Misdirection is a form of deception in which the attention of an audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another.
The study of close-up magic is a wonderful introduction to misdirection. Misdirection takes advantage of the limits of the human mind in order to give the wrong picture and memory. The mind can concentrate on only one thing at a time. The magician uses this, and the "victim's" idea of how the world is supposed to be, to his or her advantage
Misdirection in magic may be as simple as a magician rolling up his sleeves and saying "nothing up my sleeve" and then producing an object that could never have been "up his sleeve". The audience instinctively scrutinizes the magician's arms but ignores the location where the object-to-be-magically-produced is hidden.
Attention can be controlled in various ways as well. A magician will first grab attention with a coin, or other small, shiny object-a shiny object captures more attention and seems less likely to disappear or be manipulated- and then direct attention away from the object (hence, "misdirection") through a combination often including comedy, sleight of hand, or an unimportant object of focus to provide just enough time for the magician to do whatever he wishes with the original object, whether it vanishes, transforms, or teleports.
One of the most important things to remember when thinking about misdirection and magic is this: A larger movement conceals a smaller movement.
Misdirection is often combined with illusion or disguise, and misdirection is not just used by magicians. In such a way, a group of Jeeps with plywood coverings painted to resemble tanks may misdirect an enemy general into ignoring a fleet of trucks (which are actually tank transports disguised as grocery trucks, etc.) and closely scrutinizing the movement and activity of the fake tanks. The real tanks, once out of their disguise, seem to appear "out of thin air" as if by magic. Among the very few magicians who have researched and evolved misdirection techniques are: John Ramsay, Tommy Wonder, Juan Tamariz, Tom Stone, Tony Slydini and Dai Vernon.
Misdirection is also a literary device most commonly employed in detective fiction, where the attention of the reader is deliberately focused on a red herring in order to conceal the identity of the murderer. The means for this form of misdirection may include false clues, false motives or more purely literary methods such as exposition, dialogue, and interior monologue. In a whodunit, misdirection can take place on two separate levels: within the narrative the criminal may attempt to implicate a third party in order to elude the detective; or the author may implicate an innocent party in order to distract the reader. If the watch on a victim's wrist has apparently stopped at 3:00 p.m., this may be because the killer has broken the watch and reset it in order to create a false time of death, but it may equally be the writer's intention to plant that false suspicion in the reader's mind.
For example, in their novel Dance of Death, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child use misdirection to suggest several possible causes for the falling of lumber and the occurrence of loud snapping sounds that Margo Green hears as she walks through museum exhibits in the wee hours of the morning. First she thinks that the sounds are made by boards that have chanced to fall over after construction crew workers have left them precariously balanced upon quitting the work of the day. Next, she supposes that the sounds are made by a night guard tripping over a loose board. Then, she wonders whether the sounds are made by someone playing a practical joke on her. None of these possibilities turns out to be the actual cause of the sounds.
Many of the techniques for misdirection are directly adopted from magic and literature. Joss Whedon and the writers of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer use misdirection by making viewers think that the season's villain is one character (the "little bad") when, in fact, the antagonist turns out to be another, more dangerous, character, the "big bad". Movies also employ misdirection, as when, for example, in The Exorcist, the welts that rise upon the possessed girl's stomach, like other physical reactions, are blamed on physiological conditions; in reality, it turns out that they are the effects of the girl's demonic possession.
Nevertheless, visual media have their own means of drawing a viewer's attention away from the real meaning of the events that are being seen. In both The Silence of the Lambs and Speed an exterior scene (the arrival of police at a building supposed to contain the murderer) is edited in sequence with an interior scene (the murderer going about his business); due to the conventions of film editing the viewer assumes that these two environments are contiguous, but in fact they are not. Other medium-specific examples of misdirection would include the shock effects customarly used during suspense sequences. For example, there is a cliché in horror films that if the potential victim of the monster is fearfully exploring the environment, apprehensive of attack, something noisy and sudden will occur such as a cat jumping out at them hissing or screaming. This misdirected shock dissipates the immediate feeling of suspense and prepares the audience for the actual shock of the attack.
Another form of misdirection in the visual media is used for comic effect, when something accepted by the audience as a convention of the medium is in reality the basis for a joke. During the first scene of The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse a character urgently hunts through his house to a building musical soundtrack; this proves to be a diegetic noise, the ringtone of the mobile phone for which he is looking. A common visual equivalent would be the sudden revelation that the blank band letterboxing used for showing films on 4:3 ratio television screens is actually physically present in the environment of the set.
Some movies like Swordfish and The Firm are about misdirection. In Swordfish, Gabriel, the main movie character in a scene explains misdirection as What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes. The super-spy Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible favors misdirection over confrontation. The same applies to some popular comic book characters, such as Batman. In a scene from the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (Batman) says that theatricality and deception are powerful weapons he can use to defeat his enemies.