How to write a book · Plots

Two cool ways to use misdirection as a storyteller

2793817435_69e8a3a701_zI’ve had an interesting question from Jonathan McKenna Moore (who was one of this blog’s earliest readers – quick fanfare 🙂 ).

Jonathan had seen Anthony Horowitz talk about writing new Sherlock Holmes stories, which led him to ask this question:

‘How does misdirection work in prose? Horowitz says that one of the functions of Dr Watson is misdirection, following false trails that Holmes would never entertain, and lulling the reader into considering them. He goes on to describe misdirection as drawing attention to one object in the room so the audience doesn’t notice another. While I can understand how that would work in a film, in prose you have to go out of your way to mention object 2, and spend time describing it. It isn’t just set dressing. How do you show the reader something, without letting them know that it’s important? Is it just a case of losing the significant detail in a haystack of description?  If so, then that rules out the sparse writing that often suits mystery stories.

Misdirection 101

Okay! First a brief definition – misdirection is planting a clue that will become significant, but disguising it so that the reader doesn’t spot how important it is. Then, at the right time, you reveal it in a lovely ‘aha’ moment. It’s one of the fundamentals of plotting. And it goes a lot further than just mysteries. Almost any type of story might need misdirection.

So … how do you do this in prose?

Two keys to effective misdirection

There are two elements to effective misdirection.

1 Hiding

2 … in plain sight.

When using misdirection in a novel, the reader must feel you played fair. They mustn’t think you randomly invented a new thing that answers the mystery, solves the case, resolves the characters’ problems. So a key feature of good misdirection is that you draw attention to the clue. If you hide it too well, the reader might not notice it.

To use Jonathan’s good phrase, the last thing you want to do is ‘lose the detail in the haystack of description’.

Devil in the detail

Novels contain heaps of details that hardly any reader will remember. So if you are planting a detail that will be important later, you have to draw attention to it – but in a way that looks like it serves some other purpose. The detail must be memorable, so that it’s noticed, but it must also appear inconsequential. Its final significance must be disguised. You have to be sneaky.

And actually, it’s quite easy to do in prose. You always need incidental details to flesh out characters’ lives or enable parts of the plot. Your character needs somewhere to drive to while he has a conversation with his old friend. Your clandestine lovers need a place to meet. Your spies need an item they can use to hide an SD card full of important photos. A character needs an excuse for why he’s late. These are details we often invent on the spur of the moment because they’re not that important to our scene. But they are excellent places to smuggle in an element you want to hide in plain sight. You can make the reader notice it, but they won’t realise how important it is.

Examples might be

  • A location
  • an object
  • an explanation
  • a hobby or talent
  • a personality trait, allergy, dislike
  • a mutual acquaintance or common background.

How to do it

Make a list of any significant details that you need to plant. When you come to a moment where you have to add an inconsequential element, see if you can sneak in something important. (Don’t overdo it, though, or you’ll alert the reader to your technique.)

The false trail

Jonathan also mentioned the false trail. This is another handy way to misdirect the reader. Again, you work backwards from your story’s final solution. Find a way to interpret your clue in the wrong way, send your characters off to chase it, and then bring it back in as a vital signpost to the real thing.

pineapple-nail-your-novelIt’s tricky to give examples from stories without spoiling their punchlines, but it so happens I can illustrate with real life. On Friday I wrote the word ‘pineapple’ on my hand. My hand is my low-tech Evernote, and I needed to remind myself to go home via the supermarket. But it so happened that I was also going to a class at Pineapple dance studios. Naturally, having a storyteller mentality, I started thinking this was an amusing piece of misdirection. If I was found in nefarious circumstances, a detective might see ‘pineapple’ on my hand and think it was connected with the dance class, because they’d find my membership card. So the hunt for clues would start at the dance studio – until someone smart would ask ‘why would she write a note to remind herself to go to class … could it be her shopping list’? Then they might check my credit card use to find my usual supermarket, and find signs of a scuffle in the car park … voila.


So, to answer Jonathan’s final point about the use of misdirection in the sparse style of mystery stories … you don’t have to break style and write a conspicuously lavish description of your item. You slip your detail in naturally, as part of the fabric of the scene.

Thanks for the cards pic Gordon Cowan

nyn3 2ndIf you found this useful, there are lots more tips for slick plotting in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.



36 thoughts on “Two cool ways to use misdirection as a storyteller

  1. Great example with the ‘pineapple’ clue, Roz! I really enjoy the concept of misdirection in fiction, and have noticed it in many genres. In romance, drama or thrillers, where people’s motives are thought to be one thing and turn out to be another. In scifi, where the cause of a problem is some new lifeform and not the obvious cause first guessed.

    I especially like misdirection in character arcs, where people aren’t sure which direction a character will choose because you give them enough conflicts in each direction. It’s fun (and challenging) to find that balance between “you tricked me!” and “hidden in plain sight”.

  2. Reblogged this on Wild and Woolly Wordsmithing and commented:
    Awesome post on misdirection! Have to share! Hope you wild and woolly wordsmiths enjoy Nail Your Novel’s post as much as I did!

    One literary example of the same thing for all you Harry Potter fans would be Sirius’ motorcycle. Hagrid has it in book one. He tells Dumbledore ‘Sirius leant it to me.’ Not until book three do you find the significance of the fact that Sirius was in Godric’s Hollow the night James and Lily were murdered.

    1. I think that certainly applies to genre fiction (and movies, which genre novels closely resemble) but I’m struggling to see how to fit it to many of the great works of literature…

      1. It may not be so clearly visible as misdirection, Disvan. But the principle of leading the reader along one trail and then swivelling them to face a new direction requires a certain amount of misdirection. How many stories might involve a climax where the main character thinks ‘I didn’t need that thing after all, what I need is this?’ If that’s also a surprise to the reader (but a surprise that seems to be a moment of enlightenment), that’s probably got an element of misdirection.
        This is the problem with breaking a story down to components, anyway. Stories aren’t machines. Even the traditionaly writing craft ‘study’ areas like plot and character aren’t actually separate. When I wrote the characters book, I’d find I was discussing plot, and vice versa when I wrote the plot book. In that vein, I contend that the principles of misdirection underlie a lot of stories.

  3. This is a tricky one for editors. New writers often put in lots of inconsequential detail — stuff that doesn’t move the story on and isn’t relevant — and part of our job is to cut this out. We’re very aware, as we move through an edit, that we may be cutting something out that will have relevance later. The other problem is that if there is only one instance of an inconsequential detail in an novel, that tends to alert readers that it will turn out to be significant later, so spoiling the whole point of the misdirection (it’s things like that that help readers get to the end long before the text does). For it to work, I think, the writer needs to include a few other inconsequential details that truly are inconsequential (and shown to be) so the reader is lured into trusting the writer not to misdirect.

  4. Cheers Roz,

    Thanks for thinking this through for me, especially the idea of describing something with a secondary purpose, thus hiding its primary purpose from the reader. The Magic Harry reference above is quite a useful one for finding examples. Rowling frequently smuggles in key plot devices without the reader noticing (not this reader anyway) simply by making them fun and entertaining in themselves.

    So, going back to the mystery writing example, Watson can notice something at the scene of a murder, but unlike Holmes he is unaware of its significance until much later. He will misinterpret the facts, and thus distract the reader. But the skill is making the object interesting enough for him to notice it at all, in order for it to register with the reader, without planting a sign on top of it emblazoned CLUE. As another of your readers says, this is the bit that will require practice.


    1. Hi Jon! ‘Making the object interesting in itself…’ yes, that’s one of the tricks. As with any other storytelling trick, the way to learn is by noticing when it’s used in other books. Thanks for provoking a great discussion.
      And I can see from your signature that some life changes have happened since you last commented on this blog … an extra tier to your surname. Congratulations!

  5. Thanks for the lesson in misdirection. I don’t know that it’s essential for *every* story in every genre, but I agree that it certainly adds spice to any tale. In some ways, I think it’s easier for novelists to use misdirection than it is for screenwriters.

    Screenwriters have the viewer’s attention for much less time than a novelist has the reader’s, so they can’t pad the revelation of a critical clue with as many distractions. I think TV writers have it the worst in this regard. TV writers have another problem that often gives away the game: actor familiarity. I recently watched a program where the police were given a photo of a murder victim. The body had been reduced to ash, so there was no way to identify it. But the photo was of an actress I recognized, and I thought, “The victim must still be alive. They’d never have paid for her likeness just to use in that photograph.” Sure enough, she showed up near the end of the episode.

    Another advantage novelists have is more control over the reader’s “camera view.” We can control exactly how much detail the reader observes. In the “camera shot” of a room, we can focus on just the details we want the reader to see and leave everything else out of focus.

    Regardless of medium, I do love a skillfully done misdirection.

    1. I like it too, Mr Marvello! And yes, TV and film has an extra problem if it uses a famous actor in a part that’s meant to look inconsequential. We know very well that the actor wouldn’t be hired for just one photograph!

  6. For an ongoing masterclass in the use of misdirection, I recommend the TV show Elementary. There it’s not just a case of a subtly placed clue waiting to come back in later, each episode typically has a parallel storyline that can entice the detectives on the wrong track, so there’s a whole can full of red herrings to open before they realize they need to backtrack and take another path.

  7. Misdirection is the key to a good thriller novel. I would love to plug my novel cigarettes, guns & beer, in which readers discover the entire book, which involved massive misdirection, was also a false trail. But I’m too modest.

    Leaving the breadcrumbs isn’t difficult, what’s difficult is to not be too obvious and ham-handed. You want to make sure that readers are aware of the details, but not certain they’re onto you.

    However, it’s important to be honest in the misdirection. Nothing is more infuriating than to reach the end and realize the author planted false leads so that they could make sure they could grab you with a gotcha moment. I remember a David Lindsay thriller in which I figured out who the killer was only to be presented with an impenetrable alibi halfway through the book. Then, at the end, he was revealed to be the killer, without explaining how he accounted for the alibit. It was as though the passage were never written. I never read another Lindsay book after that.

  8. Great item for discussion. In my first chapter I try to “misdirection” one macguffin and at least 5 other important clues to the central storyline. ** Honestly I have never of it being described as that. I have so much to learn, but that is why read your blog. Thanks!

  9. This is a really good thought. I love misdirection. I always have it in mind how my readers might interpret a character or a scene. I probably think about it a lot more than most.

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