Thursday, February 25

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, February 25, 2010 15 comments
Narrative misdirection is a writerly trick of establishing false expectations in your readers, directing their attention to the wrong information and causing them to ignore correct information. It's an excellent way to surprise them, and has uses in nearly every genre, though it is a staple of mysteries.

J.K. Rowling happens to be a master of this technique. Time and again, Harry is certain he knows who the villain is, and every time he is wrong! Author and blogger John Granger goes into a great deal of detail about Rowling's method in his book Unlocking Harry Potter. Another Potter scholar, Travis Prinzi, has some excellent posts on the topic as well. (My professor hubby is currently teaching "Harry Potter and Philosophy" and has gotten me into the lit crit on Rowling. Granger and Prinzi are wonderful speakers and their blogs worth a visit.)

In my Whoops! Blogfest entry, I also played with the technique. Misdirection can be an excellent way to make humorous moments funnier. Take a moment to go look at it.

You're back? Excellent. I'll explain the elements of narrative misdirection by walking you through what I did, and why and how I did it.

1. Limited viewpoint. My piece is in first person. The only perceptions you have are Dani's. The possibility is good that she does not have the whole picture. She very well might misinterpret the data in front of her. But it's hard for you, the reader, to know that because I've removed other sources of interpretation by limiting the perception to only what she directly experiences, knows or remembers.

Rowling uses third person limited. Omniscient narrators are a no-no in this technique. Your POV must limit perception.

2. Sympathetic voice and reader identification. Dani's internal monologue paints her as a smart, arty dreamer who's a bit shy. She obeys her aunt grumblingly, having thoughts of being put-upon with "stupid" assignments. Everyone has felt this way at one point or another. As a reader, you sympathize and take her side. You become willing to trust her judgments about what is happening and why.

3. Playing with expectation. Aunts are those sorts of benevolent authority figures we expect to play "the straight man" in any joke. I describe Cecily having a young child that is usually weaving through her legs or swinging from her purse strap, which cements a picture in your mind: maternal and focused there. I give you only the details that would support your existing expectations of "aunt."

4. Clues the character chooses to ignore. This is VERY important. The truth must be in the scene and there for the astute reader to pick up. Otherwise you just have very annoying out-of-nowhere surprises, not narrative misdirection.

I hint that Janie should be around, and that she had been playing a game called "guerrilla stealth"--a name that implies unexpected combat. I also point out that Aunt Cecily is the instigator of Dani ever leaving the cathedral nave and going into the quire. As a reader, you chose to ignore the importance because Dani does.

5. Details that capture your MC's attention. Does the beauty of Durham cathedral's quire really matter that much? Or the fact that the guide is bilingual French-English? No, but as a reader you're willing to be pulled off on Dani's flight of fancy because of the style in this paragraph. I used a little writerly magic dust of pretty words and alliteration and imagery to momentarily sweep you into Dani's distraction.

Keep in mind you can't do pages of this kind of thing, but just a paragraph can be an effective "sleight of hand." It's like the "jazz-hands" dazzle that magicians use to point you away from the real action.

Likewise, drawing Dani's attention primarily to the guy she sat on keeps you, the reader, from looking deeper into what Dani's family members are doing.

6. Confirm misinterpretations. Both Aunt Cecily and Janie play to Dani's expectation. The aunt scolds, the cousin becomes "ashy pale" at the scolding. And it's no small scolding. The aunt's big reaction cements the misinterpretation as true.

7. Payoff, in which misinterpretations are clarified. This is one tiny detail you might be tempted to overlook. Do wrap up how the surprise really happened, because it's annoying to the reader when you don't. Rowling always does. In my little scene, it was a simple exchange: "You weren't supposed to tell your mum" and "you never said that." I didn't have to give a detailed back story of how or when Janie and Cecily planned their trick on Dani. The reader can imagine it easily enough. But I did need to make it clear they were in cahoots deliberately from the beginning or the payoff would have fallen flat, because readers just wouldn't buy it.

So there you go, a quick primer on the basics of simple narrative misdirection. In mysteries, of course, it gets considerably more complicated. The author must layer in clues and dazzling distractions, one on top of another.

How do you think you might use this technique in your writing?


  1. Hm. I can see this being useful to me in the future, actually. But I have absolutely no idea if I've ever unintentionally used this device. Have I? Er...

    Nicely done, Laurel. I'll be keeping this in mind now.

  2. Great post. I've tried to use this in my own book on a large scale. I'm not sure it's working though. :S Thanks for the great points!

  3. This is a masterful post, Laurel. Wow. I feel like my brain just grew two sizes. I'm still processing.

    Bookmarking, printing, filing this info. :-)

  4. Ohh, I like the technique. I think in my own writing, I will use it to toy with my readers... I just don't know how or where specifically, not yet.

    I will refer back to this post in the future. Believe that!

  5. Great post. I talked about this a little in a recent post titled - Designed for a Second Reading. I love this technique and used it in my current WIP. But I love mystery and suspense. It's fun when an author does it well, and when you read it a second time, you realize the clues were there the whole time.

  6. Simon: Whenever you want to work in a surprise, this is a way to do it. Doing it unintentionally would be an impressive feat! This trick does take some planning, I think.

    Nisa: The Granger book might be a helpful place to see an analysis of the technique done more complexly, as Rowling does. My example is very simple. Good luck with making it work!

  7. Shannon: Aw thanks. A simple misdirection like I did in the short scene would work well in an early-reader story.

    Amber: The technique is often used to fool readers about which romantic partner a MC will chose. Just an idea for ya.

    AJ: Yes, it's all about the clues. That was something I didn't have in the first draft of this scene that I use as an example. I've learned a lot from reading some of John Granger's analysis of the Harry Potter books.

  8. I have not done it so deliberately. But, I did feel myself being pulled into the narrative for that paragraph. It's like it lulls your senses for a bit, like the quiet part of a song, then bang go the cymbals!

  9. Wow, you sure know alot about this, they were good tips too. As a budding writer they may be useful, *strokes pretend beard*.
    Annabel is such a great character, Thank you for stopping by my blog, feel free to visit again.
    All the Best
    Imogen (I'm rubbish at short comments)

  10. Good advice! I'll have to put some thought into it to figure out if I've used this technique or not before. :)

  11. Mary: It's funny, I was thinking somewhat musically when I revised that part of the scene to up the surprise factor. As you say, a very lyrical passage in music lulls you and makes the cymbal crash that follows seem all the louder.

    Imogen: Just sharing what I've learned. Glad it was helpful. Thanks for stopping by here! And I love long, chatty comments any time you want to leave them. :-)

    Jemi: It's great for weaving mysteries or creating surprises, and can be done in small or large scale. I'd hoped to show it has application outside the traditional detective story--good for humor, romance, family saga, etc.

  12. Um, Laurel? Can I copy and paste? My brain feels like it has grown. And that's always a good thing isn't it? But I don't want to forget anything. I'm afraid this will be very useful to me very soon.

    Very comprehensive advice. Thanks. Have a wonderful weekend. =)

  13. Robyn: Sure thing. Glad it's useful. This is the first I've attempted the trick and it's pretty fun. A staple of middle-grade mysteries, right?

    In the "playing with expectation" section, I should have mentioned that setting also carries certain expectations for readers that you can reinforce and then utterly defy (in my example, you expect horsing around in a cathedral to be punished by authority figures).

  14. This is a great explanation of a topic I've never seen yet in the blogosphere! Thanks, and well done. :)

  15. Donna: Thanks! It was after I'd revised this scene that I realized I was totally ripping off Rowling's best trick. I thought other writers might also find applications beyond standard mystery plots. A well-executed surprise is a beautiful thing!