Wednesday, April 25, 2012


For those of you who were at the RED HERRING panel and didn't the notes you wanted, here at least is the section on Misdirection. 

Leading a reader to believe they have discovered something that isn't true.

I Consumers of mysteries – not just books but TV, movies, even video games – are becoming increasingly sophisticated.  They are extremely hard to fool.
A) With just TV alone, the average reader say, 25 years old, has been exposed to a plethora of plot variations" CSI, Law and Order, cop shows, PI shows, specialty shows (new: Castle, the Mentalist; old: Murder She Wrote).
B)  Unlike the time of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, the gloves are off as far as the rules are concerned. Cops can be villains.  Children can be murderers.  The modern reader has seen it all.
C)  That said, there is an upside to having a readership that is well-versed in the ways of mystery.  They want, almost need, to figure out the puzzle, the crime, the murder.  In this heightened state, they are extremely susceptible Misdirection.
D) Think of Misdirection like throwing an opponent in Martial Arts.  Use their own momentum to send them off down the wrong avenue.

II How does modern misdirection work with such a sophisticated readership?  I recommend two methods: Subtlety and Backtracking
A) Subtlety.  
-You can't hit the reader over the head with your phony-baloney, heavy-handed, glow-in-the-dark red herring.  If you stick it in straight in their face, they simply won't bite, and they certainly won't be entertained.  Picture your reader saying, "Puleeeeease, do you expect me to fall for something so obvious?"

-Try being underhanded instead. 
a) In The Witch of Agnesi one of the murder weapons is a baseball bat.  About half wy through the novel an unlikely character is revealed to have played softball.

b) The vital false clue was hidden in a list of information.  I believed that there would be a significant fraction of my extremely intelligent readers who would go, "Wait a minute.  This girl might be disabled, but she could maybe have pulled this murder off."

c) Once the intelligent reader is led even partially astray they will pursue this avenue of investigation. The slightest additional hints (and I mean make these additional hints micro slight) will confirm, at least in their own minds, that they are on the right track.

d) What's really cool about using subtlety is that from that moment on, the reader will feel smart and a reader who feels smart is one who is being entertained.
B) Backtracking – uses the hide-and-seek principal that the best place to hide is somewhere the seeker has already looked.
          -Early on, you parade your killer blatantly in front of your reader.  Then you use some method to show that this individual cannot possibly be the one: she has an alibi, she is physically incapable of performing the deed, anything will work as long as you get your reader to accept the premise of innocence.
          -Then you go about the business of the investigation.  One needn't look back in the corner where the killer is hiding because we've already looked there and we know that avenue will bear no fruit.
          -You can even get the killer to be part of the investigation as long as you don't overdo it (subtlety is still a virtue). 
          -In the end, your sleuth discovers that perhaps the killer's alibi isn't as air tight as we thought.  Or even better, if this is perhaps a non-standard mystery, our sleuth only discovers the truth after the killer gets away.
          -This method was used most effectively in an episode of the old Alfred Hitchcock Show about a serial killer who is murdering nurses.   

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