Practical Misdirection for the Amateur Magician

[This is a long one.]

In regards to some of the recent discussion here about misdirection, I received an email from a magician who certainly has the credentials to know what works and what doesn't when it comes to that subject. I don't want to name names, but he's someone who has been performing professionally for most of his life, has authored half a dozen books, operates an online magic-shop with his life partner, and his name is something like Smoshua Smay (but replace the SMs with Js). Ok, no more hints!

In his email, he expressed that there was a part of Tommy Wonder's essay on misdirection that I hadn't addressed or had perhaps overlooked. He wrote:

"I think the part of his worldview on misdirection that is accurate (and, at the time, new) is that it is continuous. It's not something you turn on when you're ready to get the peek, or steal the load. The idea, as I understand Tommy, is that you're a tour guide, and as a tour guide you show things of interest seamlessly, flowing from one interesting object to an interesting premise, to an instruction for the spectator, to a funny line, and so on. In essence, that every second of a trick has something interesting happening to occupy the spectator's attention."

Okay, where to start...

1. If you don't know the Tommy Wonder essay we're referring to, you can read it, and dozens of other essays on magic, in this free ebook from Vanishing Inc

2. I believe Smosh beautifully paraphrases Tommy Wonder's thoughts as expressed in the section of his essay called "Continuous Direction."

3. I agree with Tommy's thoughts. If you're putting on a magic show, then you do want to guide people from point to point, continually leading them from one moment of interest to another, like jumping from one rock to another in order to cross a stream, and, in doing so, bringing them to the precise location you want them to be at on the opposite bank.

In that way, moments of misdirection (or direction) will blend in with all the other moments around them where you aren't diverting them away from something, but just onward to the next moment of significance.

Not only do I agree with Tommy on this point, it borders on common sense to do so in a theatrical context. 

And that's kind of the point. While this is good advice for a professional magic show—or even an amateur presentation where you want to mimic the esthetic of a professional magic show—it's almost unusable advice in a casual, amateur performance. What people expect or accept in a theatrical setting they don't expect or want in a casual one. This is why we must have different techniques for the two.

The moment you sit down with someone and start directing their attention from moment to moment, you've lost the feeling of a real interaction. This is not how normal humans relate to each other. This is why magicians in casual situations often come off as robots or aliens not quite familiar with human interaction when they slip into "performance mode."

You can test this idea by imagining yourself showing someone something non-magical, but using the precepts in Tommy Wonder's essay. If you were showing someone your baseball card collection and every beat was planned and every moment outlined in advance, you understand how that could seem awkward, yes? 

In a more formal style you would want to come off as a "tour guide" showing people things of interest. But that's not my style. I don't want to come off as a tour guide, because I want it to feel like the destination is some place neither of us have been before. A tour guide has an intimate familiarity with the location. But I want the limit of my influence to feel like, "Hey, I've heard about this interesting place. Do you want to check it out?" And then we discover it together. 

Instead of being taken on a guided tour through a place, I want the person to feel like they were free to follow their whims and explore as they pleased. Obviously there are some constrictions, but I don't want it to feel that way.

In my experience, this leads to more powerful magic (and if it didn't, I wouldn't do it this way). When things are too "directed," it's less surprising when something happens to work out in a particular way. The whole point of being "directed" is to reach a particular destination. So when things feel "undirected" and yet we still end up at some incredible conclusion, that's almost the definition of a "magical" experience.

So while I agree that Tommy's ideas make sense for a formal show where the audience expects to be led (and for amateurs who want to perform in a formal manner). In casual situations I think we need a different tactic. 

Eyes vs Minds

Here is the approach that I've found most useful in dealing with misdirection in casual performances. 

It comes down to breaking misdirection down into two categories: misdirection of the eyes (misdirection of attention) and misdirection of the mind (misdirection of suspicion).

To know when to use which type of misdirection, we need to know if the audience has established a locus of suspicion. That is, have they identified an area or object where they suspect something is going to occur. While this can sometimes be a grey area, usually it's pretty clear. 

Here are the two main precepts:

1. If no locus of suspicion has been established, then misdirect their eyes (misdirect their attention).

For example, let's say you bring out a deck of cards and you have the aces on the top. You want to palm them off in order to have the deck shuffled. At this stage in the performance, your spectator isn't focused on any one thing, so they shouldn't be burning the top of the deck. So we just need to misdirect their eyes. It doesn't even need to be a matter of misdirection, you just have to wait until they're not looking at the deck. 

2. If a locus of suspicion has been established, you need to misdirect their mind (misdirect that suspicion).

The heart of what I'm saying is this: Suspicion always trumps attention. You can't misdirect people from something they're suspicious of with some object of interest without them feeling it. Let's say two coins have disappeared and you have a final coin in your fist that you want to make vanish. That coin, due to the nature of the trick, is now the locus of suspicion. If you try to misdirect people's eyes and attention away from the coin in order to ditch it in your pocket, you're not going to fool people. People know when their attention is being pulled away. They can feel it. Some people won't give in and will just stare at that hand regardless of what technique you attempt to employ to distract them. Others will look away when you, for example, ask them a question, because they don't want to be dicks about it. But if you then make the coin vanish, there is no doubt in their mind about what happened: you did something with it when they weren't looking. It's a perfectly reasonable assumption.

And for most audience members that is enough of an explanation. They don't need to know more than that. "Something happened when I looked away." Case closed.

In this situation, rather than using misdirection that gets them to look another way, we want to get them thinking another way. And that's misdirecting their suspicion. So, for example, instead of distracting you with something else while I peek the billet, I get you to believe your billet is somewhere it isn't. That gives me the opportunity to peek your billet outside the locus of your suspicion. 

Or, instead of asking you a question to bring your eyes off my hand holding the coin, I sleeve the coin or false transfer it so it is no longer where you think it is. Then I can vanish it without you apparently ever having turned your attention away from it.

"But, Andy, shouldn't we misdirect their eyes away from the sleeving or the false transfer? Wouldn't that make it doubly deceptive?

Not in my opinion. I think that's an abuse of misdirection. If your false transfer can't withstand the heat of their attention, then you need to work on your technique. If you have a move that absolutely can't be done with people watching you or your hands then, in general, it's probably not a move that should be done once people have established a locus of suspicion. If you do the move in such a circumstance, it will just fall under the umbrella of, "He did something when I looked away." And they'd be right about that.

The Misdirection Flowchart

Here is my thought process when working on an effect.

I consider each move or deception separately.

The first thing I'll think is, "Is this move something that needs misdirection" The move itself may be so subtle or invisible that it doesn't need misdirection. And if it doesn't, I don't add it unnecessarily.

But if I think, yes, the move needs some misdirection, then I'll ask, "Has a locus of suspicion been established at this point in the trick?" If the answer is No, then I'll use traditional misdirection techniques (asking questions, drawing their attention to something) or just wait for them to look away naturally.

If the answer is yes, there is something they're suspicious of, and that object is what needs to be manipulated in some way, then I'll ask, "Can I misdirect their suspicion? Is there a way to get them to focus that suspicion on the wrong object or in the wrong area?" 

If the answer to that is yes, then I'll use that tactic to misdirect their suspicion.

But if the answer to that is "no," then I just won't do the trick. If the only way to pull off the trick is to get them to divert their attention from the thing they're naturally suspicious of, then it's not a good trick for my style of performance. 


Here's an example of the terminology and ideas as they would apply to an ambitious card routine.

Phase 1: The spectator selects a card and signs it and it's placed in the middle of the deck. I do a pass and it's now on top. Type of misdirection: Misdirection of eyes/attention. At this point, there is not overt suspicion on the card. They have no idea what's about to happen. They don't realize it's physical location in the deck is that important until I say, "I'm going to make your card rise to the top." And, of course, I don't say that until after the move is done.

After phase 1, the Locus of Suspicion has been firmly established. It's the signed card. 

Phase 2: Most of us couldn't get away with another pass for a second phase of the ambitious card with a spectator watching closely. And if we draw their attention away from the deck at this point, they'll just think something happened when their attention was diverted. So instead we focus their suspicion in the wrong place. So maybe I secretly turn the top card over against my leg. The selection is then placed face-up on top and switched for the indifferent card when I turn the double face-down. "Watch carefully," I say. They can burn my hands as their selection goes into the middle. I tell them to take the top card but not to look at it yet. "If this worked, that should be your card." They say, "No way." They turn it over and it is. (Type of misdirection: Misdirection of suspicion - get them to believe the locus of their suspicion is somewhere it isn't.) In this phase they think they're watching exactly what they want to watch (their card), but in reality their focus is on an indifferent card. 

Phase 3: The selection is placed in the middle of the deck, but again rises to the top. (Type of misdirection: None.) Tilt and a double lift can withstand the spectator's gaze without significant misdirection.

Phase 4: I tell them to cut the deck so I can bury their card in the middle. They try and find that the deck is one solid block (Paul Harris' Solid Deception). (Type of Misdirection: Misdirection of suspicion - get them to place their suspicion on the wrong object.) In this case the deck is switched at the climax of phase two, when their attention/suspicion is on the card in their hand. This is kind of a hybrid between misdirection of the eye and misdirection of the mind. Because the final effect happens somewhere outside of where they've focused their attention, a spectator could conclude, "He must have done something to the deck when I was looking somewhere else. I didn't know to focus on the deck." They could think that (although it's unlikely in this particular trick due to the fact the deck is seemingly normal after it's been switched).

But, you see, it's okay if they come to that conclusion. I'm not operating under the delusion that I can get them to never think they were looking in the wrong place while something happened somewhere else. That's not my goal. My goal is that they'll never feel like their attention was pulled away from where they wanted it to be. If your audience has established a locus of suspicion and you just try and misdirect their attention away from it, they will always feel that. However, in something like the example above, their attention is never pulled away from anything. They're free to follow their impulses every step of the way.

The Next Evolution

Those are my thoughts on misdirection. Just to be clear, there are some effects that are about misdirection, e.g. "I'm going to get your card under the card box and you're not going to see it." Those effects are outside the scope of this essay. Once you start invoking misdirection in your presentation, that's something else altogether.

Now, some people will claim they're so good with misdirection that the audience will actually forget they looked away. No, they won't. I promise you. Not if they've established a locus of suspicion. 

The truth is usually just the opposite. Your spectator really will have their focus on everything that is happening, but when the climax occurs they'll think, "Ah, you must have done something when I looked away."

I remember performing Out of this World for the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen one night on the floor at the foot of her bed. When the cards were turned over she screamed and then, after a moment, she said, "You must have switched them. I must have looked away at some point and you switched them." It's a ridiculous idea. But I guess it seemed less ridiculous than that she was able to shuffle a deck of cards and then separate them into red and black by instinct.

If you're performing in a conversation/casual style, you're more susceptible to this type of thing. The magician on stage or at your restaurant table can implore you to "look, watch... make sure my hand never goes near my pocket," etc., etc. But if your goal is to not come off as a "performer" and you want to make things seem less prepared and more organic, then it can be weird to beg them to focus on something. That doesn't feel like the laid-back style some of us are going for.

That's why I think the next evolution in thought in regards to this type of thing will be at the opposite end of the misdirection spectrum. It will be about focus. How do we get people to feel like they've taken in all the information they should during the course of the effect without explicitly telling them what to take note of? How do we get them to, for example, make sure a coin never leaves their site, without saying, "Make sure this coin never leaves your site"? Because telling them explicitly can kind of tip your hand in regards to where this thing is going. And often, in certain types of performances, I don't even want them to know at that point there's a "this" they're involved in that is going anywhere.

Anyway, that's something I've been thinking about for a while now. I'm not sure if it's something others have written about. If you know of anyone who has, or if you have any insight into it, let me know.