"Everyone who works in the domain of fiction is a bit crazy. The problem is to render this craziness interesting."
~ FRANCOIS TRUFFAUTGood day, friends old and new. Today I'm going to offer my views on the art of being deceptive, and its place in compelling, memorable fiction. Of course, all fiction is by definition deception, since it describes people and events that never lived or transpired, but if you think back you'll realize that the stories you remember are the ones that kept you guessing until the final paragraph.
Bear with me, for a moment, I'm going to assemble a convoluted chain of logic to try to illustrate what I'm talking about. I've always had something of a deceptive streak. I always found it entertaining to keep my friends guessing about what I was up to, why I was (or wasn't) doing it, who my other friends were, just everything, and I was probably less well-liked than I might have been otherwise. One of the first nicknames I was given by others was "Machiavelli," which should tell you all you need to know about that.
An anecdote from my youth should be instructive. I got out of the navy on Friday, October 3rd, 1969, four days before my 21st birthday. I moved back into my old room in my family home, and began my search for civilian employment. It wasn't but a couple of weeks later that my great-grandmother, who had been my primary caregiver throughout my childhood, fell and broke her hip. For the four ensuing years, I became her primary caregiver, unpaid, but rent-free. The logistics of the arrangement meant that I couldn't be away for too long at a time; grandma and I shared the duties, but as she was the one with a "real" job, she was the breadwinner, so I wound up taking little odd-jobs for pocket money. One of them was as a groundskeeper at a Little League field a block down the street. After games, one of my duties was to clean up the bleacher area, which always provided me some cans and bottles for recycle, and a few packets of Cremora powdered coffee creamer, and thereby hangs a tale.
As much as I could, I would get out to socialize, and I naturally gravitated back to the friends who had stayed in school when I left to join the navy. In the early '70s, which coincided with our early 20s, many of them were into recreational drugs, and it was a short step from there for me to join in. All I ever did was share in a joint when one was passed around, but as with so many things, I left my true involvement ambiguous, and challenged them to figure it out.
Back to my Cremora story. I always brought these packets home; we were coffee drinkers who were living paycheck to paycheck, and this was free stuff. One day, I was off-duty and preparing to go visit the Gary brothers. These were two unrelated guys named Gary, one an accomplished petty thief, and the other a doper into the hard stuff. As I was prepping, my eye lit on these Cremora packets, and a diabolical plot formed unbidden in my ever-busy mind. I cut two squares of tinfoil, poured a packet of Cremora on each, folded them up with a tight seal, and took them along to Gary's. When I arrived, they were in the garage. The thief was at the workbench grinding the serial number off a bicycle he had liberated from some poor kid, and the doper was up in the "penthouse," a room in the rafters made of plywood sheets, and furnished with those too-cool '70s posters and a blacklight. During the conversation, I feigned an "oh, by the way" moment, and told them that Auntie Jen, an older girl from Ocean Beach notorious for her extreme hippie lifestyle, had gifted me some "stuff," and I gave each of them a packet. The thief sniffed it suspiciously, dipped a fingertip in to taste, and set it aside, but he kept coming back to it because it tasted pretty good. The doper, of course, dived in and went swimming in it. At length, the thief told me he wasn't getting anything out of it. "Oh, well," I said, "it was free." Within a few minutes of this, the doper leaned backward out of the penthouse and announced, "I think it's heroin, man!"
I almost ruptured an intestine trying to keep from falling down laughing, and came clean with the thief about what it was. He joined in my mirth, and we never told the doper that he'd gotten one of the best highs of his life off a teaspoon full of coffee creamer. I mean, why ruin a guy's fun, right?
While you're pondering the question of why I didn't have all that many friends, I'll make my point: I allowed Gary the Doper to deceive himself about what was in the packet, and he proceeded to ride his own assumption to a natural yet seemingly impossible conclusion.
As a writer of fiction, what would this skill be worth? My estimate would be a lot, and we all have it to some extent. Ever concoct an elaborate story to call in sick and get a day off? Explain to a cop why it was necessary for you to speed through that one particular stretch? Get a teacher to excuse the homework you didn't do because your dog ate it? You're exercising that skill, and it can help you weave a compelling yarn on the page. Here's an axiom for you: Your reader should never be allowed to get comfortable.
What if a group of friends are sitting around an urban apartment playing Texas Hold-'em, and for one brief moment, they smell smoke, woody, but not exactly wood? At first they don't notice, but once they become aware, they're likely to check for a fire, especially in the kitchen. But they don't find one, the smell fades, and they return to their game. It happens, but what if that smoke was from a more sinister source, a harbinger of... something, something you the author are not going to give up right away, nor the next time it makes an appearance thirty pages along.
What if someone brings in the mail, is distracted by a ringing phone, tosses it on the couch to go answer the phone, and a certain vital letter slides down behind the cushion with no one being aware of it except the reader?
Or maybe something doesn't happen that would normally be expected. [spoiler] Think of Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, in which the solution to the mystery hinges on Sherlock Holmes working out that the watchdog didn't bark on the night in question, and solving the puzzle of what that implied. [/spoiler]
These little tricks add an element of uncertainty and tension, and can be used with ease if you just keep yourself aware of their potential while you're working on your story and sprinkle them in places where the reader is likely to pick up on them, and assign them a significance that they may not actually have, or of course, overlook the significance that a seemingly mundane clue lacks. The key here is subtlety and misdirection. You don't need to beat the reader over the head with this stuff. They're smart enough to have bought your book, after all, so trust them to find the bread crumbs; as anyone who has been taken to task over a typo can attest, they miss nothing!
What you're trying to do here is keep your reader suspended in a fog of uncertainty about where you're going with your narrative. There is very little as boring as a predictable story; well, the romance genre is the obvious exception, but that audience is generally looking for a happy world where things go right (a different sort of escapism), and would have little patience with a supernatural demon or a serial killer showing up in Paris as the ingenue is getting busy with Mr. Right. But if you aren't writing romance, keep it unpredictable. Nothing is more boring to a reader than a book so predictable that she works out the secrets you've so cleverly tried to hide ten pages before the reveal. The only way I know to prevent this is to put your writing aside for as long as it takes (about two weeks for me) for it to fade in your memory, then go back and read it with fresh eyes, and try to work out whether you've hidden the outcome well enough to remain hidden from the racing mind of your reader. Think of the movie The Sixth Sense. Did anyone see that ending coming? Really? No you didn't!
This kind of writing is a delicate balancing act that is a thing of beauty when it's done right, as in The Sixth Sense. It's a learned skill, developed, like tightrope-walking, by practice, practice, and more practice. I flatter myself that my approach to life, as exemplified by the anecdote above, has given me a head start in this area, but I'm certainly not prepared to say I've mastered it. But I keep practicing, and so should you, because a comfortable reader is a bored reader, and a bored reader will soon be reading someone else's book! Not the desired effect, so think hard about subtlety and misdirection. Should you go on to great success as a writer, you'll look back and say they were the most valuable tools in your kit.
* * *
And on the personal writing front, as I announced last week, I'm taking the week off from the Beyond the Rails III post-production grind, ostensibly for a rest, but that ever-ticking core of my writer's mind has its own agenda. Wednesday I decided to make a change to Beyond the Rails, the first book, to update my web page to this one. While I was there, I realized that the punctuation is non-standard, and I have seen a couple of typos in my own copy, so I embarked on that correction process. I figure it will be updated around the middle of next week. Despite what some of my writing colleagues have taken me to task over, I still can't turn creativity on and off like an appliance; please God that I never can!
That's it for this week, kiddies. Until we meet again, play nice, watch out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!