The Magic Of Mysteries: The Art (And Joy) Of Misdirection

Ian O’Neill, the one-time advertising copywriter turned award winning freelance journalist, is the author of Endo, a mystery/suspense novel set in Ontario, Canada. Ian has written for newspaper, magazine, radio, television and once wrote a dirty limerick on a dusty car but didn’t sign it. Ian writes:

I worked for Parks and Rec when I was younger and on a rainy day managed to bring in a magician to entertain the kids in our program. It was fascinating to not only watch him perform but also to see the looks of amazement on the kids’ faces. Like watching a magician, reading mysteries is one of those instances where we want to be misdirected. Let’s face it, if the clues are easy and laid out for us with bold, capitalized letters, there’d be little joy in reading the book.

I was certainly old enough when watching that magician to know that he was intentionally misdirecting us. He’d open a hand and hold it high in the air like he was trying to get a teacher’s attention. To ensure we were all looking at his raised hand he’d tell us to keep our eyes on the magical hand, or something to that effect. I didn’t watch his raised hand, I tried to watch his other hand, but there was no way I could because it was either behind his back or under a cloth or behind the volunteer he’d pulled from the audience. Even knowing that I was being mislead, I couldn’t see how.

That is writing a mystery story in a nutshell. A reader knows they’re going to be mislead and as the writer, you can’t let a reader feel like they’re being mislead. Readers will be watching your magic hand, but they know you’re up to something and you can’t let them know what it is until the end of the final act. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

Planning The Grand Illusion

You set the mystery with a criminal act like a murder, kidnapping, theft or some other problem that needs to be solved. This is the grand illusion of the story since whatever logical reason for the crime at its discovery made by your detective will likely change. If he/she nails the circumstances of the crime immediately, it would be like a magician explaining his illusion while performing the trick. Though the detective could be right but change their reasoning throughout the story only to come right back to their first conclusion. There are always options and nothing is static.

At this point I’d suggest reading my article, Games Have Rules, Writing Has Guidelines, on the so-called ‘rules’ of writing a mystery.

MacGuffin Is Not A County In Scotland

A Maltese Falcon, a very large diamond, a chalice, a massive shark, destiny, a ring (that rules all others)…all of these have something in common. They are all MacGuffins; an object, event, or character that serves to set and keep the plot in motion. Remember, though your major plot device may be the murder, kidnapping or other crime, it won’t necessarily be the MacGuffin. Consider the Da Vinci Code. The murder of the curator was the main plot device that started the entire journey, but the Holy Grail was the MacGuffin. The major plot device and MacGuffin are not always the same thing.

Once you have sorted out your MacGuffin and your major plot device you can move on to building your story to a satisfying solution. You’ll lead your reader on an adventure, not directly to the solution, but on a meandering path you must ensure is an enjoyable one for them.

There are those capable of writing on the fly, using few notes or plans. Others go through the outlining process and use the finished product as a sort of road map to help them stay on that meandering path. I need the outline. I never consider my outlines to be carved in stone. They are malleable and easily changed. An outline for a chapter can be a single word, sentence or paragraph. I wonder why anyone would write pages for the outline to a single chapter – save that for when you write the actual chapter.

An outline allows the writer to carefully craft the slights of hand and misdirection of the story. Readers are like detectives, registering information and filing some of it under clues. The crime scene will have its clues, what the protagonist sees and hears yields a fair share of clues, interviews will have an impact, actions of characters will give up clues as well. You need to have this straightforward, legitimate clues mixed in with false ones. All of these can be worked out in an outline, then flushed out in the writing.

The Planting Of Evidence – Slight of Hand

I must admit that building a mystery story was at times both enjoyable and excruciating. There is a lot of misdirecting going on and none more powerful than the creation of suspects. My novel is filled with interesting characters, unfortunately a great deal of them are less than admirable, at least on the surface. The victim has family, friends, co-workers, bosses, current or ex lovers, who are all potential enemies. As entertaining and enjoyable as it was to create these characters, it always turned into a precarious balancing act. If I reveal too much then a part of the illusion is revealed. Keep information too close to the chest and you eliminate a suspect crucial to maintaining the illusion. That was where the outline truly was a blessing in managing the balance.

Red Herrings – The Ultimate Misdirection

Though your readers are not bloodhounds and their quarry is not an escaped convict, nevertheless they must be thrown off the trail in order to maintain the illusion and to continue the enjoyable chase. Every writer will put their own stamp on this device.

Many stories revolve around characters who inevitably throughout their daily lives come in contact with many different people and places. Was the victim involved in criminal activity like selling drugs or stealing? Did he abuse his wife? Did she cheat on her husband? Was she blackmailing someone? So many questions surround a victim, the answers to which reveal facts and inevitably, red herrings. The reader, upon discovering the answers right along side the detective, is understanding of the misdirection and likely feels closer to the detective for having gone through the process with them.

Writers of mysteries and crime novels have to be careful with how often they use  any device. Readers will tire of them quickly if there are so many that they become easy to spot, redundant or just plain boring. In other words, be selective. As with the example above, use secondary characters to chase down leads and return with an answer. Yes, the questions should be followed up but the protagonist need not follow every lead in front of the readers’ eyes. Get creative and have the detective, or someone else, do some of the sleuthing off the page.

What’s Up Your Sleeve

Magicians and their assistants take oaths never to reveal how their magic works (under punishment of hanging upside-down in a straightjacket over a frozen lake). Readers need to know how all that evidence and all those clues worked to find the solution. It all must fit together like fantastical magic tricks. Once revealed, everything that lead the detective and reader to the solution must make perfect sense for if it doesn’t, the result could be disastrous to the relationship. Maybe not hanging upside-down in a straightjacket over a frozen lake, but something far worse – the loss of a reader.

Magicians practice for hours to perfect their magic. Writers should consider the rewrite their practice – time to hone their skills, the story right along with it, to the best they can possibly be. Write, rewrite and rewrite some more. Only then will you see the flaws in the illusion and be able to smooth them out. In the end, the mystery is indeed magic.

One lucky commenter, chosen at random from Ian’s two guest posts will receive a copy of Endo, which will arrive in an evidence bag with a toe tag, five fingerprint card strips and a few ‘crime scene tape‘ bandages.

Also see:
Never Be Afraid to Ask by Ian O’Neill
Keeping it Real in a Fabricated World

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20 Responses to “The Magic Of Mysteries: The Art (And Joy) Of Misdirection”

  1. Joyce Norman Says:

    Ian, I, too, am a former ad copywriter and creative director and I can see evidences of that in your writing. I can’t remember when I’ve learned so much from a blog! Every paragraph had a great gem I needed to read as I write and develop this new novel…a mystery/thriller. I’m rather new to this genre so I’m going slow to “get it right”.

  2. Joyce Norman Says:

    Ian, I also wanted to add that I particularly enjoyed the fact you wrote the key elements of “magic” in short, consise ways…you didn’t go on and on as some do, just throwing words around. You had points to make and you made them and moved on.

    Again, thank you for this post. I really learned a lot and intend to imploy these important tools into my writing today!
    Thank you for the most helpful information!


  3. JoAnn Ainsworth Says:

    “misdirecting…both enjoyable and excruciating”
    This is why I write suspense instead of mysteries. Suspense isn’t excruciating because you’re in the villain’s head a good part of the time. The only mystery in a suspense is “when will the heroine figure it out?”

  4. susanne Says:

    Great info. Although, the proper expression and spelling is “sleight of hand.” The hand isn’t slight or thin. The word “sleight” means deceit, craftiness, or dexterity/skill. Yet, even a “slight” sleight of hand can be effective in a well-crafted mystery 🙂

  5. Ian O'Neill Says:

    Thanks for pointing that out Susanne. Where were you a month ago during edits? Embarrassing but hopefully the meaning I’m trying to convey with this piece is still intact.


  6. Sheila Deeth Says:

    I’m heading over now to read your rules article. Spurred on by rather surprising success with my first mystery story, I’m trying my hand at a real mystery, so your advice is timely.

  7. Ian O'Neill Says:

    Thanks Joyce. For all of your comments. Good luck with the novel and by all means keep in touch. I’d love to know how it progresses.


  8. Julietwaldron Says:

    Chock full of information about the mystery of writing mysteries, something I’ve been encouraged to do, but have never done so. I’m more than a little intimidated by the genre. Read lots of mysteries (Mom’s) when I was a kid a thousand years ago, my fav Josephine Tey. Mysteries are always hot, but they definitely take far more construction and “mechanics” than ordinary story telling, which can grow organically. Thanks for this, the explanation of the fabled MacGuffin, and for the link.

  9. Pat Bertram Says:

    Ian, it’s a pleasure to have you hosting my blog this week. Great articles! (And sorry about not editing them to fix the sleight of hand, though I wondered if perhaps you were playing with the word. I like the idea of a sleight of slight hand.) I’ve written a couple of books that might fit into the mystery genre or might not — they sort of slip into the cracks between a couple of genres — but if I ever decide to write a real mystery, I know where to get information on how to do it.

    Thank you, everyone, who came to comment. I appreciate your input, and as a reward, you all have a chance to win Ian’s book.

  10. Ian O'Neill Says:

    No need to apologize Pat. That error is all mine. I edited that piece several times and missed it. Happens to the best of us. And, thank you for inviting me to be a part of this – I love it. Writers talking writing – doesn’t get much better than that.


  11. Ian O'Neill Says:

    Go for it Juliet. What’s the worst thing that could happen? We write a manuscript that may sit in a drawer. But, we learn so much each time we write a novel. Enjoy.


  12. Marion Laird Says:

    Thanks for the interesting article, Ian! I love mysteries even more than suspense, because I’ve always loved a puzzle. I wonder if mysteries always have a physical McGuffin, or whether at times it can be psychological, emotional, spiritual, etc. I wouldn’t categorize my current work in progress as a mystery, although it certainly contains some mysterious elements. I do have an idea for two mysteries that have been percolating on the back burner for some time, and as soon as I complete the requisite research, I hope to start those.

    Thanks for posting the link on Facebook, Pat! Very timely for me! 🙂

  13. Marion Laird Says:

    And, naturally, after reading the article, I misspelled MacGuffin… 🙂

  14. phoenixfirewolf Says:

    Hi Ian,
    Firewolf here. Just dropping by.

    I’m feeling ineloquent at the moment so I’ll just say that I enjoyed your article and you have some very good points. I may never tackle a straight up mystery, but all good fantasy novels contain them and your advice is certainly applicable to more than just that genre.


  15. Ian O'Neill Says:

    “I wonder if mysteries always have a physical McGuffin, or whether at times it can be psychological, emotional, spiritual, etc.”

    Absolutely Marion. I’m scrambling to find an example but generally speaking a character could be searching for love or to find themselves.


  16. Ian O'Neill Says:

    Hey Julie,

    Thanks for dropping by. And yes, there’s always opportunity to add a bit of mystery to any genre. Happy writing.


  17. owlandsparrow Says:


    Thanks for the great, informative post! Like some of the others (Julie, Pat) my work tends to fall into cracks between genres. I always love it when people present well-crafted, puzzling stories. (Funny, the first example I think of is actually a TV show – LOST – and not a novel.) Thank you for your advice on how to infuse these elements into our own projects, no matter what the genre.


  18. Sharon Schafer Says:

    Mysteries is my favorite genre. Leaving a reader hanging,wanting to read more, is the key. I also like creating an ending that no one suspects-a shocker.
    Creating more than one possible suspect, is a must, otherwise there is no mystery.
    A great blog Pat. Thanks for sharing.


  19. Joelle Charbonneau Says:

    Thanks for the fun discussion of misdirection. When writing, I always feel as if I am busy adding layers to the story for the first half. Then I have to peel all the layers away. Mystery writing is a fun puzzle and you have done a great job of demonstrating the complexities.

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