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Do misdirection and ambiguity bother readers or keep them engaged?
Stephen Wechselblatt
Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 4:09 PM
Joined: 11/20/2012
Posts: 1

My book deliberately leaves out a fairly important piece of information. As a result, the reader can't tell whether an important character has been duped by his son-in-law into committing a crime or whether the son-in-law is merely protecting his interest.  
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, November 26, 2012 6:54 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Bumping this up so others can see it.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 7:05 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Stephen, do you like the "gotcha!" feeling when a writer does to you what you propose doing to your readers?   I don't like the writer to play tricks that strike me as unfair.  However, there are fair forms of misdirection.  One brilliant example is in the first page of Doyle & Macdonald's  The Price of the Stars.  I was all the way down toward the end of the book and thinking "But who shot X?" and went back to look at the first again...and there was the clue, big as a house.  Only, when you see it, you don't know it's a clue.  An absolutely perfect example of misdirection, and I didn't feel "gotcha-ed."

The standard for mysteries is usually for the writer to play fair with readers and not leave out important info (though misdirection is OK) unless, while staying in POV, a character cannot know what the writer (and another character) knows.  In the situation you mention, if the POV character is the "important character" then he will not know whether the son-in-law is duping him or not (at least for awhile.) and neither will the reader.  But if you use the son-in-law's POV, then concealing the son-in-law's motivation is a "gotcha." 

Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 11:42 AM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

I agree with Elizabeth's points, but I'm not sure you've given us enough information to assess your particular scenario. Is the ambiguity because as an author you want to target readers who enjoy literary interpretation? Is it because you want to give your readers their choice rather than locking them into your own interpretation of the characters' motives?

One of my most memorable college classroom discussions was about Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake. (Spoilers follow.) When the professor asked a question about one of the characters, it quickly became apparent that half the class thought the character was male, and the other half thought the character was female. McIntyre had managed to describe the character in what seemed like striking detail, yet scrupulously avoided ever using a gender pronoun. As a result, different readers had diametrically opposed impressions of the character and his/her relationships with several other characters. The ensuing discussion caused many of us to realize how deeply assumptive both our reading habits and some of our gender-role notions were.

Ambiguity and misdirection can be potent tools. You just have to know what you want to do with them and why you want to do it.


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