Wednesday, 11 May 2011


Discussion of misdirection and distraction has turned up in several contexts during my recent reading, in several contexts

  • Magic - "One of the most important things to remember when thinking about misdirection and magic is this: a larger movement conceals a smaller movement" (from Wikipedia)
  • Literature - "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" (from Wikipedia). Of course, many other genres use the device too - e.g. a title has an extra meaning that's only revealed at the end.
  • Writing Poetry - "It is difficult to select just a couple moments in Larkin's work where he employs this strategy of misdirection because it is so often the case. Nevertheless, I will begin with a poem from The Whitsun Weddings called "Water" where the strategy is hard to miss. In it the speaker creates a hypothetical scenario that is initially presented in kind of a jocular vein, but by the end we sense how fully invested, emotionally and intellectually, the speaker is in this thought experiment and it transforms into something other than humorous" (from Misdirection and excess in Ginsberg and Larkin)
  • Reading Poetry - "The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him." T.S. Eliot, "The Use of Poetry", 1933

In these situations the true purpose of the action is being disguised in order to surprise the audience later - to set a time-bomb under-cover. In the following example (and perhaps the Eliot example too) the enemy is logic, reason, narrative, or the self-critic, and the distraction lets other (perhaps more delicate) faculties have a chance.

  • Poetry Workshop Exercises - "This exercise is the old distraction gambit of the card sharp or shell-game artist. Worry about one hand while the other pulls off the trick" (Thomas Rabbitt, from "The Practise of Poetry" by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell (eds), CollinsReference, 1992)

These enemy faculties need to be sated otherwise their needs will dominate. If these more mundane needs can be satisfied while performing other tasks, so much the better. The trick is not to let the fulfillment of these needs interfere with the other more delicate faculties. In poetry for example, the reader's desire for tidiness and order might be satisfied visually, freeing grammar from its obligations.

Distraction depends on there being more than one feature or viewpoint. Poetry's good at offering features for diversion - sound versus sense, line versus sentence, form vs content, etc. Distraction's useful because it makes surprise more effective - suddenness matters if twists, punchlines and juxtaposition are going to work. People don't want to see a scene constructed piece by piece before their eyes. Better that the lights go out between acts so that the new scene can suddenly appear. The distraction's like an egg-shell, protecting as well as hiding the growing entity within.

The risks are that distraction can look like showmanship or mannerism, or it can seem to be unintentional flitting, a lack of focus. Also its effects can be hard for the writer to predict: they'll depend on the experience of the reader - a writer's supposedly subtle clue may look clumsily obvious to some readers. The reader might be supposed to see the distraction for what it is - part of a double bluff perhaps, or maybe the writer's going to focus the source of interest in something other than tension.

In all these cases, the reader's ultimate enjoyment is what matters - all is revealed at the end. Contrast that with the psychology tests where the subjects often aren't told the true purpose of the experiment beforehand because self-awareness will affect the outcomes - the joke's on them. Some literature might be like that too - the author or critics having the last laugh: "The Name of the Rose" perhaps - a medieval whodunnit or wicked, pretentious satire? "Finnegan's Wake" - comic masterpiece or flop?


  1. A MacGuffin would do this, yes?

  2. I guess so. It hooks the reader long enough to give the real purpose of the piece a chance to work.