How to Use Misdirection in Your Story for Greater Impact

[Just a short post today, so I can put some energy into a super-secret project I can’t wait to share with you all. Hint? It has to do with two of my favorite things: dreamzoning and archetypal character arcs. Stay tuned! I hope to do the big reveal no later than October.]

At first glance, the idea of misleading readers might seem like a bad idea. After all, stories that don’t give readers what they want usually end up tossed into the give-to-Goodwill pile. Readers hate being conned by authors—and yet learning how to use misdirection in your story can make readers love you.

If that sounds contradictory, try thinking of it as being a little like a magic trick. A good magician knows how to artfully misdirect his audience’s attention in a way that leaves them delighted when a white dove unexpectedly bursts from a handkerchief. Why would an author want to attempt this trickery? Mostly for the same reason the magician does: because, as much as audiences hate to be conned, they love to be surprised.

For example, in Daphne du Maurier’s famous suspense novel My Cousin Rachel, she leads readers to believe the narrator’s cousin (whom he’s never met) is an ugly harridan who will make the narrator’s life miserable when she comes to visit.

The first quarter of the book is filled with the protagonist’s misgivings about his cousin and downright belligerence toward her arrival. He makes up his mind to go out of his way to be rude to her, so she’ll make her visit as short as possible.

When she finally arrives, both he and the reader are surprised to find their expectations were completely off base. The cousin is lovely and charming, and narrator and readers alike fall promptly in love with her.

Du Maurier got away with her little deception for a couple of reasons:

1. She never lied to the reader.

Filtering her story through the narrator’s ignorant POV allowed her to honestly withhold from readers the truth about the cousin.

2. The narrator’s false impressions and their sudden reversal create an integral framework for the story.

As a result, readers are delighted to have witnessed the sleight of hand that misdirected their expectations and gave them a thrill of realization when the dove finally bursts from du Maurier’s handkerchief.

>>Click here to read Misdirection: Why We Have to Fool Our Readers

>>Click here to read Foreshadowing and Misdirection: Use Them Together to Empower Your Fiction

>>Click here to read Deepen Your Story With Character Misdirection

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How have you used misdirection in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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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.


  1. To me, this is part of normal character building. I mean your characters are all people – right? Maybe especially so when they are dogs or cats or elves or giant purple pistachios? And people make mistakes, sometimes willfully. So, yes, I’ve used misdirection, though I’ve never had a character fall in love with their cousin.
    Consider me very curious, but too polite to post any of the truly bizarre thoughts that came off your teaser. I’m concerned there may be some misdirection involved. Or you are going into the mushroom business.

  2. Thanks for this interesting post. It’s something I must look into, although I did use it in a short story.

  3. Felicity S. says

    My WIP is a mystery, so misdirection is a must. I’m actually in the process of figuring out if the biggest one is too much. It definitely checks the first box (the view point character is even more fooled than the readers), but I’m trying to decide if it’s integral to the story. … What is this story about again?! I’m so busy twisting and turning the plot that I’ve got myself dizzy! Sigh… 😉 Thanks for the post!

  4. Richard Siers says

    I have an ongoing story/series I am working on where we see some of the same events from book to book, only from a different character’s POV, with all the different views/background limited to only the certain ones in that volume. It’s similar to a misdirect, but the reader doesn’t feel lied to. They just didn’t have all the information. Each one centers around three or four people going through an event. They end up interacting with about ten other people. The next one shows the happenings from another four person group and so on. With revealed events the first group isn’t present for expands the second group, and cycles around their thoughts, reactions and motivations. Then the third group. Each different slice shows a deeper look and shows where the blending of intermingled lives impacts in unforeseen ways. The ‘misdirection’ could only be how one person or set of people perceive the situation. This gives the writer an opportunity to get the big “Ta Da” twist from the deception without lying to the reader.

    • Patricia Greasby says

      One of my favourite books shows the same story from different points of view. One character brushing away a fly is seen by another as an acknowledgment of their presence.

  5. Colleen F Janik says

    I have to say I love du Maurier’s novels, but My Cousin Rachel wasn’t my favorite. On the other hand, in my current WIP, I am attempting to use a similar method and was wondering how the reader will deal with ‘being mislead.’ Does the reader, in general, appreciate that this character description is created intentionally for their entertainment? I hope so. In my novel, the character in question is not a main character, so I’m not sure how much he contributes to the plot, more mystery and intrigue, hopefully. I am so anxious to hear all about your latest project!

    • IMHO, anything goes as long as you can still hold the reader’s attention. For one thing, think of how mystery novels frequently mislead readers. Shocking reveals are important, and therefore, so are the objects that cover them for a while.

  6. I would find it difficult to tell a story without doing this, but I think it’s baked into how I like to tell stories and do it for various reasons (to surprise, to emphasize a more serious moment or usually just to get a laugh, never for a bit plot twist). It is a well I think I go to too often sometimes. I like little micro articles like this!

    I am very intrigued by this super-secret project. I can’t wait! Your work on character archetypical character arcs has been revelatory for me.

  7. As a magician all my life and a writer, I think there are four ways to introduce an upcoming event/trick:
    Using an appearing dove as an example:
    1) Tell the audience what will happen and let them be bored when it happens exactly as expected
    Say, “I will now make a dove appear” and then do it. This is the worst and most boring way to do it.
    2) Don’t tell the audience anything beforehand and let them be surprised
    The dove just appears without warning. This is a good, traditional way to do it.
    3) Foreshadow the event and audience will get an ‘aha’ moment when they realize the connection
    The magician folds the handkerchief into a bird-like shape before actually changing it into a dove. It starts as a seeming joke to disarm the audience before the actual transformation.
    4) Hint, one way or another, that something else will occur, then really surprise the reader.
    Change a red handkerchief into a red flower. Change a blue handkerchief into a blue flower. And then change a white handkerchief into a dove

  8. I remember one particular example of misdirection which I recall almost a decade later (not naming the story because I’m going to spoil it). It’s told in first person, and the narrator meets a man whose first wife drowned and years later his house burned down which made him blind and destroyed all the photographs, so their daughter doesn’t know what she looked like. The narrator calls off the wedding she’d planned to get a job at the local school where she gets to be the daughter’s teacher. It seems obvious when I lay it out like this, but the novel misdirected me enough that when it was revealed that the narrator IS the man’s first wife / the daughter’s mother who had faked her death I was caught offguard.

  9. Debby Hanoka says

    I have a follow-up question. When using misdirection like this, can it or will it help to build an unreliable narrator?
    Thank you,

    • An unreliable narrator can be one for various reasons. One of the most famous examples of an unreliable narrator is the killer from “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. It does not fit the reasons above perfectly, but suggest its possible. The narrator is considered insane, so he is considered to be telling the truth as he sees it. And he does seem sincere, actually. One of the horrifying things about the story, getting to the second point, is that even though there is a kind of reveal, it is a very narrow one that doesn’t make certain details (the eye) absolutely acceptable.

  10. I think of Hayao Miyazaki, whom I believe said that the way to tell a good story is to betray expectations. I will point to J.K. Rowling as well, as I am rereading Harry Potter. One scene I thought was a red herring ended up relevant to the plot. Brilliant structural theatrics throughout the whole series, there. Also, the Night Circus, where the manager’s assistant proves to be much more capable that the manager himself, making a puppet of him.
    As for my own writing, I will give the specific example of Olaf The Oaf, where a witch captures a lovelorn idiot to test an intelligence potion. The first reveal happens with the Olaf’s initial crush swiftly and bluntly telling him off after a subtle and delicate rejecting of his harmless advances. In hindsight, an audience would have been confused. The second occurred when the main love interest, the witch, tries to bait him into a “knight in shining armor” situation before they even meet face-to-face, which he ignores.
    In a broader sense of the word, I use misdirection a lot in my stories, particularly in small character interactions or even sometimes in “Wayside School” style confusion hurled at the audience. But the Olaf example is most like the topic of the blog by far, in my opinion.

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