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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Twenty Types of Misdirection

There are a variety of ways to obscure facts, to cover over clues, and to intrigue our readers. Here are some of our favorites!

1. Red herring—The name is taken from the practice of dragging a dead fish over a trail to confuse hunting dogs. Here, a false clue is planted, usually by the author.

2. False clue—Different from a red herring, because this clue is planted by a character.

3. Overlooked clue—A classic method relying on our inability to triage information. Often the overlooked clue is “sandwiched” between other pieces of information.

4. Misinterpreted clue—When analyzing the clue, the sleuth comes to an erroneous conclusion. For example, a suspect has cat hair on him, but it came from his own pet not the victim’s.

5. Clues of omission—Something should have been present, something should have happened, or something should have been mentioned, but wasn’t. For example, a dog should have barked at an intruder. If the pooch didn’t, why not?

6. Classic misdirection—The sleuth was paying attention to the wrong situation so that a clue or the importance of the clue was overlooked.

7. Discounted clues—A clue is not given appropriate weight because it’s very commonplace or it’s too obscure to seem meaningful. (Example, a robbery didn’t occur on a cloudy day because a sundial was not functioning. Who would guess a cloudy day would matter?)

8. Dismissed clue—A clue is considered, and then decided to be irrelevant, but actually has import.

9. Cipher clue—A clue that can only be interpreted once a code is cracked or when additional pieces of the clue become available.

10. Point of view (POV) misdirection—Because of one character’s POV, the clue seems meaningless. This can happen because the POV character’s world view is askew, as when prejudiced. Or because the narrator is unreliable.

11. Botched clue—Information is mishandled or misinterpreted. For example, a fingerprint is smudged by the investigator. This could also be the result of an inadequate chain of custody.

12. “Pre-emptive strike” clue—The sleuth is provided information to purposely color interpretation of a clue or a person’s reputation. For example, the sleuth is told the informant is a drug addict when he/she is not, and therefore, the sleuth doesn’t trust the informant’s reliability.

13. Inaccurate witness—This is a case where the witness truly and honestly is mistaken, as when a person’s eyesight or hearing is faulty.

14. “Can’t chase two rabbits a1`nd catch one”—The sleuth, when presented with many leads, follows up on the wrong one, thus losing the opportunity to find/use/safeguard inform.

15. “I’m protecting someone” clue—A clue is falsely provided or a confession is made to protect a secret or another person.

16. Character flaw—A flaw in the sleuth’s character or world view—rather than in a witness’s character or world view —leads him/her to an erroneous conclusion or to overlook key information. For example, if the sleuth can’t believe a woman would kill viciously, he might overlook clues that prove the murderer is female.

17. Specialized knowledge clue—This is a clue that only has meaning to a person with specialized knowledge. For example, only someone who knows about opera might know that Puccini’s Sister Angelica concerns the death of a child.

18. “Warned off” clue—The sleuth is warned to stop an investigation or to overlook certain information. This in itself becomes a clue.

19. “Lost” clue—The clue is temporarily misplaced (such as put in a coat pocket) or forgotten.

20. Personal crisis—Not really a clue, but still a misdirection. This is when a problem in the sleuth’s personal life keeps him/her from properly following up on information or a suspect.


Copyright 2007: Judy Moresi (aka J. Hassler Moresi) , Donna Ross (aka Fedora Amis), and Joanna Campbell Slan. For reprint information, please contact Joanna at

** NOTE: This handout was shared at Malice Domestic 2010


Peg Brantley said...

Joanna, great post! I'll be printing this one out.

And probably tweeting it. *grin*


Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Peg, I returned from Malice intending to conquer this tweeting stuff...

Thanks so much!

Patg said...

Wow, what a great list. I'm sure we are all familiar with these items, but take way to much time trying to figure them out. That can lead to a lost thought or idea. Having a list like this can really save time.

Ilonka Halsband said...

Great list! I'll be keeping it in front of me as I assemble the bits for my current WIP.

Marilynne said...

Thanks for listing it in one place. I'll keep this information on hand.