Misdirection – when is it too much?

First, let me go on the record and say that I enjoyed Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis.  I read them about a month ago and, despite how long they are, found them to be an engaging and quick read.  Given the breadth and subject matter, it did require more focus from me than some other books.  It involved time travel so there were two main time settings and within the “past setting” there were multiple story lines and the story jumped around over a five-year period within that setting.  Definitely not a linear story by any means.  Not to mention many points of view to keep track of and a couple of characters who had multiple names.

An incredibly ambitious novel, in my opinion, and one she pulled off well.  I don’t think many authors could have written that complex a novel and kept all the parts working together. So, I liked them and considered them a good read.

Having said that, I’m now going to use the novels to explore when an author’s use of misdirection becomes too much.  Or perhaps it’s when the author’s attempt to show a character exploring incorrect options becomes too much.

I don’t have the books with me anymore (got them from the library), so I’m not going to be able to quote anything here and I may get this a little wrong, but here goes.  Oh, and SPOILER ALERT.

In the books, a handful of time historians have travelled back to World War II to study various aspects of the war.  They’re supposed to be able to leave, but soon find out that they can’t.  Each has travelled back on an individual basis, so initially each one only knows that he/she is trapped in WW II.  Eventually they find one another and realize that it’s a bigger problem than that and that they’re all trapped there.

The characters obviously want to understand what has happened and why they’re trapped.  Fair enough.  But the issue I had was that after they had found one another, so knew that it wasn’t an individual problem, they continued to spend a lot of time thinking about how their individual actions could have changed the time continuum.

When they were alone and hadn’t yet found the others, this made perfect sense to me.  I go back in time, I interfere in events that I think I shouldn’t, and now I can’t get back to the future.  I’d obviously consider that I’ve altered the timeline and shunted myself off onto a separate timeline that no longer has time travel.

But, once they know that it’s them AND someone else and they’re both trapped, then I don’t understand still focusing on individual actions.  At that point, I’d focus on something that happened in the future that prevented them from bringing me back.  Because, to me, that other time traveler would have never made it into my altered timeline if my actions had changed things so that time travel didn’t exist.

So, because that’s the way I thought about the issue, I spent a good hundred or two hundred pages giving the book the side eye.  I’d never read Connie Willis before, so I didn’t know whether she was going to be an author who violates how I think time travel works or whether she was just trying to misdirect the reader from the true cause by having her character think about an incorrect cause.

Fortunately, in the end she resolved the issue in a way that made sense according to my own personal views on time travel.  (It’s hard for me to write that sentence with a straight face.  Honestly, I was worried that an author would get a fictitious science “wrong”?  Say what?  Welcome to SFF.)

These aren’t the only books where I’ve had an issue like this.  Obviously, as an author you don’t want your characters to jump immediately to the correct solution and then go about fixing things.  Where’s the fun in that?  But, on the other hand, you don’t want to have a character look stupid because they can’t see the obvious clues in front of them or they take one little item to an extreme and ignore everything else that points in the other direction.

Moments like that make me want to shout at the book.  I’ve never thrown a book across the room (I would never dare harm one in such a horrid way), but I have definitely glared at a book and mentally cursed a character or author when the efforts to misdirect me have become too obvious or unbelievable.

Bottom line: In trying to complicate the plot or misdirect the reader, be careful that you don’t alienate them in the process.


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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