This post was originally written and posted August 2nd, 2013, and is being reposted here for archival purposes.
Have you ever read a book called The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn?
If not, you’re missing out. It’s a science-fiction mystery and an engaging read, with a fun universe, a clever story, and an compelling mystery. But one of my favorite things about it is how the mystery is handled. See, most mysteries usually do one of two things: they either withhold evidence from the reader in order to keep them from solving it (sign of a weak story) or they give you all the pieces, but in such a way that you don’t put the pieces together in the right order (or don’t realize it’s a piece to begin with). The Icarus Hunt is a great example of the latter, a story that gives you all the pieces, but because the way it presents them, keeps all but the most astute readers from catching it. In fact, the clue that blows the whole mystery wide open is given less than a third of the way into the book. But in the context and scene, it’s presented so smoothly that, like the main character, the reader just lets it slide by.
In good storytelling, part of the art for the one telling the story is misdirecting the audience so that they don’t see the grand picture. Just like in any good magic trick, part of the “act” is getting the audience to look at one thing while you do something else. Unlike a magic trick however, with a story (in this case, a book) the one telling it has a responsibility to give the audience all the details, otherwise you end up with a poor story where the author deliberately omits details so that the reader doesn’t figure out what’s going on (I have read mysteries that do that, and I despise them). So how does one conceal the truth and lead the reader to grasp something entirely different?
Carefully. Let’s take a look at the film The Sixth Sense, which is a great piece of storytelling that relies on you not picking up on all it’s subtle hints and cues that (spoiler) the main character is actually dead, and is a ghost throughout the entire movie. But how do they hide this? By letting the audience build it’s own conclusions through clever omission. For example, one scene opens with the boy whom around which the story resolves coming home to find his mom and the (dead) psychiatrist sitting in the living room staring at one another. The mother greets the boy, then walks out of the room. The audience just assumes that the mother and the psychiatrist have just finished talking. It’s never stated, in fact, the whole scene feels a bit odd if you assume that. But since it is the logical conclusion to jump to, we don’t question it. Even better, the story itself doesn’t tell the audience what happened. The audience builds its own elaborate explanation, no matter how wrong that may be. The Sixth Sense built its entire reveal on this kind of crux. Every time we see the main character he’s “just finished” talking to someone else. At least, so we think, because its writers led us to think that.
Pulling this feat of storytelling off is definitely tricky. But it can be done. All it takes is knowing your audience. If your audience is already willing to believe something, you can use that to your advantage. Play off of your audiences expectations. If they expect X to happen and you casually mention X, even while having someone directly state that Y will happen, most readers will simply accept in their mind (unless they’re really thinking about it) that X is going to happen, because after all that’s what they expect to happen. Pull them to the eventual end, reveal Y, and the reader will have their mind blown, because lo-and-behold, Y happened, and everything did point to Y all along, they were just caught up on the wrong details.
It’s something that is, however, easy to say but hard to do. There are a lot of risks. If you don’t offer enough evidence that Y is going to happen, then the reader feels cheated. If you’re going to misdirect a reader (well, offer them a chance to misdirect themselves really) offer them evidence to the contrary, so that the astute reader who hangs on every word picks up the difference and goes “aha! Thought you had me didn’t you?” This is a win-win: either the reader is shocked at the sudden (but in hindsight obvious) ending, or the reader feels resourceful and competent (which can be enhanced if they figure it out while the main character is still following a false lead).
Is there a downside to misdirection? No matter what you do, some readers will be so convinced that X is going to happen that they declare the book “too predictable” and stop reading, proclaiming it to not be that great. I have seen this happen. There’s no way out of it. You cannot please everyone. Worse, readers who fall into this trap are usually loathe to hear the actual ending, because upon finding out how thoroughly duped they are, they will simply blame the author. Other readers who are a bit more familiar and think there is a misdirect will just guess everything under the sun, and then declare themselves correct and the “mystery” weak when they find out that theory number #68 was correct. I have seen both, you cannot avoid this. So you know what? Don’t worry about it. Instead, worry about that other 95% of your readers who are going to laugh in amazement when they find how thoroughly you (or better yet, they themselves) have pulled the wool over their eyes.
So, when you write, be a magician. Flourish both hands, one with the attention grab, the other with the clue we need. Slide that clue into what seems like a normal, everyday scene so that we don’t recognize it for what it is.
Trust me, the payoff as a reader is worth all the trouble you’ll go through making sure those clues are right there, but we’re not looking at them through the right angle, or not at all.