Context and Misdirection

Misleading the reader is always fun, right? That is, as long as you don’t cheat. (And let’s not get into the argument that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is cheating, not today anyway.) One way to do this is to present the reader with only some of the information – say, the part that makes the protagonist look guilty as sin – while reserving the exculpatory context for later. And no, unlike everybody else in the known universe, I’m not talking about FISA applications. The rest of this post will be examining an example of misleading-by-omission found in Orkney folklore and Child 113.

I expect a number of you know the song “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry.” It’s a song that’s always irritated me; it tells of a selkie who shows up before a mother and her child, claims to be the child’s father, tosses a purse of gold in her lap and takes the kid. I always wanted the mother to say, “Not with my baby, you don’t, and take your money back!” In fact, I wrote a short story in which just that happened.

The popular song is straight out of Child (113, if you want to look it up) so you can’t blame modern singers for mutilating the original. But oh, what a number Child did on it! I might never have known the context if I hadn’t come across it while researching Orkney folklore for The Finwife’s Tail (forthcoming, 2018). In George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry I came across a long ballad which contains the verses of “The Great Silkie” scattered through it… and telling a significantly different story. Here’s a summary.


In “The Tale of the Lady Odivere” there is someone to whom the Lady (she never does get a name) swore unending love before she married this Odivere. It doesn’t seem to have been much of a marriage; Odivere takes off on Crusade almost immediately, and lingers on his way home to flirt with the lovely ladies of Byzantium. For years. Meanwhile, the Lady spends her days looking over the castle wall and hoping to see her husband.

One night her loneliness is assuaged by a surprise visit from a strange knight bearing a gold ring as a token. It’s the ring she gave him when she vowed her love to him. She excuses her marriage as something she had no choice in, because Odivere swore on Odin and presumably got Odin’s help.

The Lady spends one night with her old lover; he leaves first thing in the morning.

Fast-forward some nine months or more, and we find the Lady rocking a baby and singing

“It’s little I ken my bairn’s father,
“Far less the land that he dwells in.”

But her principal concern is that her reputation will be shot, having a baby when her husband has been gone for years. Then the strange knight (possibly only a vision) shows up and identifies himself as the father.

The Lady declares that she knows him to be the baby’s father and that she loves him, but points out that she does already have a perfectly good husband. The strange knight says that in six months he’ll pay her for nursing the child. She asks who he is and he tells her that he’s a VIP among selkies.

I am a man upon the land,
I am a selkie in the sea,
My home it is in Sule Skerry,”

He’s worried about being there at dawn, but says that he’ll be back in six months “for then will be a seventh stream, and then again a man I’ll be.” (This passage is why I think he may be only a vision in this part; there are evidently Rules about when he can take the form of a man.) In six months he does come back for the kid. She puts a gold chain around the baby’s neck so that she’ll recognize him as a seal.

Odivere finally returns. First thing he does is go hunting. He kills her son in seal form and demands to know why the gold chain he gave his wife was around the seal’s neck. Hysterical with grief, she confesses all. He has her locked up and she is condemned to be burnt, but the selkie returns and rescues her.


So not only is it a longer and more complicated story than the popular song, but what I always interpreted as a custody fight can be read another way: the selkie is removing the evidence so that the Lady’s husband doesn’t find out she was unfaithful. (All right, all right, there’d be a lot of other evidence around, and if this were the 18th century she’d be condemned for infanticide (see The Heart of Midlothian.) This is ballad-land, okay? We’re not going to worry about witnesses, or a gold chain which magically expands so the kid doesn’t choke to death when he turns into a seal, or the Odin-worshipper going on Crusade.)

This strikes me as a great technique for fiction (and no, I’m still not talking about FISA applications). Has anybody here misled a reader this way? Giving partial information that looks damming to the protagonist but is quite different in context? Or having a scene that makes the Evil Overlord look like a nice guy until the reader finds out the context of the scene? Or does this make you think of a writer who did this to you?  I’m sure there are plentiful examples of this in fiction; please tell me in the comments.

44 thoughts on “Context and Misdirection

  1. My (current) favorite storytelling style is the Twist Ending, the short-story that ends with a climactic Reveal. This always requires a degree of misdirection, downplaying the foreshadowing even as it comes past, and a very strong smell of Red Herrings. Maybe the hero we’re told will shoot the werewolf turns out to BE the werewolf. Or the Captain sent to an unexplored planet to retrieve a beacon was the same Ensign who left it there years before. Or the classic trope in which the guide to find the missing expedition was the same one who betrayed them in the jungle. But leaving out just enough of the details will keep the reader in the dark– or the dim, anyway– until the last page hits the spotlight on what’s been here all along.

    Oh, wait. That’s Every Scooby-Doo Episode Ever, isnt’ it. Dern these meddlesome kids!

    1. The thing about that ending is that it’s really hard to pull off. I love it when it works, but it seems to fail more often than it comes through. You have to leave the reader thinking, “Wow, I never would have seen that coming, but now that I think about it, it makes more sense than what I thought was going on.” It’s two easy to fail on one or both of those:

      (1) The reader leaves thinking, “That was supposed to be a ‘twist’? I saw it coming from the beginning.”

      (2) The reader leaves thinking, “I never saw that coming, because it came out of no where and makes no sense given the rest of the story.”

      (3) The truly gifted fail where the reader leaves thinking, “I actually guessed that ‘twist’ coming from the beginning, but then I decided that there was no way that could be true because there was a bunch of stuff in the rest of the story that meant that that particular twist would make NO FREAKIN’ SENSE!!!!” Arguably, this type of ending is as difficult to pull off as the good twist ending, and any book that manages it deserves to be flung across the room with as great a force as you can manage.

      1. One man’s twist is another man’s total surprise. I really torqued my sister off when, a few minutes in to that “I see Dead People” movie, I said, “Hey, I bet that guy’s a ghost” and my sister wouldn’t believe me that I was watching it for the first time with her.

        It’s a fen thing.

        1. The more you read the more obvious the tropes are. Still remember the first mystery where I went, “There’s the Least Suspicious Person,” and yup, guilty party.

          Children still find tropes surprising when adults take them for granted. I’ve heard of a pre-schooler terrified of Disney’s Snow White in picture book form — crying and demanding of her father that he tell her it had a happy ending. (And she had a nightmare that night.)

  2. And then there’s foreshadowing with klieg lights. Book 14 ends with our intrepid hero meeting up with a guy named Copernicus who claims the hero’s friends are in trouble and he’s their boss. Given how much trouble they’ve been in, this is reasonable.

    The title of book 15: The Copernicus Deception.

    I still haven’t decided if I’m going to read it, but it definitely threw me out of the series. I’m reading something else, now.

    1. Eh, sometimes it works. “The Materialization of Duncan MacTarvish.”

      Opens with a bunch of girls at a sewing bee pitying the old maid. When one asks if she ever had a beau, she lies and said she did. Makes it all up.

      You can deduce the plot from the title. But the fun lies in seeing how it all plays out. (And, of course, a contrived coincidence like that needed to put front and center.)

  3. Michael Crichton sort of demonstrated this in Timeline, though I kind of took it more as a version of The Victor Writes the Histories where the histories told one thing and the time travelers found something else.

  4. You get a lot of that in mysteries. This guy looks guilty until new facts are discovered . . . and then it must be that woman . . . oh wait, that alibi just collapsed . . . oh, he was lying to protect . . .

    1. In modern TV mysteries you can usually spot the villain at the 1/2 point by: Assigning every character with a speaking role (no matter how brief) race-and-intersectional-gender-theory victim points. Character with the lowest score is Whot Dunnit.

      Game: Try to predict how they’ll make it so He/She/It did it.

      Does not work for Father Brown.

      1. Scary thing is that it even worked in the episode of one of those interchangable shows where the only white male was the abused… 9 year old, I think, son of the murder victim, who was IIRC a whore (as in that’s how she made money) who viciously abused both boys.

        He done it, although they spent the whole episode looking for the phantom boyfriend who must have been the one abusing the non-verbal younger brother and the refused-to-talk older one.

  5. I think the “cheating” part comes in when the main character knows something, but the reader isn’t told. So long as the MC doesn’t know, the reader’s generally OK with it.

  6. Omission is one thing– but if an author did a number like that to me, as a reader, I’d never read another danged book again.

    Sherlock could get away with that because the gap between the initial setup and the time you’re given the rest of the information (which you had no way of getting otherwise) is quite short, and used to show how incredibly smart the guy is– and pull the reader up, because now you know how it was done and could, in-story, maybe do it yourself.

    But if the whole thing is built around little chunks, like the “toss bag of gold in your lap” vs “lover comes to take the kid” versions…nah, that just drags the reader around by the nose.

    I can see it being used as a really good Reveal– ie, yeah, the gal’s son is Gone, but that is because of ReallyGoodReason that totally changes the whole situation.

  7. In the couple of times I want to think I succeeded, the Reveal Twist had to BE the premise of the story, toward which every scene built, as I wrote it. That’s probably pretty much necessary for the effect to work.

    1. Oh, agreed. The problem is that, at least in my own case, I’m the LEAST capable person of figuring out whether my twist is actually a twist, or if all the steps I’m taking to hide it just point it out in letters twelve-feet high.

        1. Well, that depends. I figured out one thing that was going to happen at the end of the Mallorean (by David Eddings; the sequel series to the Belgariad) in the middle of the third book of five. It really wasn’t telegraphed so as to be obvious, but he laid enough groundwork that I had to put the book down and laugh for twenty minutes.

          In my book, I had a girl dressed as a guy. I really didn’t want the readers to think it was a twist, so I made it obvious as soon as I could, while still keeping up the facade when not from her POV. That involved a lot of consistency checking; when somebody knew, they thought of “her”, but when they didn’t, it was all “him.” Definitely worth doing that way, though, because it would have been really foolish to pretend it was a twist of any sort. (Very trope-ish, almost at a Shakespearean level.)

              1. Sounds like a very interesting story but right now I can only avoid the price of an e-version. 😀

          1. …so I made it obvious as soon as I could, while still keeping up the facade when not from her POV…when somebody knew, they thought of “her”, but when they didn’t, it was all “him.”

            Yes, I’ve done that, too (in my last novel). I’ll admit I found it rather fun (as the author).

  8. My really old favorite is The Man in the Brown Suit, an Agatha Christie without a special detective. Also The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn, which has twists right up to the last second.

  9. Alistair Maclean’s Fear is the Key. At first, you think the narrator is a criminal. But as it continues, you begin to see that it’s not as simple as that.

  10. My favorite technique is not so much deception by omission, but deception by misdirection. I use it all the time :-). The reader can see both hands. It’s just the right hand is doing a lot of dextrous tricks, loudly, so they miss the quiet, but open, actions of left. It’s quite sinister, really. I often use speech tags to pull that one off, because people are so unaware of having read speech tags. And then there’s my other favorite – the double feint, where the villain or hero is completely honest and transparent, but the reader is willfully misled (using their own worse nature at times, truth be told) by giving them reason to assume they’re being deceived. One of the techniques I use is to convey the information through the eyes of one of the POV characters, who doubts its veracity (while you provide clues about veracity elsewhere). That’s fun too. I did that in JOY COMETH WITH THE MOURNING.

    1. Misdirection is a wonderful thing. I’ve seen it done by magicians even when I’m watching for it.

      (And now I’m wondering how badly that would go over with an alien species with completely different evolutionary cues. Story fodder for someone!)

  11. One technique to make a good twist is to foreshadow something, have it happen, and then have it handy later.

    For instance, have a character reveal he attended a school, and then use a skill taught only there — and later have him be able to get the character in to see a professor from there. (Or the other way ’round.) Once you get the readers to dismiss foreshadowing as fulfilled, you can do a lot.

  12. well, at this point i am forced to wonder how much fiction and misdirection there is in *ALL* FISA applications

  13. I enjoy the misdirection.
    Most times I see it coming, but don’t mind. And when I’m surprised by it, I’m inclined to tip my cap.

    But I hate/loathe cheating.
    Especially the retcon, where you’re shown what “really” happened, all of the “important” action taking place just outside of the previous carefully framed shots. The modern Ocean’s Eleven and Batman: Arkham City being two of the worst offenders. (The Batman game in particular was rage inducing, because it took away agency. And because you *knew* tag you hadn’t turned your back to that door, or any of several other things that a basic level of genre familiarity would ensure you wouldn’t do.)

    Of course, some of the attempts are amazingly poor.
    The Rook novel, for example. The obvious villain is obvious (even if you set aside that he’s a straight white male with a background in finance, and the author is signaling her SJW tendencies to a nausea inducing extent).
    But the author is “clever” and never has her Mary Sue actively consider the obvious suspect.
    Which makes her protagonist look like an idiot.

    1. Retcons only work if it’s a Rashomon scenario. The TV show Leverage had an episode actually called something like “The Rashomon Gambit” and the trick they did with that was to tell a story in which the team had all taken part, but this was before they knew each other, so each time the new iteration was told, an actor was swapped out with the team member who was actually pretending to be that person, so that you could see the new information with a different perspective.

      1. That’s.. badly written. I meant to say that each iteration is told from the POV of a team member, and it starts off with that being the only person that you recognize. But as the next person tells the story, they’re in the story, replacing someone else (an ambassador, a waiter, a security consultant, a rich guest), so by the last go-through, you have the whole team in the scenes.

  14. If I can see what’s happening in the first book, but the main characters can’t see (or admit to themselves) what is happening until the fourth book, then I don’t like those characters, because they are stupid. And it doesn’t matter how many other smarts they have.

    It’s okay in short stories. While I am not braining due to flu, I’ve been reading old Damon Runyon stories, and a lot of them essentially resolve, and then we a re give a closing line, along the order of “And I sure was glad that Pig Ear McGinty never did discover it was his ever-loving wife who put the contract on him.” Those are okay, because you already HAVE a resolution to the story, the twist just makes it nicer,and because it’s a short story. You haven’t had to spend 300 pages being led one way, only to get clipped from the other direction.

    The twist occurs in ‘Witness for the Prosecution,” book and movie; the same twist in the movie with Edward Norton as the killer & Richard Gere as the lawyer; M Night Shyamalan tries it a lot, I think, but really only gets away with it in “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.”

    Do Hitchcock movies count? If so, does “Psycho” fit the pattern? What about the movie where Walter Matthau is really the bad guy who just drops in to the US Embassy and uses empty rooms?

  15. Blackthorn Key #2: Mark of the Plague. Further the deponent sayeth not, because it’s awesome, and while I spotted the misdirect for part of the story I missed the most critical element. AND the author played fair, so I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet.

    The other superb example (recent) is Greenglass House. Again, it’s a locked-house mystery: supsects are trapped by a storm: One is a baddie, but who? Insanely clever and fun misdirect.

    The classic example is Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree.

  16. I never saw the Child version as a custody fight. And I’m not at all sure he mutilated the original.

    Consider “Scarborough Fair” vs “The Elven Knight.” Somebody didn’t want to spend half an hour singing the d*** thing, but thought the central image was cool. So they took what had been a spooky story with a comic ending and turned it into a wry post-lovers tiff as seen by the poor schmo playing errand boy. I think something similar happened here.


    Instead of an adulterous noble wife, we now have something very much unspecified. Which I always took to mean she was a commoner, and unmarried. A lot of cultures frown on premarital sex, but not the way they react to adultery.* So she was more or less all right, except for the hit to her reputation and marriage prospects.

    Which makes the silkie’ return–not a custody fight–but an acknowledgement of his bastard. Or at least an acceptance of responsibility.

    And his idea of a “nurse’s fee” is a *purse of gold.* If she’s not nobility, that’s a LOT of money. Enough, even after covering child-rearing expenses, to give her a dowry that will cover a multitude of youthful transgressions. He’s just salvaged her legitimate marriage prospects, by way of apology.

    Not a particularly edifying story by our standards, but it wasn’t written for an audience with our standards.


    *Joseph was a just man, but *didn’t want to subject his *unmarried but pregnant* betrothed to public disgrace*??!! So he was going to QUIETLY BREAK THE BETROTHAL????!!!! That only works if getting pregnant outside of wedlock is a lot less bad than adultery.

    1. Joseph was a just man, but *didn’t want to subject his *unmarried but pregnant* betrothed to public disgrace*??!! So he was going to QUIETLY BREAK THE BETROTHAL????!!!! That only works if getting pregnant outside of wedlock is a lot less bad than adultery.

      Joseph was working with a different legal code– if he’d publicly said “I am breaking the betrothal because the kid isn’t mine,” he would have been publicly witnessing that she was an adulterer, which would’ve meant she was supposed to be stoned.

      Their “betrothal” was married, but not yet living in the same house; dissolving it would’ve been divorce, and by not publicly declaring that the kid wasn’t his, he’d be allowing his good name to be smeared– all to protect Mary, when he thought she’d done wrong.

      If you want the exact language involved for what is translated as “betrothed” or “engaged,” this article explains it, though it’s answering a different discussion, and depending on your religious views it may be an uncomfortable one; ctrl-f to emnesteumene and apolusai for the relevant bits on the “engaged” thing.

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