Monday, March 03, 2008

The Misdirect

Ever read a story or watched a movie when the plot threw you a curveball suddenly that had you gasping, "Wow! I didn't see that coming!"? You are of course bowled over by the audaciousness of the writers: "Wow, how did he/she come up with something like that? I wish I can do it too."

Actually, you can.

The plots that twist and turn and throw you curveballs and hardballs and anything else that would have you grasping balls (pardon the language) have a common ploy -- the Misdirect. You've probably used it yourself, only you didn't realise it was called a Misdirect; the same way you wield the English language without realising you're using pronouns and verbs and adjectives, all in the same sentence. (The fact I'm perpetually using all these still continues to leave me speechless.)

A Misdirect can be summed up like this:
1. Come up with your plot twist/ending first.
2. Now lead your reader away from it by leading them down another direction, so when it hits them, they'll say, "Wow, I didn't see that coming!"

Even Booker Prize winners do it too, which is why Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassin' is so satisfying. Basically, what she did was: (Warning, I'm going to spoil 'The Blind Assassin' here)

1. The big knockout twist at the end was that the 'I' character was the one who wrote the science-fiction stories and had the affair with her sister's lover

2. So Margaret starts out at the very beginning of the book, even before the first chapter, to lead the reader down the wrong path. The 'I' character is introduced receiving news of her sister's sudden death. She goes to retrieve her sister's artifacts, finding some old exercise books.

3. The very next chapter has some newspaper clippings on how her sister's posthumous science-fiction book is published, leading to worldwide fame and recognition. Therefore, the reader immediately 'assumes' that what the 'I' character found was her sister's manuscript in the old exercise books.

4. The rest of the story is about their lives, interspersed with excerpts from the science-fiction book, to help the reader understand why the 'I' character did what she did.

In short stories with a twist, 'Misdirect' is also a trick employed very often. I've been guilty of doing it myself over and over again before I even understood the term 'Misdirect'. But if you want to employ a Misdirect, you have to map out your plot point twist/ending first. How can you lead the reader down a wrong path if you yourself don't know which path you're heading, right?

Next: Doublespeak and Doublethink


Anonymous said...

Misdirect? Hmm, I feel as though I have misdirected plenty of people, perhaps not in writing, but in life. Hahahha... Mysterious Guy... :P

Xeus said...

Ha ha, Kenny. At least not in love, ya? (or maybe down the wrong street in SS2)

Lydia Teh said...

Xeus, wondering when you're going to blog, looks like once a month now. Never heard of the term misdirect in writing. Blind Assassin wasn't a page turner, still I enjoyed it for the use of language and the surprise ending. In Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun which is an excellent book, excerpts of a book manuscript were interspersed throughout too. And just like Blind Assassin, the revelation of who the author is came as a surprise ending. Now that you've written about it, I realize that Adichie is using the same technique.

Xeus said...

No lah, Lydia, just very busy. Almost finishing that 'Naked' book you don't like the title of. Also 3rd rewrite of Billy Lang - very driven to write lah, keep returning to feverishly finish it. Some more Chinese New Year so tired. Some more went to Vietnam for a week.

Learned this term 'misdirect' from - you guessed it - them Prison Break screenwriters. They do it all the time. Every episode. And are very proud about sharing how they do it too.

Every writer who writes a story with a twist consciously or unconsciously does a misdirect. You did it too in your story 'Hin's Moment of Truth'.

Argus Lou said...

Miss Direct, ah, finally I see a fresh post from you. How are you and Mister Direct?

Thanks for the spoiler warning. I skipped over the few paras as I haven't read the Pembunuh Buta yet.

So, Misdirect is a bit like dropping red herrings?

Tunku Halim said...

I probably don't misdirect for when I write nowadays, I don't really know where the story is going. But, yes, it's good to know about the concept. Looking forward to Doublespeak and Doublethink - sounds very Orwellian to me.

BTW, altho' wonderfully written, I didn't enjoy the Blind Assassin all that much. Maybe I wasn't reading it at the right time.

Xeus said...

Hee hee, Argus, yes - not so much red herrings but pushing the reader to think the story is heading in a completely different direction.

My dog, Oldie, just died :(

And I'm not going to Prague after all, sent one of my people to go instead.

Xeus said...

TH, maybe it's because it's literary and you and I (and certainly Lydia) don't enjoy literary so much. You like the more direct approach, like Stephen King. Stephen King is one of those authors who don't plot as he goes along, he just enjoys the ride.

Argus can be quite literary at time! She's more high brow than us!

Argus Lou said...

Oh, Oldie has gone astral travelling through the cosmos - perhaps she will cavort with my beloved late dog (whom I am named after). My heartfelt sympathy and empathy to you, Xeus.

High brow, low brow, schmo-brow -- well, I say as long as you enjoy your books, and trim your eyebrows once a week, all is right with the world. ;-)

Xeus said...

Thanks Argie, you knew Oldie right? That really OLD dog. 18 years and above.

Argus Lou said...

Yes, I knew Oldie. You guys rescued him from abuse/neglect but he didn't have much to do sitting in your porch.
Eighteen?! You mean he could've watched those 18-PL-SG-SX movies all by his grey self?

Xeus said...

That's the one, Argus! The one who sits on the porch and idly watches life pass him by. Unfortunately he wasn't even interested in girl dogs, let alone 18 SX movies. Now Hunny is feeling very insecure because he was good friends with Oldie, and Oldie just dropped dead in the kennel next to him. I wonder if Hunny thinks he's next. Even dogs think about their mortality.