Monday, April 29, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance


What the Heck is it? Why Should We Care?
And WHAT Does it Have to do With Writing?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Back when I was first getting a leg-up as a writer and joining writing workshop groups whenever I could, cognitive dissonance was one of those baffling terms I’d never heard of before, like defamiliarization and objective correlative.

Several people defined it for me as an individual having to choose between two at-odds belief systems or information sets. 

That explanation could simply cover the situation where a person without a preexisting bias or belief in something is presented with separate systems, beliefs or information that are at odds and the person must then decide which set to choose.

But – as I learned -- cognitive dissonance is far more than just that.

Cognitive dissonance refers to when an already strongly held belief or subset of information is challenged by conflicting information or interpretation.

So instead of just weighing the benefits and strengths of each subset against each other, the person doing the weighing has another hump to get over – the struggle of confronting a contradiction to something they believe in, and the issue of whether or not they can let go of their original suppositions.

Whether they can or can’t accommodate the new information, the challenge leads to one or more emotional states: discomfort, resistance, agitation, nervousness, embarrassment, hostility, frustration.  Perhaps they’ll eventually experience acceptance, and sometimes even an entrenchment in the supplanting belief or information stronger than what they felt for the original.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Let’s examine Cognitive Dissonance briefly in terms of three writerly applications of sorts:

#1 – Cognitive dissonance as applied to characters in our pieces.

#2 – Cognitive dissonance as applied to story and plot structures.

#3 – Cognitive dissonance in terms of considering our readers and attempting to shepherd them.

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Cognitive Dissonance and Characterization

Consider the points in your stories where your characters have to confront new information that’s at odds with what they think they know and believe in. Take into account your characters’ discomfort and how they react: Denial? Embarrassment? Resistance? A grudging recognition of the new set of facts or the different interpretation? Anger? Unease?

In any of these instances, has the new set of facts and the concomitant distress made it possible for your characters to become more emotionally and/or intellectually open to whatever the particular paradigm shift is?

Now think about these two potential side effects in terms of your characters' actions and reactions. Are any of your characters so entrenched in their beliefs that even in the face of new evidence or proof to the contrary they will not merely resist the new information or learning, but perhaps go to great lengths to deny it?

Or, contrariwise, are there characters who – after learning and accepting something that they originally strongly resisted – end up becoming more adamant about the new knowledge than they were about their former beliefs, even if the new learning itself is later proved false? What we’re talking about here is the fervor of the converted.

As just a few examples:

The young soldier who believes his army is invincible until it falls apart in battle.

A child whose trust in her parents is absolute until she catches one or both of them engaging in dishonest or unsavory behavior.

A couple who dislike the family next door because they believe them to be evil or irresponsible, only to discover that they live quiet lives of charity and goodness.

Take time to give some thought as to how nuanced these circumstances can be, how complex the character development that might arise from all of this.

What if a character’s belief in something is strongly challenged by evidence of some sort that proves that their beliefs are incorrect? And what if the character’s faith is shaken, perhaps destroyed, but for one reason or another they do not embrace the new information subset? 

There could be any number of developments onwards from that point: The character could lapse into despair or become cynical to the point of amorality or intellectual drift. Or they could keep seeking information and knowledge until their distrust in the disproving subset of information proves the new subset false. How would that impact their persona? Would they feel empowered? Become even more cynical? Or . . ?

 * * * * * * * * * * *

Cognitive Dissonance and storylines and plot structures

These instances of discomfort and disconnection often don’t strike the reader (and sometimes not the author either) as climatic arcs in a story. But they are usually essential and pivotal, one way or the other – the points, in fact, from which the climaxes may in good part eventually derive. The young soldier ends up deserting. The child reports her parents to the police or other authorities. The couple finally introduce themselves to the neighbors they'd been shunning.

A consciousness of the long term effects of cognitive dissonance leads to a second application. The more as writers that we’re aware of and sensitive to these pivotal junctures, the more we can finesse the moments that lead to our characters’ crises of faith in the first place, thereby making the characters’ discomfort and eventual reactions either yea (acceptance) or nay (denial) more palpable and believable. And then the more we can adroitly structure and lead up to the climaxes that result from the characters changing or entrenching.

In other words, these moments can have a significant impact on our plots.

Then expand the concept. What if the cognitive dissonance is experienced not just by individuals, but by whole groups of people? How do those larger situations impact what happens on a societal level?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Cognitive Dissonance and our readers

In my teaching I talk a lot about deliberately shaping readers’ perceptions of our writing in order to prepare our audience to receive and experience our narratives in the ways that we want them to – at least as much as possible. It’s a shepherding sort of strategy.

One of the issues we need to keep in mind when doing this is to try to be aware of areas in our narratives that might cause our readers  to experience cognitive dissonance. Which might not be the same places in the text where the characters experience cognitive dissonance. Or they might be.

As you’re writing along, think about whether there are places in your stories that will challenge your reader’s suppositions or beliefs.  For me, I think that other than a few very short, mild, humorous pieces, everything I’ve written has had places where I’m sure that readers with certain ideas and beliefs would feel quite uncomfortable and challenged.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, though I don’t want those feelings of discomfort to toss them all the way out of my stories. With any of my writing that has a more serious intent, I don’t just want to “preach to the choir.” I’d like for people to read my work and for it to set them to thinking, maybe change their minds to a certain extent about certain things.

So I have to give serious thought as to how I’m going to write those particular sections that I know are likely to cause readers to experience cognitive dissonance: How do I frame the words, how do I present my characters and their situations in such a way as to trigger that discomfort and also trigger a moment of recognition that might eventually lead to acceptance? If I’m not aware of readers’ potential level of cognitive dissonance – if I’m not aware of cognitive dissonance’s difficulties and benefits – I’m likely to fail in that regards. And this is an aspect of our narratives where we don't want to fail.

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For any of you who are interested in more background and information on cognitive dissonance, I recommend British educator James Atherton’s essay on the subject at:

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- Michaela Roessner, Prose Concentration Faculty -

Writing the Rockies Conference
July 25-28, 2013
The conference welcomes beginners, published writers, and anyone else who believes in the magic and power of the written word.

Set in the beautiful Gunnison Valley of the central Colorado Rockies on the campus of Western State Colorado University, the conference offers a wide range of workshops designed to provide valuable learning tools in an inspiring setting.

Workshop faculty members have a broad range of published works, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenwriting, magazine article writing, as well as industry publishing experience. Working with participants of all levels, our featured faculty will help writers hone their craft through workshops and will mix with participants during events outside of formal sessions. Talk at leisure to our scheduled agents and book publishers, or sign up for pitches.

For more information visit www.western.edu/writingttherockies

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Outlining & Writing Backwards



Before we start, please take a moment to open a new tab or window in your browser and go to the Google homepage. Then do a search for “outlining a novel”. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Ah, there you are. 2.6 million hits on my search. (Okay, admit it – you didn’t go, did you? You just waited for me to give you the answer…) 2.6 million hits. Try “novel outlines” and you get 6.79 million.  The point I’m making is just this: there are a lot of people who think they know how to outline a novel. I happen to be one of them, but the good news for you is that all of them – and yours truly – are probably wrong.

It’s not to say that whatever outline methodology you find is factually wrong, it’s just probably wrong for you. In my experience, the way each writer outlines a novel project is a very individualized thing – we’re a quirky group of people and each of us see story in a different way. Still, none of this means you shouldn’t outline – you should – and it doesn’t mean you can’t look at how other people have done it – you should. What it does mean is that you’ll have to adapt what you see to your own, specific, writerly preferences.

Now, before you say that you don’t have to use an outline, I’ll give a caveat: you don’t have to use an outline. No doubt, you are a shining star that can free write a full-length novel with nary a thing gone wrong. But just in case you're not, let me suggest to you that writing an entire novel, 60k, 70k, 100k words or more, without an outline is like driving from Orlando, Florida to Seattle, Washington without a map, GPS, phone, or even road signs to guide you. As sure as you’re sitting there reading this, you’d get lost, take some wrong turns, end up in a box canyon, or worse, in the ditch. You wouldn’t want to drive that far like that, and you don’t want those same things happening to your book!

There are a lot of outline methodologies out there – bullet outlines, script-style outlines, narrative outlines, chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene, and even character arc outlines. Take your pick, play with one or more of them, mush them together or tear them apart, but do outline. A novel is a long journey and you need a map… but there is one little thing we should talk about. Take that drive I mentioned above and look at a map (you can do this on Google, by the way…). There are a lot of different roads you might take to get from one place to another.

The same is true for your novel. Just because you’ve put something in the outline doesn’t mean it must be followed at all costs. Even when you’re driving somewhere, there’s an occasional detour or road closing or even just something interesting that you spot in the distance and want to go see. By all means, do what you must for your journey. But when you’re ready, check your outline, and come on back to the main route. An outline is a map, not a commandment.

One of the techniques I’ve found most useful in outlining is to write backwards. By that I mean that I outline from the end of the story – the very last scene I can imagine – and move backwards in time. Normally, we ask ourselves “And then what happens? What happens next?” By going backwards, you can change the question to something different like “How did the character get here? Where did that scene come from?” This technique can also help if you’re stuck partway through an outline (or, heaven forbid, a novel in process that you didn’t outline and now wish you did).

No matter what techniques you try, what is important is that you do approach the journey of a novel with a plan in mind. Without it, you’re likely to find your heroine lost, your starship in the wrong quadrant, your cowboy trapped by rustlers, and your police cruiser in the murky waters of the Hudson. Write on, my friends, but write wisely!

- Prof. Russell Davis

Thursday, April 11, 2013

THE LISTENING WRITER



     
     In every writing class I teach, students will have an early assignment to pick a familiar spot in their world, stand in it, and pay attention.  They’ll be asked to examine visual details, tacticle details, and auditory details of their environment for five minutes.  Then, they have to turn it inside out, and ‘listen’ to what’s going on inside of them.  Is there lots of anxious chatter?  Is it calm, happy, fearful, sad?  What’s the texture of that?  The sound?  The image? 
     After, they’ll spend about fifteen minutes free-writing about what they observed, what they felt, letting it take them wherever it leads.    
     It’s a simple thing to do, but I can’t tell you how many times students have commented on what it opened up for them.  They never do this, they say.  Who has time?  And they had no idea what they were missing.  Good for you, I tell them.  Do it more.  It’s the bedrock of your writing practice, which requires you to pay that close attention to what’s going on inside your characters, and in their world.  
     Of course, simple isn’t the same as easy.  In our culture, we’re constantly bombarded with noise of all kinds, and many of us have trained ourselves not to pay attention to our immediate environment as a means of preserving our sanity. We also live in a culture that places more value on talking than either silence or listening. We argue a lot, do a lot of cross-talking, talking over each other, in our anxiety to be heard.   
     Some Native cultures, such as the Mohawk who live near me, believe that listening is one of the greatest skills you can develop.  It’s important, they say, to really take in what someone says, and respectful to leave space between their words and your response.  That lets them know you really heard them.
     How often do we talk that way?  Very rarely.  
     But to my mind, practicing conscious attention, conscious observation and reflection on your observations, is at the heart of the writing process.  It’s what gives you something we call “VAK,” those visual, auditory, and kinesthetic details in both fiction and nonfiction that make it come alive for the reader.  It’s what can give you ideas for images, scenes, interactions, and plot points in your writing.  And the feel of active observation and reflection creates the kind of open yet alert consciousness that’s ideal for the writing process.  
      In a Harvard study which explored the differences and similarities between the brain activity of writers and schizophrenics, they discovered something important about artist’s brains: They something called ‘lowered latent inhibition,’ which means their brains have less of a filter against incoming information.  They take more in. 
     That’s crucial for the artistic process, and it should be practiced regularly.  Doing so helps writers not only to pay attention, but also to know how and when to open, how and when to shut the door.   
     If you’re a writer reading this, I recommend that as soon as you’re done you get away from your computer, and go to another room, or go outside.  Look, listen, touch, sniff the air.  Look and listen inside yourself.   Or, as the Zen masters say, stand in the center and listen.  Then forget that you are there.  
      When you’re done, sit down and write.  Let the magic begin.  

Dr. Barbara Chepaitis, fiction concentration director

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Headlong Rush of Story & the Lingering Meaningful Moment


Horizontal Narrative Momentum Structures
in Contrast to and in Relationship to Vertical Lyrical Narrative Structures

Prose writers generally don’t have a problem grasping the concept of horizontal narrative structures. It’s the same thing as John Gardner’s “profluence”: Stories essentially flow strongly forward.

Even the insertion of a bit of exposition or backstory (providing it’s narrative­-related exposition or backstory) is no more disruptive to a tale’s onward rush than creating a briefly circling eddy that then helps to propel the main current forward with even more power. Alternating plotlines or parallel plotlines? Those are simply streams coursing in tandem whose waters eventually link together in some fashion to form or join the larger narrative river, strengthening and widening the sense of surging story.

If we consider the Thriller genre, the horizontal thrust is even more obvious. The trajectory of elements in Thrillers can be so propelled-forward that they become more of an avalanche snowballing downhill than a perfect horizontal analogy. There is little or no pedaling backward from that kind of momentum, and certainly no narrative lingering. Which can be fine for that kind of tale.

But what about vertical narrative structures?

Usually if we think about verticality at all in regards to prose, it’s in terms of “Horizontal good. Vertical bad.” This is because it’s true that there shouldn’t be any places where the narrative stops, stalls out, goes stale, static, dull, blank or dead.

Some years ago, however, I had occasion to rethink the whole issue of verticality in stories. I attended a graduate presentation at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program given by a young woman, Karen Johnson. Karen is an incredibly gifted musician and singer, whose concentration – no surprise for a songwriter -- was Poetry.

Karen’s lecture was wholly about the benefits to be derived from writing both horizontally and vertically. She pointed out the same strengths in horizontal structures that I mentioned above. Then she contrasted the horizontal with the vertical, since vertical structures are those that most poets use (unless they’re writing poetic horizontal narratives like ballads or other forms of narrative poetry), since poetry’s goal is often to linger in an encapsulated moment and/or concept.

So keeping poetry firmly in mind, vertical passages in our narrative stories don’t have to have a halted quality any more than good poetry feels halted. In fact, well-realized vertical prose sections have their own kind of profluence: They can provide a holistic sense of being impeccably embedded in a perfectly realized and in that sense active moment or set of moments. There is nothing more transcendent than being fully present in the moment -- those experiences are the opposite of feeling stopped, stalled out, stale, static, dull, blank or dead.

So unless we’re all going to write nothing but the full-bore sort of Thrillers (which of course aren't the only kind of Thrillers), this is an important notion to grasp. Well-executed vertical passages in stories and books have important parts to play.

Their role in pacing is obvious, I think – they allow us to take a breath before launching into active parts and allow us to regroup and recoup after active scenes. But vertical sections also serve a purpose in terms of theme, storylines and even characterization.

If we use another analogy -- music -- and the forms that we find in musical constructs like symphonies, we discover the quickness of allegro movements and the slowness of adagio movements.

With the latter, melodic themes can be gradually introduced which are then developed and enlarged in the louder and faster sections. The slower passages also allow us the space and breath to take in musical depth, and allows the music itself to develop variations on melodies and musical themes, which then act as transitions and springboards into the more active musical passages and movements.

The same is true with vertical passages in our narratives, using them to develop and take in aspects and syntheses of characterization, theme, setting; we can use these more lingering kinds of passages to introduce changes and transitions, which can then springboard into the active sections of the narrative.

Therefore it’s useful to consider both these aspects – the horizontal and the vertical – as separate kinds of structures from each other that relate to, balance, and counterpoint each other throughout any given story.

The long and the short of it is that when you’re writing a horizontal active section, you need to commit to it fully – don’t rush or skim through it as something that needs to be done just to keep your narrative going. Really set your reader fully within that action and let it be a complete experience for them.

And, conversely, when you are writing a vertical passage, don’t let it be a dead space or a mere lull. This is your chance to allow a reader to be fully present in a specific moment! Commit to it as fully and invest as much of a sense of presence in it as you would in a horizontal section on the one hand, or, on the other hand, as you would in writing the transcendent vertical moment in a poem.

- Michaela Roessner – Prose Concentration Faculty

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Readers’ Expectations & the Author/Reader Contract


 

The Author/Reader Contract & First Level of Readerly Expectations

The concept of the Author/Reader contract references an author presenting concerns or questions at the beginning of a piece – and sometimes throughout it – that beg to be more fully developed and/or answered and/or resolved by the end. The author has essentially made a promise (and therefore created a subliminal contract) with the reader that those elements will be developed, answered, or resolved as part of the reading experience.

Part of what we do when we make this "contract” with our readers – the first level of readerly expectations -- is to lead them to have certain expectations of what we’re going to deliver over the course of -- and especially by the end of -- a story. Will the hero escape? Will the lovers be reunited? Will the winsome alien Bloogflack morph into its destiny as a Fliggerbloof? If we don’t answer these questions (either yea nor nay) to the readers’ satisfaction by the finish of a piece, we have failed to deliver on the unstated “contract” and our readers will have every reason to be peeved with us.

The items covered by an Author/Reader contract can be any or all major narrative elements, including (but not limited to) the following:

The psychological and emotional arc of one or more characters

The fulfillment of a theme

A plot component such as the discovery of the answer to a mystery, or the outcome of some conflict, or the achievement or non-achievement of a goal

For a broad Author/Reader Contract component let’s look at what’s known as a Chekovian Gun on the Mantelpiece. The great Russian playwright Anton Chekov stated that if a writer arranges for a gun to be placed on the mantelpiece in the first act of a play, then that gun must be fired by the end of the third act. So I invite my compatriot writers to think of all “contracts with the readers” in terms of Chekov’s guns – the open-ended concerns we craftily weave into our narratives that our readers have every right to expect us to tie up one way or another before the finish of the story or book.


The Next Level of Readerly Expectations

But there’s an important paradox clause to the issue of readerly expectations.
If we deliver on all of a story’s expectations in the expected ways, then we’ve also (gasp!) broken the contract. It’s boring and uninteresting to merely spool out foregone conclusions. It’s even more boring and uninteresting to read them. Most readers just won’t. Who can blame them? While our readers want answers and resolutions in our stories, they also at the same time expect us to do something unexpected and different.

If it’s clear that the hero will be allowed to escape easily; if there’s nothing standing in the way of the lovers reuniting; if there’s nothing that the winsome alien Bloogflack can morph into other than a Fliggerbloof . . . well, ho hum and yaawwwnn. Why bother reading past the first few pages? 

So we need to be aware that there’s an all-important other level to readers’ expectations and the author/reader contract: Readers expect and want us to subvert, shift, transcend, expand or transgress against some aspect or aspects of their original expectations of a piece.

Those subversions/shifts/transcendences/expansions/transgressions can be any narrative component. They can be as big as a prestidigitation-worthy O’Henryesque plot twist at the end of a story or they can be as subtle as a gradual and nuanced progression in an antagonist’s character arc. Or an unforeseen change or reversal in theme.


A Trip Back in Time One Week:
Misdirection as One Strategy For Finessing the Second Level of Reader Anticipation

Last week (i.e., just below this essay) I talked about misdirection and how a too-obvious storyline can be like constructing a formal garden with a wide boulevard going straight up its middle so that everything in the garden can be seen from its entrance, leaching most opportunities for discovery or surprise from an exploration of the grounds.

Misdirection, however, is the construction of a garden with bends one can’t see around and forking paths that may or may not lead back to the main trail. So whether there are any truly startling elements in a tale or not, there’s always a sense of surprise as one goes around a curve and discovers what’s on the other side.

Therefore misdirection is one of the premier strategies for structuring-in that crucial second level of reader anticipation because, as pointed out last week, misdirection presents other situations, choices, solutions and paths as possibilities. Misdirection – along with deft foreshadowing -- allows us to lay in the groundwork for the unexpected but-in-the-end-believable shifts that comprise the satisfying of readers’ second level of expectations. If there are obstacles that stand in the way of the star-crossed lovers reuniting; if there are multiple impediments to the trapped hero escaping; if there are any other forms that the Bloogflack can morph into besides a Fliggerbloof – then even if none of those elements pan out and instead turn out to be “just” artful misdirection, they’ve served to keep the reader off-balance and interested, ready and open to having their second level of expectations fulfilled.

- Michaela Roessner - Prose Concentration Faculty

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Misdirection: The Breadcrumbs That Lead Us Fortuitously Astray


Misdirection is one of the most useful tools in our toolboxes, an element so important and yet so unexamined. Go to any of the hallowed books on the craft of writing. Open to their Table of Contents and skim down the list. Then flip to the back of the book and scan alphabetically through the “M”s in the index. Where, oh where, is a reference to Misdirection? Not in Baxter’s Burning Down the House. Not in Burroway’s Writing Fiction. Or Rust Hills’ book. Not even (gasp!) in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.

Without guideposts to point towards this component, how is it that I ever came to examine it at all? Well, years ago I became aware that writer Connie Willis felt that misdirection was one of the most crucial factors in pulling off fiction successfully. If Connie Willis finds an element important, then it behooves the rest of us to pay attention. So onwards and upwards into Misdirection:

Misdirection in Terms of Plotting and Storylines

What is a poor writer to do in the following situation? They’ve penned a tale that is exciting, clever, has great characters, a wonderful main plot line and they think appropriate amounts of foreshadowing, suspense and tension. But . . . the beta-readers they show it to invariably say something like, “Nice story, but I knew what was happening by page 5, so then I lost interest.”

This is where misdirection not only comes in handy, but it’s crucial. For there to be any tension in a story while it unfolds and any readerly satisfaction at the end that the tale’s resolution is the “right one,” there have to be other possible resolutions to counter-poise against that  “one right resolution.” Other situations, choices, solutions and paths must be presented as possibilities.

Stringing our readers along for as long as we can before shutting the door on those other possibilities is one of the main forms that misdirection can take. Without it, we too often find ourselves with the problem of placing our readers at the starting point of a story from which the ending is already in clear sight: The author has constructed a storyline that has the affect of a broad, straight boulevard through a formal garden. Few readers will bother to embark on the garden path of a tale if the destination is too obvious. Ho-hum, why bother?

Misdirection is one of the strategies we employ in order to contour our storyline paths with narrative, or thematic, or character shifting “bends” that the reader can’t fully see around. This helps to compel readers to want to continue reading, eager to see what lies beyond the bend and which of all the possible resolutions will win out in the end.

If foreshadowing is like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs -- sprinkling necessary clues and hints for one’s readers -- then if only one set of crumbs provides the markers and clues to the story’s resolution, the reader is going to be displeased and unsurprised when he or she arrives, at last, at the metaphorical Gingerbread House (i.e., the obvious conclusion and resolution.)

To correct this, the writer needs to lay in enough other details, and/or subplots, or other writing elements so that the outcome of a story will not be crystal clear and obvious until the reader has come to the finish. You need to throw some curves into that boulevard when you construct it so that the end cannot be seen. You need to lay in several breadcrumb trails leading in several directions so that it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the destination is the evil witch’s delicious abode. Those other breadcrumb trails are your misdirection.

Misdirection in the form of Details

Besides larger concerns like plot points and storylines, misdirection also appears and is useful within the smaller narrative elements we work with.

Sometimes a story’s foreshadowing just won’t work without artful misdirection. When our clues are too obvious, then instead of foreshadowing, they too obviously “telegraph” rather than hint. When that happens, tension, suspense and anticipation are deflated and perhaps lost altogether.

One of the best ways to fix this kind of foreshadowing problem is to not necessarily always dial back on the foreshadowing, laboring mightily to make it more subtle. What we might instead need is to do a better job of hiding our foreshadowing in plain sight.


A “plethora of details” is a way to insert and at the same time camouflage foreshadowing. We can accomplish this by adding in more details around the foreshadowed element, essentially embedding and countersinking the foreshadowing within those other details, lessening the effect of over-highlighting the foreshadowing. In this sense, here misdirection is working directly in tandem with foreshadowing because the misdirecting details also have to be relevant.  All those relevant details that the foreshadowing is embedded amongst are serving double duty as a form of misdirection.


As just one example, imagine the discovery of a murder in a mystery novel. The victim lies stabbed to death in his bed. On the nightstand are a variety of objects: His glasses, a glass of water, some eye drops, a rosary, a pad of paper and a pen, a small vial of pills, a small emergency flashlight. Every single one of these items will have significance, most of them in terms of letting the mystery’s designated sleuth and the reader learn something important about the victim. But only one of them will prove to be a crucial clue leading to the discovery of the killer (I won’t tell you which one.) If that item were the only one on the nightstand, the detective and the reader would notice it, latch onto it, and quickly discover its relationship to the murder.  But because it’s scattered among all the other objects, its crucial role doesn’t rise as a precipitate in the story until later. All those other items are acting as effective misdirection to hide its true narrative purpose.

Utilizing the Relationship Between Misdirection and Foreshadowing

I strongly recommend pondering deeply and often about the potential connections between misdirection and foreshadowing. All the techniques used to insert foreshadowing can be utilized for misdirection as well. The only step that must be done differently with misdirection is that the trail it leads the reader off onto can't in the end lead directly back to the resolution. Its purpose as misdirection is as a diversion, although it can (and should, perhaps even must) multitask by serving other purposes, as did the already mentioned other items on the murder victim’s nightstand.

As the reader follows along the breadcrumbs of a narrative, any element that seems to be foreshadowing could turn out to be artful misdirection, depending on where the author ties off the end of its thread. Therefore we can borrow any foreshadowing technique and put it to use for misdirection instead.

Misdirection can even be imbedded within foreshadowing. For example, protagonists in a tale come across some sort of prognosticator – a sibyl, or a caster of runes, or a reader of tea leaves or the Tarot deck. The seer makes an enigmatic prediction of some sort. This foreshadows something that will happen in the story. The protagonists draw a conclusion from the prophecy that seems reasonable to them and to the reader of the tale. However, as the tale unfolds, it’s revealed that they (the protagonist and the reader) guessed incorrectly and so were misdirected. However, looked at from another perspective and with a different interpretation (which are eventually revealed), the prediction was correct and did foreshadow the conclusion. Bingo! In one fell stroke you have both foreshadowing and misdirection, working hand in hand.

The Necessity for Honest Trickery

The above examples are samples of “honest misdirection.” To be effective and to not infuriate a reader, misdirection must be honest. Whatever basic element of the story the misdirection is conjured up from, it has to fit and have a real part to play besides its task of misdirecting trickery. It must be composed of elements that are believable, right, and natural in a story (like all those other items on the nightstand, which will tell the sleuth and the reader a good deal about the victim). You don’t want to commit Misdirection ex Machina -- where the misdirection is contrived, its elements solely and obviously set in place simply to provide a false trail or to muddy the waters.

One way to think of all kinds of misdirection is in terms of that integral part of a magician’s performance known as “ handwaving.” It’s only because of the magician’s gestures with one hand that we are lured away from the “business” part of any illusion being executed by the magician’s other hand. Without our attention being captured and redirected in this fashion, there would be little or no sense of magic to a prestidigitator’s performance.

But the reason that we are lured away is because the magician’s misdirection is honest in the sense that whatever she or he does to distract us is still part and parcel of the whole performance – a graceful bit of the overall choreography. If the magician’s misdirection were clunky, or if it brought in elements that didn’t fit with the rest of the act, it would ring false to us and/or wrench us out of the profluent dream of the magician’s performance

Just so with twists and turns in our storylines that don’t fit or which at first seem to be appropriate but which in the end have no real connection to the narrative and have been inserted by what is clearly the author’s over-heavy hand. In this case we haven’t achieved misdirection, but rather a “red herring.” The term “red herring” derives from an old hunting custom of laying a false scent for the pack of hounds by dragging a burlap bag filled with smelly fish in the wrong direction. So keep in mind that what we’re going for with misdirection is not fish-stinky wrong direction, but rather deflected attention.

-- Michaela Roessner – Prose Concentration Faculty