Signposts and Other Diversions

by Zoë Sharp

Road_surprises One of the hardest parts about writing a novel, for me, is finding the things that aren't there.

OK, I know that statement seems to make very little sense, and maybe it doesn't. As I keep discovering, there are as many different ways to write a book as there are writers out there. Maybe it's just me.

Inevitably, in any story that has a strong element of mystery or suspense, there will be a lot of misdirection going on. Either towards the reader, or towards the main characters themselves. You have your initial set-up – the discovery of the body, the crime, the precipitating event – which raises the first questions for your protagonist. What's going on?

At the start of one of the earlier Charlie Fox books, FIRST DROP, Charlie has been given the unenviable task of guarding the fifteen-year-old son of a wealthy computer programmer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As the newbie on the team, she knows it's the rough end of the deal – a baby-sitting job. Nobody seriously expects that the boy, Trey, will be a target, and he's a major pain in the arse. But, someone does make a determined attempt to snatch Trey from the theme park where Charlie has reluctantly accompanied him and, from then on, nothing is straightforward. She recognises the guy who made a grab for the boy, realises she can't go to the cops, and when she ventures back to the house, she finds the place totally cleared out. Trey's father, Keith, and his entire close-protection team – including Charlie's lover, Sean – have disappeared. It's the start of the Spring Break weekend. She is alone and on the run with the kid, in a strange country.

Road%20Sign%20(6)_small That's the initial set-up for the book. I knew, at that point, what was really going on. I knew what had happened to Keith and Sean, and all the others. And when two men follow Charlie from the house, trying to get hold of Trey, I knew who they were, too.

Charlie, on the other hand, has no idea what's going on at this point. Trey, with the kind of overactive imagination of your average fifteen-year-old, is very little help. She doesn't know why he's so important and he appears not to know that, either. As the book progresses, more facts are revealed to Charlie, and she attempts to assemble them in a way that makes senses. Some of the facts are correct. Others are lies, told to her in an attempt to get her to give herself up and hand over the boy. The lies have as much effect as the truths in forming her opinions and the basis for her actions. Being human, and inexperienced in this line of work, she doesn't always interpret them correctly, and she makes mistakes. She is forced to take drastic action in order to preserve not only her own life, but that of her bratty principal.

My difficulty has always been that I know the truths from the lies. I know which pieces of information are vital, and which only seem important, but in reality are of little value and should be ignored. Sliding in the gold among the gravel is always a very tricky balance.

Because, as a reader, there's nothing worse than happening across giant leaps made by the characters with little or nothing to go on. Pouncing on a minor piece of information and giving it apparently unwarranted significance. As a writer, I think it's a very difficult thing to judge – avoiding that "Oh, come off it!" moment. At the other end of the scale, of course, are the protagonists who never seem to quite manage to put it together until the villain has his final monologue and is forced to spell it out for them. "You fools! Didn't you realise it was ME who …" Well, you get the idea. And bumbling heroes, although they have their place, have never quite appealed to me as a reader. I like my heroes … well, heroic, I suppose.

At the same time, there's little tension in reading about a character who never gets things wrong, who always follows the right clue, draws the right conclusion, wins every fist fight and shoots straight all the time. They have to misinterpret the signs at some point, don't they? Otherwise, where's the fun in that?

Unclear signage - LA The current Charlie work-in-progress is set partly in a cult in Southern California. It starts with Charlie and Sean keeping a watching brief on the man they've been tasked to retrieve from the cult's clutches, Thomas Witney. They have been told that Witney originally joined in an attempt to prove that the cult was responsible for the death of his son, leaving instructions that he was to be extracted inside a year, by force if necessary. But time has gone past and he's still on the inside. Nobody knows why, or what he discovered that made him want to stay. Charlie and Sean's initial observations make them fear for Witney's safety, but nothing is as it seems.

I thought I'd approach my false trails and misdirections in a slightly different way for this book. I had my backbone outline, as usual, but when oddities cropped up in the early stages, I decided to let them run and see where they led me. Thus in one of the early chapters, when Charlie and Sean see a hysterical girl make a break for it from the cult compound, only to be run to ground and brought back weeping, I had no clear idea who she was or what role she had to play in the story. I knew the obvious conclusion couldn't be the right one, but at that stage I wasn't sure what was the truth. Of course, although this made it much easier to have Charlie pondering over possible scenarios, eventually I knew I had to either work out a convincing back story for the girl, or edit her out.

Fortunately, in the writing, I have found her story. And yes, it did turn out to be important.

Images So, my question is, as a reader do you want such deliberate missteps in a story? And do those occasional giant leaps of reasoning and deductive power bother you, or do you accept them as part of the storytelling process?

As writers, do you weave in misconceptions as you go, or add them afterwards? When you have your characters heading off in the wrong direction, following the wrong clues, is it deliberate misdirection on your part, or did you genuinely not know, at the time, if they were going the right way or not?

This week's Word of the Week is actually two words – conflagrate and deflagrate. Conflagrate means to burn up, with its archaic form, conflagrant – burning. Deflagrate, on the other hand, means to burn suddenly, generally with flame and crackling noise. In chemistry, one would use a deflagrating-spoon, which is a cup with a long vertical shank for handling chemicals that exhibit such properties. Only a small distinction, but such things tickle me …

I'm out and about a lot today, but I will get back in time to answer any comments so please bear with me!

26 thoughts on “Signposts and Other Diversions

  1. Catherine

    My personal preference for a hero occupies the rather broad space somewhere to the right of too stupid to live, and left of can do wrong, no pulling the wool of the eyes of this hero…

    I think with misdirection like most other aspects of a book it needs to be true to the character. For me with some characters, a really out there connection will work because to me, within the realm of this character it is plausible that something insignificant has triggered a reveal.

    For me this mirrors my experience of life. I could swear black and blue something is the way it’s supposed to be, and then I get an extra bit of information (or randomly connect something back myself) and while I may not always instantly accept that new information, especially if it shows me as being WRONG, I’ll incorporate it and adjust and reframe accordingly (even saying woops I was totally off base there if need be)…till the next bit of unexpected something falls into my path.

    For some characters a slow build reveal works. I think what irritates me is when a character is stumbling over the obvious and then stubbornly refuses to bring it together…till about a chapter and a half at the end… makes me want to yell boo hiss he’s behind you.(too stupid to live category) Makes me hope Jessica Fletcher befriends them.

    I think pace has a large part to play in misdirection too.I have a feeling Alex has referred to this somewhere…it’s something that I can sense when I’m reading but as a non-author I don’t know how to tighten it, maybe it’s bait and switch to a degree building tension…too many false baits and your gagging?

  2. billie

    As a reader, I often wish I knew the process the author took finding the story, but mostly I am willing to go with them where they take me.

    When I’m writing, that part of the process where I don’t know where things are goind is the most magical, and I never care how long it takes me to find out. (easy for me, with no deadlines) My sense is that readers can feel that magic in the finished book.

  3. Dana King

    Excellent post, one that brings up a pet peeve of mine. I absolutely hate it when a characters suddenly, miraculously, figures something out as if touched by the finger of God while I turned from Page 245 to Page 246. I always end up flipping back to see what I missed that allowed him to have such an epiphany.

    As for the other question, I like heroes who are realistically bright. They make mistakes, but not so many, nor of such a nature that I disbelieve when they finally figure things out in the end.

  4. toni mcgee causey

    Ha. Dana must not be getting the magical books with page 245.5.

    (Same pet peeve here.)

    I want my hero bright, but human. I want them to screw up and make things worse, or realize that things are far worse off than they’d first realized. There’s no suspense otherwise.

    In book 3, I kept having this small tangent for one of the characters, and I didn’t know why. I knew it was going to have to be important or come out of the book, much like your girl, Zoe, but it wasn’t until I was at the end of the book that I had the epiphany of what the hell it meant. And it turned out to be critically important–and the whole thing was already set up, completely, organically. And if anyone asks, I’m going to pretend I did that on purpose.

  5. Stephen D. Rogers

    Something that strikes me as a potential problem is editing. How, on the fifth or fifteenth draft, can the writer still recognize what is or isn’t obvious/subtle? How does the writer keep from tinkering clues into obscurity?

  6. billie

    Toni, that’s the perfect example for what I mean – in my mind, you DID do it on purpose, but it wasn’t a completely conscious decision. It was under the radar, but you trusted it and didn’t hack it out up front.

    To me, that’s the fascinating part of writing AND reading – only when I’m a reader, I don’t know those bits. I do think they make a book/story more layered and give a depth that appeals.

  7. J.D. Rhoades

    The current WIP, unlike my previous books, is more of a whodunit, and for the first time I’m actually enjoying sending my protagonist down some blind alleys. Right now, while it’s in outline form (another major first for me) I’ve planned them out, but when I get to the actual writing, more are sure to suggest themselves.

  8. Cornelia Read

    I like heroes who do the wrong thing for the right reason, as a reader. As a writer… well, plotting is rough for me. I often find things planted haphazardly in early drafts that turn out to be useful in the end, like your screaming girl, Zoe. Maybe that means I’m outlining subconsciously?

  9. Louise Ure

    Hey, it looks like TypePad ate my comment from this morning!

    I have no problem with the misdirection or blind alleys, as I’m discovering the story just like the reader is. That’s the joy of not outlining or knowing where your story is going. That’s also the pain of having to revise so significantly once you get to the end of the first draft.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine

    Sorry to come so late to this, folks. It’s been a mad day!

    Thanks for the comments, Catherine. I love your perspective on the subject.

    And even worse than having the characters who stumble over the obvious is when the jacket copy spells it out for you. One book I remember reading stated on the cover that everybody linked to a particular hospital was dying horribly. The main character doesn’t put the link together until page 170-something.

    And another where the main character tangles with a woman described in the jacket copy as ‘a beautiful Mossad agent’ when our hero spends a goodly chunk of the first half of the book trying to work out who she is and who she’s working for.

    From my own experience, one of my early books was translated into Italian. Part of the plot is that one of the characters is the brother of another, a fact that is only revealed fairly late on. But when I received my copies, I discovered that the Italian publisher had helpfully added a list of main characters in the front of the book, including ‘X – younger brother of Y’ Argh!

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Billie

    “As a reader, I often wish I knew the process the author took finding the story …”

    Trust me, as a writer, I often wish I knew the process as well ;-]

    Things do layer in as you go, though. You start off with something fairly straightforward, and the more you look at it, the more patterns you see forming.

    Either that, or you start to go completely cross-eyed.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    I’m with you on the whole ‘brightness of the hero’ thing. I just like them to be good at what they do, whatever that may be.

    And the giant leap is one of my pet hates, too. That and the contrived reveal, where you feel the writer’s really had to squirm to find the excuse for that epiphany you mention.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    “Ha. Dana must not be getting the magical books with page 245.5.”

    Is that like JK Rowling’s Platform 9-and-3/4?

    That moment in the writing of any book – when those odd little tangents finally start to make sense – is the point in the whole process when I start to believe I can actually make the whole thing work.

    Sadly, it usually doesn’t happen until well past the halfway stage …

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    “How, on the fifth or fifteenth draft, can the writer still recognize what is or isn’t obvious/subtle?”

    You’ve nailed a big problem there. It IS very difficult. Sometimes, you’re so close to a piece of work the flaws are overwhelmingly obvious, and sometimes they’re invisible.

    I find this is where test readers come in really useful. I usually try and get a couple of people to read the initial t/s when it’s first completed, and keep a couple of the pickiest ones for post-editing. That way, they’re reading the whole thing fresh.

    As always, though, the rule of thirds applies – a third of the comments you follow absolutely, a third of them you consider, and a third you disregard. When it comes to deciding which third is which, I go for a mix of general consensus and gut reaction.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Billie – if it’s Toni we’re talking about, it’s probably played for ;-]

    That ‘under the radar’ element of plotting happens because, whether you like it or not, a part of your brain is always working on your book. You just can’t help it. The number of times the answer to a question – one I didn’t even realise I was asking – has popped into my head at the most inopportune moments is amazing. I’m seriously considering hanging a chinograph pencil on a string in the shower so I can make notes on the glass showerscreen.

    And my sincere apologies for putting THAT image into your heads …

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Best of luck with the whodunnit. If your last thriller was anything to go by, I can’t wait to read it.

    I outline, but only the rough backbone, more so I can judge the pace than anything else. If I’m four-fifths of the way through my word allowance, but only one-third of the way through my outline, I know I’m going to have to make some drastic cuts.

    And all my outlines have ‘E&OE’ written at the bottom in very small print. By the time the book’s done, they bear surprisingly little resemblance ;-]

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jude

    “I think it’s important that misdirections not SEEM deliberate, whether in fact they were or not.”

    You’ve nailed it there. But it’s like being told to ‘act natural’ – as soon as somebody tells you that, you become horribly self-conscious and can’t think what to do with your hands.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Cornelia

    I think that even if you don’t do a formal outline, you just never stop thinking about the story, and your brain constantly looks for a way to solve the problems – sorry, that probably should be ‘opportunities’ – you’ve created for yourself.

    And whatever you’re doing – it’s certainly working!

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    I would love to be able to write the way you do (on all kinds of levels!) but I just can’t get to work without an outline of some description, even if it does turn out to be for information only a lot of the time ;-]

  20. Stephen D. Rogers

    That’s a great suggestion about having different readers for later drafts! Being in a writers group, I’ve been showing rewrites to the same people, and something just didn’t seem right about that. Not only were eyes not fresh, they were often focused on the changes rather than the story.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    You put your finger on the problem exactly. Finding really good test readers is really hard because they need to have so many different qualities.

    The most important of which is a brutal honesty ;-]

  22. pari

    Zoe,Sorry for the late post: I’ve been strict about my computer-free Thursdays . . .

    I like reading and writing wrong paths as long as they truly make sense. It’s especially enjoyable with my new protagonist because ALL of her nonhuman sources are unreliable; they experience the world in different ways than humans do, so all of their “clues” are subject to major misinterpretation by my protag.

    I hope the readers go along with the premise and enjoy that that’s part of the picture.

  23. Stephen D. Rogers

    Hey Zoë,

    Thanks for volunteering. The first 1000 pages of my book will be delivered by courier tomorrow. I hope you don’t find my handwriting as difficult to read as some people do.




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