I’d like to start this post with a brief excerpt from the beginning of a new project of mine. Bear with me; I promise this is leading somewhere.
Logan Frost looked hard at her partner. She drew a gasping breath beneath the constriction of the bulletproof vest, and a single tear snaked down her smudged cheek. "Get out of here," she whispered. "You have to bring him down. All those people—" A fit of coughs swallowed her words.
Her partner knelt in the rubble beside her. "I won’t leave you, Logan."
In the wings, someone giggled. Logan groaned aloud.
"Damn it, Jack!" She sat up fast and pushed him away. "It’s Lizzie. The name you’re looking for is Lizzie."
Jack Rollins blinked a few times. "Isn’t that what I said?"
The look of comic surprise on his face shattered her anger. She laughed, and the crew around them finally realized the take was shot. Again.
Misdirection. It’s a wonderful tool for a writer when used correctly--but it can be a disaster if it’s mishandled. One common problem beginning writers have is the tendency to draw out misdirection, such as a dream sequence, for too long. This type of mistake loses points with readers and editors.
Hopefully you realized that the scene above takes place on a movie set, and the first few lines of dialogue are spoken by actors in a film. However, if I’d gone on for pages and pages--or even a few more paragraphs--without revealing this fact, you as a reader would have felt cheated. I would have been setting you up for a story that wasn’t actually happening. And if you were an editor, you would have already sent out that form rejection.
This is the trouble with starting a story in a dream, or a lie, or an unrelated prologue, or anything that is not the actual story. The reader builds expectations during those first few paragraphs or pages, and the "trick" of misdirection will backfire when expectations are shattered.
As with any 'rule' in writing, this one can be broken--but it’s important to understand the rule before you set out to break it. There are many ways to use misdirection effectively. Unreliable narrators, well-timed point of view shifts, and even emphasis on certain plot points that draw attention away from the clues are all good techniques, as long as you use them skillfully.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when you’re trying to 'fool' your readers is this: be subtle, especially in your big reveal. Readers are smart. They don’t need a hit in the head with a clue hammer to figure out the surprise. They will appreciate your twist far more if they’re allowed to get it themselves.