann (Annemann’s Card Magic, 1977). The magic blueprint for this routine does not strictly follow the specifications of MML 1.0. Firstly, the flow of the action is illustrated with lines between boxes, rather than the grid like appearance of MML, making it easier to follow the flow of action. Secondly, to distinguish between the actions of the performer and the spectator, so called ‘swimlines’ are used. These are the vertical lines across the diagram. Thirdly, the actions of the performer are separated in frontstage and backstage. Frontstage is that which the spectator is supposed to see, while backstage refers to any action, the ‘moves’ spectators are not supposed to see. Last, but not least, a fourth swimline is used for the monologue, forming a comprehensive blueprint of a magic routine.

The map shows that there are six steps in this routine from the frontstage magician point of view, while there are five steps where the spectator gets involved. The routine has one climax, which happens in the spectator’s hand. Last but not least, there are three backstage moments that require attention management.

The front-stage actions of the performer are what the spectator is supposed to see. In this particular routine, the performer needs six steps, including an introduction, to reach the end. A Climax Quotient of 1/6 seems very low, but the scripting and high involvement of the spectator help to increase tension towards the end. Other routines, such as the Chinese Linking Rings, have a very high Climax Quotient, as many magical effects happen in quick succession, but it is very hard in these type of routines to build up tension and they thus rely on rhythm, rather than scripting.

The spectator swim-line shows that he or she is heavily involved in the routine with an Interactivity factor of five. This routine is almost in perfect balance in that out of a total of eleven front stage actions, the spectator undertakes five, giving an Interactivity Ratio of 11/5 (45%).

The script has been added to the actual process map to show the relationship between words and actions. The words are like the audio track to the actions and serve a threefold purpose. The words are explanatory and support the actions. The words also aid in managing the spectator’s attention away from the backstage actions. Most importantly, the words build tension towards the unveiling of the card. I have borrowed this technique from Fred Kaps’ rendition of Homing Card, where with every failure the inner conflict of the performer becomes more intense, moving from surprise to confusion to embarrassment.

This routine has three backstage moments, which need to be kept outside the attention of the spectator. Using a magic blueprint helps to construct a routine to appropriately direct the spectator’s attention away from the backstage. In this example, the scripting is constructed in order to manage the spectator’s attention away from the backstage action.

Not every little movement is captured in this map. For example, as I say the words: “… use the top card”, I gesture with the top card to direct the spectator’s attention. This action does, however not show on the blueprint because it is a detail the spectator is not aware of. Small backstage actions are indicated in the script between straight brackets. This raised the question what the appropriate level of granularity in magic blueprints is.

As Dai Vernon once said, a routine needs to be simple and a spectator has to be able to remember the steps. Following this advice, looking at A Card in Hand from the spectator’s perspective, can be summarised as such:

I selected a card, it was mixed back in the deck, the magician gave me another card and it turned into the one I chose.

This sentence describes five of the eleven steps indicated on the blueprint. The granularity of the map, i.e. the size of the steps, needs to match the spectator’s experience of the routine. There might be more steps, but people usually forget the details of what happened in a magic routine. There is no need to have a box for each change of finger position, because the spectator will not be aware of such detail. When developing a magic blueprint, always keep the spectator’s perspective in mind.

I use process maps almost daily in my non magical professional work because they are a great way to display and analyse a process. For some reason, however, it never occurred to me to use this technique for scripting magic routines, until I stumbled across Alvo’s pamphlet on the Magic Modelling Language.

Magic blueprinting, as I prefer to call it, is a useful technique to work out the details of a routine. The maps help to visualise the logistics of the routine and can assist in designing the appropriate theatrical devices required to keep the backstage hidden from the spectators. Magic blueprints also help to see a routine from the spectator’s perspective, which really is the only perspective that matters.

One thought on “Magic Blueprinting: Using MML for scripting routines

  1. Marvelous discussion! I very much like your phrase “magic blueprinting,” as it recalls the ritual diagrams of the ancients: the talismanic circuit boards of the Yin-Yang alchemists in China, the vévés of West African Vodou ceremonies, and the goetic sigils of Medieval evocation rites.

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