Look! Over There! Misdirecting the Reader While Still Playing Fair

This week, I've been revising Proposal Interrupted, a project I'm very excited about. Initially, I'd been thinking of it as the sort of suspense where the reader knows the identity of the bad guy almost from page one yet gnaws his/her fingernails trying to see whether the likable (I hope) protagonist will clap on in time to survive the novel.

After getting some shrewd editorial feedback and realizing that would be boring (to me) to write, I'm making it a mystery/suspense instead, with several viable suspects vying for attention. The trick, in revising, is to obfuscate the original clues, diverting the reader's attention with bright, shiny, noisy competing information. (I call this my "Look! Over there!" technique.) Whenever possible, it works well to "sandwich" the real clues between false leads, since the human brain naturally pays closer attention to the first and last details than those tucked inside like so much lettuce.

As Yoda might say: Sneaky like that I am.

This may well be true, but surprising the reader is no mean feat, since many are incredibly adept at sniffing out the right clues and ignoring the red herrings. I try to combat this by making the other suspects more plausible, more layered and complex, oftentimes so much so that I frequently end up changing my own mind about whom the antagonist will turn out to be. (I've surprised more than a few editors by having a completely different villain in the completed manuscript than the synopsis. Since the new version is always sneakier and better, I haven't have any complaints so far.)

But the truth is, if you're playing fair and not simply pulling an unknown or barely-mentioned bad guy out at the last second (which rightly infuriates the reader, since it violates the rules of the game and deprives him/her of the fun of trying to guess the solution), some readers are going to figure it out. The trick is to layer enough surprises into the story that he/she with still find it engaging and make the mystery element sufficiently difficult that the reader will congratulate him/herself for beating the author to the punch rather than disdaining the story for being too easily solved.

Writing a mystery or a book with a strong mystery element is always a challenge, but it's one I find so completely absorbing, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Do you have a favorite technique you've either read or used in your own work? I'm always on the lookout for new weapons for my arsenal.


Lark Howard said…
I love mysteries where the villain has a really good motive, at least in his/her mind, for committing murder. I always enjoy your stories exactly for that reason, Colleen. Crazy serial killers seem to be popular periodically, but I never find those books very interesting.
Thanks, Lark, and I agree. I hate "Dr. Evil" style villains. They all need to be the heroes of their own skewed stories.

Glad you stopped by!

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