Writer’s Toolbox

Faculty Articles

You will find oodles of great writing advice in these articles by members of the Gotham faculty.

Mystery Writing

Moral in Mysteries
by Carole Bugge
The Art of Misdirection
by Michael Kurland
What Is A McGuffin?
by Michael Kurland
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The Art of Misdirection

by Michael Kurland

There are three professions as old as the human race. With us before writing, before the wheel, and perhaps before fire, they are with us still; and one of them is magician (we will not, at this time, discuss the other two). 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.

I would like to reveal some of these esoteric secrets to you, but I have sworn the Mantic Oath with my right hand raised, palm outward, to show that there is nothing in it and my left resting on a miniature replica of Houdini’s Water Torture Cell. I am, however, free to discuss one 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.

The conjurer cascades a shower of silver coins from his closed fist—that he opened and showed empty only seconds before—and intones, “The hand is quicker than the eye!”

Well, usually it isn’t.

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.

Please note, before I continue, that 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. Or, of course, both. Let’s look at a few examples from literature:

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. And that, boys and girls, is what I call misdirection.

Remember the scene at the Wizard’s palace in The Wizard of Oz? The Great and Mighty Oz, his head the size of Chicago, surrounded by smoke and fire, bellowing at Dorothy from his throne: “I am Oz, the Great and Terrible... Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” (With a bunch of stuff left out for brevity.)

Well the Wizard turns out to actually be the little bald man behind the curtain. A master of misdirection, he has been keeping the hoax up for years until Dorothy’s dog Toto pulls the curtain aside and blows the gaff. This is Misdirection in Place, used by the Wizard to fool, gull, dupe, and otherwise bamboozle his subjects.

There are two rules to keep in mind when employing this device: first, it has to be something that the character using it would—and could—do. We the readers (or viewers if it’s the movie) believe the Wizard of Oz was able to pull off his illusion because he actually was a magician—not a wizard, but an old-fashioned stage magician—before he got to Oz.

Second, it has to be put in to further the plot, and not merely to annoy the reader. The Wizard’s ploy was necessary for him to keep his position as head of government and chief of state of Oz. The Munchkins and Quadlings didn’t want to be ruled by a plump, bald, seedy carnival magician. They wanted a wizard—and they got a wizard.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Red Headed League,” pawnbroker Jabez Wilson has had a stroke of luck. His fine head of red hair has made him eligible for a sinecure in the office of the Red Headed League, an organization founded by a redheaded American millionaire to benefit men of similar hair color. While Wilson’s assistant Vincent Spaulding takes care of what little business there is at the pawnbroker’s shop, Wilson sits in the League’s office four hours a day copying out pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s a dull, seemingly pointless job, but it pays four pounds a week, important money in 1891, and Wilson is annoyed when it is suddenly terminated. He goes to Sherlock Holmes for advice, and Holmes soon perceives a deeper meaning to the antics of the League. There was no American millionaire. It was a sham, devised by Spaulding to get Wilson out of the shop for four hours a day. Spaulding, who is really the notorious John Clay, murderer, thief, and all-around no-goodnik, needed the time so that he and his associates could dig a tunnel through to a nearby bank.

The problem: get Wilson out of the shop without him suspecting anything. The solution: an artful bit of misdirection, to make Wilson want to leave. The job was obviously a bit of make-work, which might have gotten even the slow-witted Wilson to thinking, if the conspirators hadn’t disguised their intention under a fine head of red hair.

It fooled Wilson, it fooled Watson, it fooled the reader, but Holmes pierced the veil of misdirection and, penultimately, foiled the bank robbers.

Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s plump genius of a detective (an aside: as I wrote those words I could hear Wolfe snorting, “Plump indeed! I am fat or I am nothing.” This is a tribute to Stout’s powerful and believable characterization.)—I’ll start again. Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s fat genius of a detective, was a master of misdirection. In a novel called Might as Well Be Dead, Wolfe has sent an operative named Johnny Keems to gather information, giving him $200 in expense money to use if he thinks it will loosen someone’s tongue. Keems is killed by a hit-and-run driver, and Inspector Cramer drops by Wolfe’s office to ask the usual questions. Wolfe is his usual uncooperative self, and asks Cramer if Keems had any money on him when he was killed.

"Yes, a hundred and fifty dollars,” Cramer replies. “Why?”

“Because it’s my money,” Wolfe tells him, “and I want it back. I gave Keems two hundred for expenses.”

Now Cramer— and the reader— think that Wolfe is just being his usual nasty unfeeling self, caring only about getting his money back when one of his operatives has been killed.

Misdirection—but surely you’d guessed that.

Wolfe now knows that Keems paid someone for information. And it’s a reasonable inference that getting that information is what got Keems killed. But Cramer, although he now has the same data that Wolfe has, has been directed away from the conclusion. He has the facts but has no idea of their worth.

How, and where, can this magical technique be used in your own work?

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.

Or perhaps you need to supply a lot of information to the reader, but you don’t want her to know why she’s learning all this stuff—at least, not just yet. Perhaps one of your characters is, oh I don’t know, let’s say a spy. As the story moves along you want to get all the facts out there, about how the spying is being done and why and against whom and such, because that is the story. But you need to direct attention away from the actual agent, let’s call him George, so you can reveal his identity at the moment of your choosing.

So you focus on Tom, and make it appear that all that’s bad in the world originated with Tom (sorry, Tom). But the sophisticated reader will know that you’re attempting to lead her astray. Gradually she will realize that all the information, all the subtle hints and shadowy clues, that pointed to Tom were manufactured by Sam to make Tom look guilty. Aha! That dirty spy Sam!

But wait—you have another trick up your sleeve. Sam wasn’t the spy at all. He put the blame on Tom because Sam always hated Tom for stealing his girl, Myrtle, in the fourth grade. The real spy, hovering in the background all this time, is George. Remember George? You have successfully misdirected the reader, congratulations.

Conceal a Character’s True Persona With Misdirection

Here’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 Misdirection

So 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. Don’t ask me why that’s a clue—it just is. One way is to hide it among a clutter of the ordinary:

Hemlock Shomes cast his cold gaze around the bedroom, his eyes taking in the smallest details. There was the pipe organ with the missing f-stop in the corner. There was the old Hepwhait bedside table, its marble top holding the leather-bound copy of the Necronomicon with its pages turned down at all the interesting spells, a cardboard box of Mrs. Peachem’s Pink Pills for the Prevention of Pleurisy, a half-drunk glass of milk, and a stuffed frog.

Or, to give the reader no excuse for having missed it when it turns up on page 412 as the clue that gives the game away:

Shomes pointed an outraged finger at the table. “There,” he shrilled, “right there in front of you!”

“What is it, Shomes?” bleated Inspector Kegson.

“A half-drunk glass of milk on the bedside table. Surely you see it!”

“What of it, Shomes?

“That table’s an original Hepwhait. Unmistakably. And that glass will leave a ring on the marble. It’s disgraceful!”

“There, there, Shomes,” soothed the inspector. “That’s all right.

The fiction writer, like the stage magician, can use a candy coating of misdirection to disguise the pill of truth (how’s that for a lousy metaphor?) to keep the story healthy and alive. (Didn’t improve it much—oh well!) As we’ve seen, misdirection can be used either strategically or tactically. Strategically to change the whole direction of a story, to send it off into a new and different world, and have the reader realize that it’s been headed that way all along. Tactically to conceal, obscure, obfuscate, and camouflage one important fact, to save it for later revelation.

This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.