Over the centuries conjurors have devised many ways to enthrall their audiences, and, despite the sophistication of modern audiences, they are still doing so today.
technique beloved of magicians which fiction writers may use to their advantage: the Ancient Art of Misdirection. It’s of particular benefit to writers of mystery or suspense fiction, as it’s so useful for planning murders and planting clues; but all who must create plots or reveal information in a measured manner will find it an invaluable skill to acquire
By subtle misdirection the magician causes you to look in the wrong place while he is doing something-or-other in the right place. Misdirection comes in three flavors: time (the magician has the silk artfully placed in his hand before he begins the trick); place (your attention is drawn to the magician’s right hand, while the move is done by his left hand, or his foot, or his assistant); and intent (the magician leads you to the decision he wants in such a subtle manner that you will swear afterwards that you had a free choice).What is the value to the writer—or, better yet, the story — of these techniques? We writers can use these methods to smooth the pacing of a story, to slide information past the reader without waving it in her face, to change the direction of a story in mid-page, and to plant clues that will lie dormant until they’re ready to sprout.
we’re speaking of misdirection, not misinformation. The writer should never lie to the reader, but, if necessary, should allow the reader to lie to herself.
In fiction misdirection can be either external or internal. That is, the author can be using the story as a frame to misdirect the reader, or a character in the story may be misdirecting one or more of the other characters.
In many novels, particularly in the suspense or mystery genres, an element of misdirection is an important part of the plot. In Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca it just about is the plot. Maxim de Winter’s second wife, the narrator of the story (we never learn her name), feels herself in an unwinnable competition with the ghost of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, who died in a boating accident some years before. Maxim speaks little of the departed Rebecca, but he seems to be brooding about her constantly. And the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, tells the new wife frequently how the beautiful, charming, talented, Rebecca was her superior in every way.Then, three-quarters of the way through the book, when the narrator sadly tells her husband that she knows he can never love her the way he loved Rebecca—and that’s okay as long as he can bring himself to love her a little— comes the shocking revelation that turns the story, the narrator, and the reader arse-over-teakettle, as the British so wonderfully describe it.
“You think I loved Rebecca?” de Winter cries, “I hated her!”
And suddenly all that came before must be seen in a different light
Turn the Plot Around with Misdirection
As in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a story can seem to be headed in one direction and then, wham-snap!, change course and go somewhere else. It can be a very dramatic moment, but why would you want to do this? Perhaps, as in Rebecca, you want to create a mood and explore a character in adverse circumstances. Certainly the first three-quarters of Rebecca showed the narrator’s inner strength and depth of love for her husband in a way that would have been impossible if everything had been a perfect romantic dream for her from the beginning.
Conceal a Character’s True Persona With MisdirectionHere’s one the Gothic and Romance novelists have been using for decades. It’s a sort of reprise on Rebecca, with a few twists. A great example is the 1963 film Charade, which starred Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Walter Matthau. A quick synopsis:
Regina (Hepburn) returns to Paris to learn that her husband has been murdered and his fortune is missing. Several strange, scary men begin harassing her, convinced that she must know where the money is. Peter Joshua (Grant) defends her and offers his help. Mr. Bartholomew (Matthau), the CIA station chief, tells her that Joshua and the men are in cahoots, and that her husband stole the money from the U.S. Government. Events seem to prove Bartholomew right, as Joshua has been lying to her about everything, including his name. After many a merry chase we find that Bartholomew is actually the crook, and Joshua is the CIA agent, and romance ensues.
We have here a triple misdirection extravaganza; the husband turns out to be a crook, the crook turns out to be the good guy, and the CIA agent turns out to be really nasty. All handled deftly and all necessary to keep the plot moving. The trick here is the light, deft touch. We believe what has been presented to us, because it’s what we expect. If you present things to your reader according to formula, she’ll be lulled into belief. And then when you twist the characters and the plot, she’ll be surprised and pleased at the freshness and originality.
Submerge That Small Detail in a Pool of MisdirectionSo here’s the problem: there’s this little, unimportant fact that you need to insert in your story right here that will assume monstrous importance later in the story, but you don’t want your reader to notice it, not just yet. It’s a clue, so it has to be out there, but if its real meaning is understood too quickly it will give too much of the plot away. John Dickson Carr, a master of the mystery story form, said that you don’t have to hide clues, you can run them up a flagpole and set them to waving and the readers won’t notice. And he was right—the way he did it. They were out there waving and it was hard for the reader to miss them—but they looked (metaphorically) like flags, not clues.The way to do that is to take the clues out of context and present them as something else. Let’s say the clue is a half-drunk glass of milk on the bedside table