When I was a teenager, my mom used to like popping out from around corners and scaring me. I had to be super careful when I came home and the house was dark; just getting from the front door to my room was an adventure because at some point along the way, I knew she was going to get me. Sounds mean, but I actually loved it. And I still love that element of surprise in the stories I read—when I think it’s headed one direction and then, WHAM! Surprise! Something happens that I totally didn’t see coming, but when I look back, all the clues are there.

This kind of misdirection is magical, but like any good trick, it’s hard to pull off. There’s not a lot of information out there about how to effectively mislead the reader in a way that doesn’t make them hate you forever, but Michaelbrent’s here today with some great advice on the topic. So listen and learn, people. Listen and learn…

I’ve always liked magicians. Who doesn’t? For me, a kid who had trouble getting girls to even look at him, I was fascinated by any guy who could convince a girl to get dressed up in what more or less amounted to lingerie and then let him cut her in half, or throw knives at her, or stab her with a sword while she was floating in a water-tank full of sharks that had angry bees superglued to their teeth.

The magic was cool, too. But mostly it was the fact that the guy got his pretty assistant to do all that stuff, whereas the girls I knew probably wouldn’t call 911 if I took a bullet for them.

Then I realized that the girl was part of a magician’s act. That he counted on me watching her. Because while I was watching her, he was doing the magic. He was setting up the trick, he was preparing to wow me with the surprise.

It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart and put to use ever since.

I’m a writer. I’ve written movies, numerous #1 bestselling novels, and am consistently one of Amazon’s bestselling horror writers. And one of the things I like to do most is surprise the audience. My novel The Haunted has spent almost a full year on Amazon’s bestselling Ghost Horror list, and my newest scare-fest Darkbound bowed a few weeks ago and is currently beating out folks like Joe Hill and Dean Koontz on Amazon’s Hot New Horror Releases. Partly (I hope) this is because the books are generally cool. But there’s no denying that a large part of their punch is packed into endings that catch the readers off-guard. They get to the end of the book expecting one thing… and when they get something completely different, they are not only happy, they are absolutely delighted.

So how does a writer go about doing that? How do you mislead your audience in such a way that when the final revelation comes, readers are caught flat-footed… and love you for it?

Well, let’s go back to magic. Remember when you were a kid and your idea of a magic trick was to hold out an object, then demand that your mom close her eyes and you would then run off and hide it? “Open your eyes,” you would say. And Mommy would clap and coo and shout with delight. But not because the magic was any good. No, it was because that kind of reaction is, I’m fairly certain, required under the U.S. Constitution. Mommies must love our tricks.

But non-Mommies? Strangers? Even (gasp!) readers?

They’re a bit tougher.

Readers demand a better magic show. The whole nine yards. Flaming pigeons bursting out of our sleeves, disappearing monkeys, and even – especially – those skimpy assistants.

Because those assistants are what makes the trick work. Great authors – like great magicians – know that the secret to misdirection isn’t withholding information, it’s giving extra information, and focusing the audience’s attention on that.

A pair of examples: I was recently driving to a conference where I was going to be talking authory stuff to a bunch of fans. On the way I listened to an audiobook, a suspense-thriller by a big-time writer. But I stopped listening rather abruptly when I started screaming because the author had, for the bijillionth time, said, “And then the super-spy told the other super-spy the plan. It was a cool plan, an awesome plan. And the two super-spies started doing the plan stuff, because they were super. But I, the author, won’t tell you what the plan was, because now you will be surprised when you find out. Mwahaha.” 

Okay, I’m probably paraphrasing. But it was pretty close.

Contrast that to the classic twist of recent times, The Sixth Sense. We’re so busy focusing on the ghosts, the scares, the plight of the little boy who we believe to be the protagonist, that we completely miss what was there the whole time (SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN LIVING UNDER A ROCK FOR THE LAST 15 YEARS OR SO): the fact that Bruce Willis was a ghost! Eek! But the clues were all there. The filmmaker didn’t hide them. He presented them all. He just gave us extra information, and made sure we paid attention to that instead of to the key stuff he planned on re-springing on us later.

As a reader, a good surprise can be one of the most gratifying experiences I have. But there’s a difference between a final revelation that ties together everything I already know and forces me to look at it in a completely new light… and a junky plot “twist” that the author throws at me out of left field with no warning whatsoever. One of them is a hoot, and makes me not only read the book again, but go around trying to get others to read it like I’ve just joined some kind of highly literary cult. The other just makes me want to hunt down the author and shake him/her until all the minutes he/she has wasted of my life are somehow tossed loose.

Authors are, by and large, solitary folks. We sit in our caves (we call them offices, but most of them are kind of dim and smell a bit odd, so “cave” is probably more apropros) and have only our own thoughts for company. That’s the bad news.

But the good news is that we can call up that attractive assistant at any time. To provide flash, dazzle, and interest. To give information we want our readers to have, so that the audience will not pay attention to the real information that will set them up for a surprise later on. Withhold everything and it’s irritating. But give a little extra, mislead properly… and it’s magic.