In The Books of Wonder (while I object, in principle, to "must-read" lists, if I didn't, these would be on mine), Tommy Wonder wrote about the three pillars. His pillars pertained to method. Briefly they were:
- Sleight of hand/manipulation
- Special apparatus/mechanical principles
- Psychological manipulation (which fall under the popular catch all term "misdirection")
All magic is made possible by these means, either separately in combination and Tommy was among those who regularly made use of all three. (You may argue that mathematical principles have been left out. While they don't fit well under any of these categories, I wouldn't personally grant them the status of a fourth pillar. They're just not that significant.)
The presentation of magic is supported similarly by three pillars. I believe that magic shows (I'm thinking of formal shows that have a given length, strolling or restaurant magic tends to be a bit too improvisational to pigeonhole like this) are based on three forms:
- Rock Concerts
- University Lectures
A magic show is deeply reminiscent of a rock concert. The most important similarity is that bands play individual songs that do not reference one another. Each song is a complete entity and the decision about which songs go in which order is not determined by logic or plot, but instead by other factors like mood, or genre.
Lectures are in there because unlike a concert, where regardless of whether or not you are familiar with the band in particular, you do not require special instructions to listen to a love song or watch a dance number. With magic, on the other hand, the audience requires a lot more catching up. You may have to explain the rules of the Three Shell Game, or point out that you are using Morgan Silver Dollars. There is more exposition required to bring the audience to a point where they can appreciate what's going on.
I could have said theatrical play, but screenplay focuses more on the writing which I feel is more essential. A screenplay has interaction between characters in a natural way (this is usually the magician interacting with the audience. They also incorporate all of the elements of dramatic tension and build and also devices like callbacks.
Every (good) magic show I have seen is based on these three forms. What distinguishes them is the amount to which they contain each. Here are three examples from my own experience. Each are respected the world over, but their styles of performance are quire different. Nevertheless, they still fit into this framework.
For example, Penn & Teller come across most like a rock concert. The tricks they perform are separate units with a lot of flexibility in the order of the tricks. But they still write each as a screenplay and they also provide a great deal of exposition so they are not based exclusively on a rock concert.
Mac King best exemplifies the screenplay, with the abundance of structure and callbacks.
David Ben has the greatest feeling of a lecture with an abundance of historical information and exposition, but tricks are still divided like individual songs with relatively few callbacks between pieces.
In my own show, Lies, Damn Lies & Magic Tricks, I tried to make it more like a screenplay than anything that came before it. With the help of James Biss, I think the result was fairly strong. The downside is that the show feels very much like an integrated unit and it's now difficult for me to take some of those pieces and perform them in other shows because of the way they've been tangled in with the larger whole.