Saturday, December 8, 2012

Subtlety and Misdirection

There are tools in writing that add an element of uncertainty and tension, that William Noble, in his book Conflict, Action & Suspense calls “plot-hypers”. They create a rise of anxiety by injecting an unexplained event or circumstance. For example:

A car engine breaks the stillness of the night…or…an unopened letter slips behind couch cushions…

What makes plot-hypers especially useful is the relative ease with which they can be used and the impact they can have on the story. They are the tools that make subtlety and misdirection possible. They raise the tension level. They create uncertainty that might - but doesn’t have to - complicate things.

We speak of subtlety and misdirection because the story moves in whisps and veils and there’s no attempt to ring a bell or blow a whistle to get the reader’s attention. It must, however, take a careful assessment of how much or how little to offer the reader, keeping in mind that we don’t want to be unfair, and we don’t want to confuse the issue. It means we must come up with at least one plot-hyper, and plant the key somewhere in the text. It doesn’t do much good if we expect the reader to deduce things from vague clues, because then, we’ve exchanged subtlety for unreasonable expectation.

Consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Both planted their plot-hypers in the body of their stories, the subtleties and misdirection came not from confusion or vagueness, but from the knowledge of the way we tend to think. How many of us are lulled by the steadiness of routine? Always the same thing, done the same way, at the same time and same place. Would we wonder about sinister consequences if the routine broke down once or twice? Human nature, we’d say, nothing works perfectly every time!

But Sherlock Holmes wasn’t quite so fooled.

How many of us go on a search for something and assume that what we are searching for must be hidden, and can’t be picked out by the naked eye. Poe showed us that the best place may be somewhere in plain sight because human nature assumes this could never be a possibility.

Why do we use subtlety and misdirection in the first place? And do they actually build action and suspense? The answers lie in a simple equation that becomes an element of the partnership we develop with our readers: The longer we keep our readers guessing, the more attention they will pay to what they are reading. Simple as that.

Subtlety and misdirection make the plot-hyper work by:

·         Offering a thread of information.

·         Forcing the reader to deduce the relevance.

·         Not highlighting the information (making it seem a natural outgrowth of the conversation) but not burying it either - remember, no unreasonable confusion.

Suspense and action can both use subtlety and misdirection to give them depth and zip. Uncertainty is the lifeblood of suspense, and when we provide a bare clue about something sinister, we can’t help but heighten the uncertainty. The clue won’t give the answer, we’re only offering a whisp of something, but it does increase the suspense.

With action sequences, things happen. Suppose a fact is misread or ignored (such as out-of-date blueprints that become a basis for a rescue during a construction fire). The subtlety or misdirection comes in avoiding overemphasis of the plot-hyper - the use of the old blueprints, for example - and keeping things simple. Mention the wrong blueprints in passing, or have the character unaware they have been superseded. Play fair with your readers, give them a chance to catch the subtlety or misdirection. But don’t make it too easy!

No comments:

Post a Comment