February 7, 2023
By Maggie Smith
As fiction writers one of the most important tasks we have is to keep our readers wanting more. One way to do that is through the use of surprise. But what happens when the surprise becomes too predictable? We’ve all read novels where we could easily anticipate what was coming and found ourselves disappointed when it did. So how do we keep the reader engaged? This is where the art of misdirection comes in.
Misdirection, in literature, is a technique used to lead the reader in one direction while ultimately taking them somewhere else. It’s a way to keep your audience off-balance, thereby keeping them engaged and invested in turning pages long into the night. But what are the ways to do this most effectively?
One way to create misdirection is through the use of red herrings and false leads. These are elements in the story that are meant to distract the reader and lead them away from the truth of what’s actually going on. For example, in Chris Pavone’s “Two Nights in Lisbon,” the reader is led to believe that the husband of the protagonist has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. It’s only as we read on that we discover there is another agenda going on beneath the first one that we are unaware of. This type of misdirection is ideal for keeping the reader focused on the wrong thing. Think of it like the magician who distracts us with the rabbit so we don’t notice the false bottom in the hat.
Another technique for creating misdirection is through the use of foreshadowing and hinting at future events. The reader begins making assumptions about what is going to happen in the story, only to realize they’ve misinterpreted the signals and got it wrong. For example, in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” Harry is chosen as a champion for a dangerous tournament, and throughout the story, the reader is led to believe he’ll be the one who’ll save the day. However, in the end, it’s actually his friend Hermione who ultimately triumphs.
This is when the narrator of the story can’t be trusted to tell the truth or is discovered to be hiding certain facts, leaving the reader to question what, if anything, they should believe. The most famous example is Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” in which Amy is telling the story through diary entries and it’s only later we find out she is slanting the narrative and things are not what they seem. This type of unreliable narrator creates a sense of uncertainty and keeps the reader guessing about what’s really going on. In the last few years, this has become such a popular trope in suspense thrillers that most readers now go into novels already primed to doubt what the POV character tells them.
Playing with reader expectations
A slight twist to the above is the technique of playing with what the reader expects to see in a particular genre based on previous books. The reader picks up the novel expecting one thing only to have the opposite happen. Clare McIntosh’s debut “I Let You Go” has a famous twist at the end of the first act that is still being written about five years later because it so effectively upended reader’s assumptions about where the story was going, creating an immediate compulsion to re-read the first 75 pages to see how she managed it.
But keep in mind that too much misdirection can be detrimental to the story. The reader needs to be able to follow the story’s plot and understand what’s happening. Don’t put in so many distractions, half-truths, and miscues that the reader becomes first confused, then irritated and finally gives up. Your goal should be to find the right balance between misdirection and clarity. And be sure to resolve any confusion or misleading information before you type The End or your reader will feel cheated. Remember: readers love being fooled, but they hate feeling foolish.
In conclusion, misdirection is a tool in the skilled storyteller’s hands, one that can keep readers engaged and wanting more. It’s a way to create suspense and surprise, but it’s important to use it correctly and play fair with the reader. And the goal should never be just to unsettle the reader. Misdirection should also add depth and complexity to your story. Use it to explore different perspectives and keep your reader questioning what they think they know.
Ultimately you want to write a story that is both engaging and unexpected, one that challenges the reader, one that satisfies their desire for a story that is both engaging and unexpected.
Because that’s what makes for a great read.
Maggie Smith’s debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, was published by Ten16Press in March 2022. She’s the host of the weekly podcast Hear Us Roar (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google) where she interviews debut women’s fiction authors about their novel and their path to publication. Her first-ever short story, The Devil You Know, appeared in the 2018 anthology False Faces and she’s also a regular monthly blogger for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. A board member of the Chicago Writers Association, she serves as managing editor of the literary publication Write City Magazine. She makes her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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