Writing Non-Fiction posted January 29, 2023

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The Art of Misdirection

Wait... What?

by giraffmang


One of the most compelling things a writer can do for the reader is to keep them wanting more. A key way to do this is through the element of surprise. However, many times, this surprise can fall flat with it being too overtly signalled or, worse, too predictable. So, how does the writer keep the reader engaged.

Welcome to the art of misdirection.

What is misdirection?

Misdirection is a technique employed to lead the reader in one direction while ultimately taking them somewhere else. It’s a device to keep the reader off-balance, which helps to keep them invested in turning those pages long into the night.

How to handle Misdirection.

  • Red Herrings.

Red Herrings and false leads are elements of the story which are specifically designed to distract the reader and take them away from the reality of what is going on. The term originates from a technique from training horses and dogs to mask other smells.

In Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ it is largely believed that Pip’s benefactor is Miss Havisham but it turns out to be the escaped convict he helped as a boy.

A more recent example of the red herring at play can be witnessed in the Harry Potter books where Snape is portrayed as being a villain of the piece but eventually his true character comes to the fore.

This type of misdirection focus the reader on the wrong thing, like the magician who distracts with the rabbit to divert from the false bottom of the hat.

  • Foreshadowing.

This is a clever technique, but it can be tricky to pull off. Foreshadowing is basically hinting at future events, without being too overt. The writer relies on the reader making certain assumptions about what is going to happen, only to realise that they’ve misinterpreted the signals and got it wrong.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story ‘Young Goodman Brown’ utilised this device to good effect. The title character’s meeting with the Devil is foreshadowed by various plot elements such as his night-time companion carrying a crooked staff which resembles a ‘great black snake’. This implies not only  who his companion is but the impending temptation and test of faith which is to follow.

Again in Harry Potter ‘Goblet of Fire’ when Harry is chosen for a dangerous tournament, it’s assumed he’ll win and save the day, but it turns out to be one of his friends who does exactly that.

Be careful with this technique as too much foreshadowing can quickly become overt signalling and defeat its very purpose.

  • Unreliable narrators.

This is when the narrator of the tale cannot be trusted to tell the truth or is discovered to be obscuring certain facts, leaving the reader to question what they should believe. It lets the reader draw their own conclusions as the narrator’s point of view cannot be trusted.

One of the best examples of this is Winston Groom’s character of ‘Forrest Gump’. He’ a character of limited intelligence with a low IQ but gives such an entertaining account of his life that readers don’t care.

Another good example of in Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’. The writer hints from page one that Tyler Durden isn’t all that he appears to be and is in fact not just a friend but the narrator.

  • Playing with expectation.

This is a slight twist on the above. Many readers come to a genre with certain expectations based on their previous knowledge. It’s great to subvert those expectations. The reader expects one thing to happen, but the opposite occurs.

Claire McIntosh’s ‘I Let You Go’ has such an unexpected twist at the end of its first act that no one saw coming and it upended the reader’s assumption about where the story was going. It created a compulsion for readers to go back and re-read the opening section to see how she pulled it off. (I’m not going to spoil it here!)

Another good way to subvert expectations is to give all the characters fully rounded out lives, backstories, and traits. If everything is three dimensional, it keeps the reader guessing about motivations.

One last proviso.

Remember, though, that too much misdirection can be detrimental to the story. It all had to be logical and still make sense. The reader has to be able to see how the writer arrived at the conclusions, otherwise it’s just a cheap trick. The reader still needs to be able to follow the plot and understand what is happening.

If the writer put in too many half-truths, distractions, and miscues, the reader can become confused, then irritated, and may give up entirely.

As with all other aspects of writing remember about balance. Find the right balance between misdirection and clarity.

And before the writer types ‘The End’ make sure that all the threads have been tied up. The confusions or misleading information need resolution.

Readers loved being fooled, but not made to feel foolish.

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