Misdirection: The Importance of Fooling Readers

Misdirection: Why We Have to Fool Our Readers

This week’s video compares authors to magicians and talks about why the art of misdirection is a crucial skill.

Video Transcript:

A couple weeks ago we talked about how important it is to be honest with our readers. But today I want to totally flip that advice on its head and talk about how important it is to fool our readers. Now, I’m not talking about lying to our readers, I’m not talking about faking suspense or conflict, or sticking in random plot twists. What I’m talking about is misdirection. I’m also going to be talking about Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me, and, just as a warning, I’m going to be talking a few spoilers.

This story is about magicians, and, more specifically, about figuring out how their tricks work. Although, in my opinion, the ultimate payoff is pretty much a cheat, for a number of reasons, the most interesting thing about this story is how the magicians’ technique is, in fact, a mirror of the author’s technique. A lot of emphasis in this story is put on misdirection. An ex-magician explains to the protagonist that magicians use their assistants to misdirect the audience’s attention. Well, guess what? This is exactly what the author has done to misdirect his audience’s attention in an attempt to keep them from figuring out the true culprit in the mystery.

Most stories are going to have at least some little factoid that the authors don’t want the readers to know about ahead of time. But, to play fair, we have to plant all the clues in plain sight, so that everything makes sense in time for the big reveal. In other words, we have to foreshadow. But with all those clues dangling around in plain sight, how do we keep readers from just plain figuring it out?

So, what’s the answer? Misdirection! We present the true clues in a subtle, almost off-handed way, while at the same time emphasizing the fake clues that will send readers sniffing down the wrong scent. This is exactly what Now You See Me did when it focused attention on the culprit’s assistant, so we would suspect her and see right past the truth.

Tell me your opinion: What is your favorite technique for misdirecting your readers’ attention?

Misdirection: The Importance of Fooling Readers

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I don’t know what to say other than this is a really good post. In my recent novel, I try to make one of my characters seem like a jerk when he really isn’t, but I feel like I give too many clues away so that the audience knows he’s a good guy the entire time. I want to get better at this and leave some mystery in the story. Thanks for the post. Perhaps another time you could give more tips about how to keep the reader in the dark.

    • Keeping readers in the dark is always a bit of a tricky proposition. We want to guide our readers’ perception of our story, but we never want them to feel manipulated. One of the best ways to accomplish any kind of misdirection in a story is via an unreliable narrator. If the main character perceives this other character as a jerk, readers will almost certainly take him at his word – even if he ends up being wrong.

  2. What a great post! Since I’ve read a lot of John LeCarre, who writes about the Cold War, I’ve always of this as “disinformation.”

    I love the device of the unreliable narrator! My favorite example is the butler, Stevenson, in “The Remains of the Day.”

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Good way to think of it! It’s all about guiding readers to think what we want them to think when we want them to think it – even if it turns out to be wrong. The other thing it’s all about is making sure they’re not going to be mad when they realize we’ve tricked them!

  3. Good post, although I was hoping for more writing-specific examples because I am struggling with this in my current MS. My Protag has three opponents. One of them is a fake-ally and, while he SEEMS to support the primary opponent, in many ways he is more dangerous. I don’t want that to be obvious until end…but I need to drop hints. It’s a tricky business to know when and how to drop those hints!

    • A good rule of thumb is that the more important the twist, the more heavily it needs to be foreshadowed. Twice is usually the minimum. Start with “light” foreshadowing early on, in which you drop hints that could easily be missed, then reinforce them right before the twist.

      • Thanks Katie, that helps me. I think I am on the right (write) track after all. 🙂 I’m editing now and trying to make sure I captured those foreshadows to the degree that works best–without over-doing. It’s a revealing of the fake-ally’s “inappropriate obsession” with the protag (an 11-year old girl). I mapped out how I want the reader to progress from “he seems like a decent, if weird guy” to “that’s questionable behavior” to “that’s inappropriate!” and, finally, to “omg, he’s twisted!” (Those are the non-official titles of the foreshadow steps….LOL) So, I guess that’s three foreshadows and then BAM!

        • K.M. Weiland says

          Ultimately, the best test for any approach to foreshadowing is going to be reader feedback. When the time come, ask your betas when they figured out your twist.

  4. I love being genuinely shocked by a twist. Even though I’m fifteen years old, I tend to be good at seeing twists miles away (sometimes). On one hand it’s annoying, on the other hand it makes me feel smart. Planting clues/red hearings expertly is hard, especially when you haven’t planned ahead and you’re constantly changing plot points and directions like me. Keep up the good posts!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Because the best and most resonant twists have to play by the rules of proper foreshadowing, they often *are* obvious to someone who knows how to look for them. That’s why writers often aren’t the most popular movie-viewing partners!

      • LOL! They are also glaringly obvious by their absence! One can annoy one’s partner by pointing out that the ‘handy superhero who just arrived to save them all’ was completely UN-foreshadowed.

        And then it’s no longer mis-direction, but turns into deus-ex-machina, don’t you think?

        Just today, our family went to the cinema to see a new-release kids movie. (IT shall remain nameless).

        The movie was fun, the special effects were great, but there were so many stupid plot ‘devices’ that just either showed up at the nick of time; were conveniently provided by a character acting ‘out-of-character’, or for no reason; or were just the good old deus-ex-machina at work.

        I felt cheated and wondered if the kids had noticed, but they hadn’t.

        Then in the evening, my wife and I watched ‘Deathly Hallows’ for about the fourth time (it happened to be on TV on a 5-minute wind-down that turned into 50).

        Comparatively, the foreshadowing is excellent; still provides mis-direction and surprises, that you still enjoy on the fourth viewing!

        I still don’t think it’s a good movie-experience to point them out from the couch though haha! (Not that it stopped me …)

        • K.M. Weiland says

          The link between foreshadowing and deus ex machina is an important one. The only true way to prevent deus ex machina is with a proper use of foreshadowing. Otherwise, everything that happens in the story becomes non-organic and gimmicky.

  5. Here is an example of misdirection that gave me a thrill.

    Spoiler Alert! Do not read if you have not read “A Princess of Landover” by Terry Brooks.

    In “A Princess of Landover” by Terry Brooks, Mistaya is given a rainbow crush — “a round stone not much bigger than a pebble … infused with striations of various colors that swam through its surface like the currents in a river.” She is instructed, “Should you need to call for help, this stone will allow you to do so. You give it a message and tell it who you want the message to reach—you say the words in your mind—then drop the stone to the ground and stamp on it. Whoever you summoned will hear your voice speaking the message and respond accordingly. If you feel you are in any danger at all, you are to use it at once.”

    That was a good setup, because I just knew things were going to go wrong for Mistaya. She would use the rainbow crush to summon help.

    Then, as we approached the moment of crisis, Mistaya did not have the crush with her. She had left it in her room. I figured she would find a way to trick her captors into taking her to her room where she would then use the stone, and she was thinking that as well. I had already decided the only character that made sense to summon would be the Dragon Strabo (the second best Dragon in fantasy, with my Dragon be number one). However, as the moment of crisis arrived, Mistaya still did not have the stone. What was she going to do?

    This was the moment I realized the rainbow crush had been a misdirection, a red herring. I burst out laughing at how hard I had fallen for it.

    At the beginning of the story, Mistaya was expelled from boarding school. To scare another student, she had used her magic to create an image of the Dragon Strabo. When she returned to Landover, the first character she encountered was the Dragon Strabo. He was angry that she had used his image to scare someone without first having received his permission. He made it clear what horrible things he would do to her if she did it again.

    Then we travel through the entire book, to the climactic moment when Mistaya does not have the rainbow crush to summon help. What does she do? She tricks her captors into freeing her hands so she can cast a spell to create an image of the Dragon Strabo. Once everyone realized the Dragon in the sky was not real, they calmed down and were going to continue with the bad thing they were about to do to Mistaya.

    Then … the Dragon Strabo arrives. He is angry, and he wants to do bad things to Mistaya. Once he realizes that something unsavory was going on, he redirects his anger toward those doing the bad things to Mistaya. He does not actually rescue Mistaya, but his disruption did cause events to change direction, which led to the final climatic moment where Mistaya wins.

    To this day, I have not recovered from being so perfectly tricked. More importantly, I learned a valuable lesson about misdirection.

  6. I think a technique I TRY to do (um, new author,so ‘try’ = ‘fail a lot until it works’!) and one that I love, is when the character MISSES a foreshadowed clue/key moment because their own personality would not have alerted them to it.

    If, then, one is totally absorbed in the book, and while reading it, one is fully in the ‘head’ of the character, the reader is likely to miss it too, or simply not pay too much attention.

    I’ve managed to do this in reverse, where beta-readers complained that I foreshadowed things that were not noticed by a character who absolutely would not only have noticed it; but acted on it as well*.

    In my view, this is where a lot of fiction becomes ‘bad’ – where the plot/story moves on because the character does not act ‘in character’ (and there is no reason provided for that. Of course, it’s great when characters change DUE to the story, and makes for excellent fiction!).

    * I fixed it, of course, and it made the story better!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I agree. Nothing is worse than a character acting out of character for obvious reasons of plot manipulation. I would much rather read about a legitimately stupid character than a character who’s stupid just occasionally to make the plot work. It’s lazy writing, always.

  7. It’s what Alfred Hitchcock called McGuffin (http://www.hitchcockwiki.com/wiki/Themes_-_the_MacGuffin). For example, in Psycho apparently the story is about Marion Cane and $40.000 but we find out the real story is about Norman Bates and his mother.
    In Lost (the TV show), the Dharma initiative is a McGuffin.
    It makes the audience go in one direction when they really should go in another one. As ususal, with the final revelations everything makes sense.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      The MacGuffin is more properly a term for whatever the characters are pursuing (e.g., the Maltese Falcon), especially when it is pursued without any great explanation. It’s often the catalyst of the story, and you’re right in that it can often be used to distract or misdirect readers’ attention.

  8. I’ve heard so much about misdirection, even applied to writing, but I haven’t applied it to my own story that much. I think I’ll have to try that!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I bet you’ve applied it without even thinking about it! Hard to find a story – even an unmysterious one – that doesn’t use a little misdirection here and there.

  9. Ruth Fanshaw says

    I just read (or rather re-read) a book that is an excellent example of this.

    Having been blown away by it when I first read it over 10 years ago, it was really interesting to read it again, knowing what was coming, and to see all the deft foreshadowing that stopped the twist from feeling like I cheat when I first read it, as well as the misdirection that made it a surprise.

    I won’t give away any spoilers, but the book is “The Ivy Tree” by Mary Stewart. I heartily recommend it! 🙂

    Thanks for another great post! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says

      The best stories are always going to be just as fascinating (if not more so) even when the reader knows what’s going to happen. Re-readability is a tremendous gauge of a great story.

  10. When it comes to fiction I love to be tricked, nothing so disappointing as seeing how its going to end and then actually having it confirmed that you’re right.

  11. Brigitta M says

    I like playing with cliches and turning them on their head, planting clues in plain site, and still make the reader go “What just happened?” and “Wow” all at the same time. I have a ghost story, that out front looks like a traditional ghost tale. It has all the earmarks: newlywed couple moves into a house that they’re not aware is haunted (though they’ve heard rumors). Wife deciding she doesn’t like some feature of the house so she works on it while the husband is at work, that kind of thing.

    In fact, that part where the wife is working on the old to others, but new to her, house is such a throwaway scene that most readers will probably skim over it. Yet, in a few sentences of that scene, I give away the entire plot. None of my betas caught it the first time around…until I told them about it and even then they said they had to reread that scene to find it.

    Specifically, the woman is working on tearing down yellow wallpaper because, as she says “She just can’t stand the sight of yellow wallpaper.” That’s a bit of a literary reference for those unfamiliar with the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”– which is about a woman who slowly loses her mind. The wife of my story does slowly lose her mind over the course of the book.

    Then, a bit later, in that same scene, her husband comments how the plaster makes her look like “She had a giant ashtray explode on her.” Then she says “You may want to step out before the housing repairs makes you stop breathing.” (because he has emphysema). In the end, he ends up going to the hospital due to his breathing problems (effectively getting him out of the house during the climax) and she ends up well, turning to a pile of ash.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. Subtle foreshadowing is the key – although we never want it to be so subtle that readers won’t be able to remember it when the clues finally fall into place.

  12. Hannah Killian says

    I’m trying to lead readers to believe someone is going to die when it’s actually someone else who kicks the bucket.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The trick in a situation like that is making certain the reader doesn’t feel faked out. The misdirecting foreshadowing has to be in place for a *reason*, so that it still matters even when it turns out to be something other than what it initially appears. It’s important for us to remember there’s a difference between misdirection and faking readers out. This was my major issue with Avengers: Age of Ultron. It deliberately faked viewers out–and for no good reason other than simply faking them out.

  13. I can’t thank you enough. I was having a really hard time coming up with an idea, just anything to help me push my story further and come up with a reason for everything that’s going on. I got a burst of inspiration from your post and now everything fits perfectly into place.

    Thank you so much! 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.