The Art of Misdirection Magic

As a private party magician, I often rely on the art of misdirection in my performances. Allowing me to convince my audience that I’m capable of supernatural feats. In this article, I’ll explain why misdirection in magic is so important and also reveal some simple tricks that you can try at home. 

What is misdirection magic?

Most people presume that the art of misdirection in magic is about distracting your audience with an attractive assistant or charming smile. But in reality, misdirection is more about being able to hold your audience's complete attention so you can direct it where you see fit.

Get this technique right and your audience will never suspect that they are being misdirected. As far as they are concerned, they are choosing where to look. But all they see is the unbelievable results of the performance rather than the secret method behind it. 

Famous Dutch magician Tommy Wonder once explained this concept by saying that the word “misdirection” combines both “wrong” and “direction”. In other words, the magician is directing the audience to look in the wrong place.

So you could say that the key to understanding misdirection is hidden in plain sight within the word itself – miss direction. It’s just unfortunate that words with the prefix “mis” tend to carry such negative connotations. As evidenced by words such as  “misfortune” and “misuse”. 

Perhaps this is why practitioners of misdirection are so often referred to as tricksters. Then again, maybe that’s just what they want you to believe? ;)

Famous tricksters

There have been many famous tricksters employing misdirection magic throughout history – both in fiction and fact. Here are some of my favourites masters of “miss direction”

Miss Direction in the movies - Loki in the Avengers


Recently popularised in the Avengers and Thor movies, Loki is among the pioneers of what we would call misdirection. Choosing to disregard the proper way of doing things to further his wicked schemes. 

Of course, I would never condone Loki’s alleged atrocities. But you have to hand it to him for his ability to hide his dark actions and misdirect attention elsewhere. This is evidenced frequently in the Marvel movies. With viewers struggling to know for sure whether Loki is truly evil or not. 

Ancient trickster Sun Tzu - the art of performing magic

Sun Tzu

The legendary Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu is credited for writing The Art of War back in the 5th century BC. The book contains 13 chapters which describe 36 strategies and tactics that can be used in specific situations of warfare.

In the book ‘The Secret Art of Magic’ the authors talk about the Art of War and how it is essentially a blueprint of misdirection in magic. With many factors affecting the outcome of a trick – much as they would in any real battle. 

Perhaps this is why the British intelligence service employed magicians such as Jasper Maskelyne to help them develop tactics of misdirection during World War II. 

The most loveable pickpocket out there - The Artful Dodger

The Artful Dodger

Also known as Jack Dawkins, The Artful Dodger is the fictional character in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. In the book he is known as a master pickpocket artist, using his skills of misdirection to steal silk handkerchiefs from the rich. 

The interesting thing about The Artful Dodger is that he also used misdirection in other aspects of his life. Such as wearing ill-fitting adult-sized clothes to distract attention away from the fact that he is actually a child.   

Legendary Trickster Johnny Palmer

Johnny Ace Palmer

Johnny is famed for his close-up mag performances and advanced sleight of hand tricks that have wowed audiences all over the world. This is backed up by his numerous honours and awards, including several from the Academy of Magical Arts. 

You have to see him perform in person to appreciate just how polished and bewildering his misdirection magic really is. This includes his take on the simple “sponge ball routine” which is easy to learn but extremely difficult to master!

Misdirection magic tricks to try at home

Rather than just telling you about the art of misdirection and the many people that use sleight of hand tricks, how about I show you a few tricks to try at home instead? 

The magic paper bag trick

This is a really simple misdirection trick where you fool your audience into thinking you are holding an empty paper bag. You can even show them the inside of the bag to prove that there is nothing inside. 

However, once you set the bag down you proceed to pull out a series of objects. This can include anything from tissues and scarves to more risque items such as a pair of ladies underwear. 

Items needed:

  • Two equally sized paper bags with a flat bottom. 

  • A pair of scissors

  • A few small items to pull out of the bag

The method of misdirection:

You need to create a false bottom in one of the bags to hide the small items. So take one of the bags and cut away three inches from the bottom. You can then throw away the rest of the bag. Now all you need to do is place the small items inside the other bag and cover them with the false bottom. 

The magical performance: 

Show your audience that the bag is empty by tipping it enough to reveal the false bottom. Then place the bag down and make a show of rustling around inside it before pulling out each item. The final part of the performance is when you remove a risque item with a look of shock on your face – which is always guaranteed to get a laugh. 

The tortured thumb trick

This is another simple trick of misdirection where you convince your audience that you are pushing pins into your thumb. Fortunately, this won’t be the case, though your Oscar-winning performance will convince people otherwise! 

Items needed:

  • A thick handkerchief

  • Several pins or needles

  • A carrot

  • A knife

The method of misdirection:

You’ll need to prepare the carrot beforehand by cutting it down into a thumb-like shape. You’ll then need to keep this fake thumb hidden in your hand before starting the trick.  

The magical performance: 

Show your audience your thumb before covering it with the handkerchief. As you do so, slip the carrot up in its place so that it looks like the handkerchief is hanging over your thumb. Now all you need to do is grit your teeth and wince in pain as you push the pins into your decidedly pain-free vegetable. 

This trick often goes down well when I’m performing as a corporate magician in London. With certain employees in on the joke as they painstakingly push a pin into the bosses thumb!

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