Storyville: 10 Ways to Fool Your Readers
So today we’re going to talk about ways to fool your readers. How can you distract them, divert their attention, present evidence that is misleading, or incorrect, lead them down a dead end alley only to spring a trap on them, pull the rug out from under their feet, and dazzle them with your clever writing? Here are ten tips—I hope they help.
1. RED HERRINGS
From Wikipedia: “A red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue.” Be careful with these, but picture them as breadcrumbs, as in Hansel and Gretel, leading your readers off into the woods. If you are clever, it’s kind of like a magician, moving his left hand, the cards shuffling, the ball disappearing, all while his right hand is moving or hiding or planting a coin in your pocket. Most of the time these tangents are irrelevant, that’s what makes them different from some of the other things we’ll talk about. You track the killer to his job, working as a mechanic, trying to find that bloody hammer, and in the end, it gets you nothing. Now, it may not give you evidence, but maybe in that time you develop your character or set up something else, but if you thought you’d find the gun or the killer—you are mistaken.
2. DUAL MEANINGS
One thing I love to do is write scenes that have more than one interpretation, mean more than one meaning. The double-entendre—such as the classic, “That’s what SHE said,” can lend a second voice to a statement or joke. And there’s the elusive TRIPLE-ENTENDRE, such as this one from Wikipedia: “…such as in the cover of the 1981 Rush album Moving Pictures which shows a moving company carrying paintings out of a building while people are shown being emotionally moved and a film crew makes a 'moving picture' of the whole scene. Look at words like “crane” which can refer to a bird, or a machine, or to stretch your neck (a homonym). The choices are endless.
3. UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
This is a common one, right? You follow the protagonist around all night, thinking he’s up to no good, that he’s high as a kite, stealing and casing a house to rob, but the next morning maybe it was all in his head, or a fantasy based on some deep-seated need to have an exciting life. Even just having a narrator that’s altered—drunk, on drugs, a pathological liar—can cause his POV to be tainted, his memories to be distorted (or false), his motivations questionable. These are typically first-person, because we need to be in the mind of the liar, the fraud, the delinquent. You can be up front, start your story off by having your protagonist SAY that they are a liar, that they can’t be trusted—or, you can present them as truthful, and then slowly chip away at the facts, showing them to be nothing more than an actor, a hoax. A good book to check out is Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer.
4. IT WAS ALL A DREAM
Quite often you’ll see a narrative where the curtain is pulled back and the truth is given to us. Could be The Machinist or Fight Club, The Sixth Sense or Oldboy. There are ways to keep the truth, the real story, buried underneath another reality. I’ve done it for short periods—my story, “Stillness,” (Shivers VI) an example. This was the story about a man who sits at the edge of the world pushing a button, sending fire shooting high into the air, killing the beasts that feed on the massive pile of bones that sits just inside the gate, his outpost. By the time we get to the end, we see that this is not reality at all, and the truth comes crashing in. For me, I try not to write too many stories where the ending makes the entire story false. I feel you have to earn the ending, so the twist can’t be the entire thing—the journey has to be worth it. There has to be some re-read value, right? I think of Stephen Graham Jones and his story, “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit,” and while you can really only read it the first time ONCE, there is a lot of nuance to enjoy on subsequent reads.
The previous entry reminded me about twists! Now, in those previous examples, many of the twists came at the end, and revealed an entire narrative that is false. But you can have twists throughout your story, and they can be big or small. Of course we talked about Gone Girl previously, and that’s an excellent example of twisting the story to shift sympathies, the power given (and taken) back and forth. Look at all of the twists in Game of Thrones, as well.
6. THE UNEXPECTED
This is something I love to do with my own stories. Whenever I make a big decision—casting my characters, planning or discovering plot points, or deciding who lives or dies—I think of the first things that pops into my head, and then I change it. If the color of the car is red, try changing it to silver, or maybe glue little baby doll heads all over it. When trying to make a decision, look at the most obvious choice, then look at the second choice, then keep going—third, fourth, fifth. What does your bouncer look like—big black guy, big white guy, big Asian guy? What about a bald lesbian, a bearded crackhead with one arm, a short hairy child with buckteeth? Keep going, chase it down the rabbit hole, and see what happens. By making your story unique, by striving for originality, making decisions and choices that aren’t the most obvious, you’ll keep your readers on their toes, and it’ll be more difficult for them to seek out tropes and stereotypes as guideposts for the narrative.
7. THE SLOW REVEAL
To this day, I can still hear my professor, Dale Ray Phillips, at Murray State University (where I got my MFA) saying to me, “Richard, leave the slow reveal to the strippers.” Then he’d light up a cigarette, cackle to himself, and yell, “SQUIRREL,” scaring me half to death as he gazed out into the darkness with bloodshot eyes. Well, as usual, I don’t typically listen to anybody but myself. I LIKE the slow reveal. I loved watching Lost, even if the ending was a bit of a disappointment. By making your readers hunt for clues, whether they’re reading House of Leaves or Agatha Christie, it forces them to think, to guess, to pay attention, and to try and figure out what’s coming next. The clues! They add up, they lead this way and that, they contradict each other, they take us to a dead end, a tangent that makes no sense…until it does. It’s really a personal choice. Do you pull a Dexter and just show us everything up front, and then we follow him, his code, and the violent acts he commits? Go read “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut or “Windeye” by Brian Evenson, and see how the clues add up to a compelling ending—or my second novel, Disintegration (shameless plug) out May 26th.
8. HERO VS. ANTI-HERO
Les Edgerton will kill me for even listing this one, but think about it—if you want to keep your audience guessing, if you want to mislead them, look no farther than your protagonist. Any story is going to have a conflict, both internal and external. How your main character reacts, responds, and deals with it all—well, that’s the book, right? But think about whether or not your protagonist is a hero or an anti-hero. Now, we all know what a hero is, right? They always get their man, they win, while smiling and drinking a martini with a hot babe on their arm—James Bond, yes? But there is also the reluctant hero—think of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. And what about this anti-hero? That just means they lack the traditional traits of a hero. Birdman comes to mind, but I’m also thinking of ways that you can flip your story, the good guy becoming the bad guy, the bad guy becoming the good guy. Happens all the time. Ever see Rango, hello? Rattlesnake Jake? Just keep in mind the tropes and stereotypes and try to go against the grain in one way or another. It’ll keep your audience on their toes.
9. AGAINST TROPE
Another way to fool your reader is to think about the standards, the expectations, the stories that are most common in your genre, and tweak them. Look at all of the stories about vampires, werewolves, and zombies these days. Do you really think The Walking Dead is about the zombies? No, it’s about the people, surviving, and the ways that humanity devolves, the ways that people change and still keep hope alive. You could look at Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon, which is about werewolves, but really, it’s about something else entirely—politics, and excluding the other, bigotry, and much more. Whenever I start a new story, or novel, I read a lot—books that I loved for inspiration, new books to find some original voices, stories that may be set in exotic locations, or have strange rules or laws—anything to get my creative juices flowing. And then I vow to NOT do anything like what I just read, or like any of the books that came before me. Of course, it’s impossible, but I try—and hopefully someplace in the middle will be a story that works.
10. THEIR WORST FEAR
You know how in the movies you scream at the screen, “NO, don’t go in the house, don’t do that!”? You know in a book, when you’re thinking, “Please don’t let this be what I think it is, for the love of God, not the children!”? Well, when your audience is begging for you to NOT do something, BAM…suckers, they’re the fool now, because we are GOING THERE. The hardest part about embracing the taboo, about making their worst possible fears come true is—and then what? When I look at a really powerful and disturbing book like The End of Alice by A.M. Homes, I think about why she did it—why did she write the book, and what did it accomplish? Not to get too meta-fictional here, but when you read upsetting things, when the violence and sex and abuse is just so intense you feel like you want to vomit, when you put the book down (or throw it across the room) what are you left with? You have to earn back that reader—you have to show the bleakness, the sadness, the brutality—and then do something MORE with it. Vengeance, justice, perseverance—something must come out of it.
I hope these tips help. Be kind to your reader and they’ll come back. If you use cheap tricks and gimmicks, if you are nothing but a one-note, one-trick pony, spewing violence with no redemption—you’ll lose your readership. The hard part is winning them back, proving on the page that it was all worth it, after you show them what’s in the box, when you explain to them about Keyser Soze, when you reveal the truth about why the protagonist was locked up for those many years, and who his girlfriend really is. Fool them, but reward them, putting substance behind the glitter and sizzle, the spectacle. It’s not easy, but I think you can do it.
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