Faking Out The Reader

The other way of winning conditional belief in your curse, especially after the story's initial section, is to keep the reader watching the right hand while the left hand is doing the funny business.

Here are the major techniques:

1. Introduce the melodramatic element by the back door in a scene ostensibly dealing with something else. ("Charlie, I'm getting a divorce. I'm sick of your father's drinking, the way your brother Greg seems to disappear into the wallpaper, and your mother's flute playing." Disappears into the wallpaper? Hmmm.) Make the curse seem innocuous at first, until the reader is solidly hooked. Then develop it.

2. Have one or two previews, or false alarms, before the real curse shows up. Introduce, just casually, some apparently trivial elements that have a buried, hidden connection to your as-yet unrevealed curse.

Don't have any important plot element or character revelation depend on these false alarms, so the reader's resistance isn't alerted or raised. Don't make them carry any immediate narrative weight. The elements are just there, seemingly incidental, hardly noticed at the time.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, as Scout and Jem Finch are trudging through woods toward the schoolhouse for the pageant, another child jumps out and frightens them. On the way home, Scout thinks she hears following footsteps and believes it's the same child trying to startle them again. She calls out, but gets no reply. She and Jem begin to walk faster, still expecting the malicious child. When the backwoodsman who hates their father suddenly attacks them, the emotional groundwork has been laid.

Again, the reader is surprised—nobody expected the man to attack the Finch children (despite an oblique warning from the sheriff)—and not surprised, since Scout was expecting somebody to jump out at her. She just didn't expect an adult with a big, sharp knife.

An effective false alarm leaves the reader both prepared and unprepared—surprised, but believing. Even though the reader didn't realize the false alarm was groundwork, it's been laid and will sustain the strangeness when it comes.

In general, because readers take plot seriously and follow most attentively what at least seem to be plot developments rather than incidents, misdirecting their attention (now that you know what they'll be paying special attention to) isn't all that hard.

3. Have a character expecting something even more extraordinary, so that when the real curse comes, it'll seem credible by comparison. In WutheringHeights, the initial narrator, Lockwood, is confronted by several extremely crude and unfriendly people on his first visit to Heathcliffs house. He's shortly attacked by some savage dogs which Heathcliff, entering, drives off. By contrast to what he's met so far, Lockwood takes Heath-cliff to be a rare good fellow—a little harsh, but clearly a gentleman. It takes Lockwood a while to realize Heathcliff is the most savage, wild creature in the place. Far from being a gentleman, Heathcliff is an embodiment of amoral and practically demonic energies—hardly even human in the usual sense of the word, much less a social being of any sort. But by that time, the emotional groundwork of surrounding savagery and Lockwood's error has prepared for this extraordinary character.

But be careful, if you use this method, that your actual curse is really worse (or better) than what's expected, even though it doesn't seem so at first. Otherwise, it will be a letdown.

4. Alternatively, have a character expecting a smaller and more credible version of the thing you actually intend to spring on him. In Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," the homely and highly intelligent protagonist thinks the boyish traveling Bible salesman is out to seduce her, and rather patronizingly decides she's willing to let him. She looks forward to his shock when she tells him she really doesn't believe in anything. Seducers are a common and relatively routine sort of predator she can handle easily enough, she thinks.

It's another matter when she realizes, too late, that what he's really after is her artificial leg. He steals it, expressing his contempt for her supposed superiority and a cynicism and lack of belief far deeper than her own. She's left stranded, in humiliated helplessness, in the barn.

It's a real seduction, and a real psychological rape, though not the sort she expected and felt so confident of handling.

It's a weird and melodramatic story—the cliched Traveling Salesman and the Farmer's Daughter, for heaven's sake—and yet it works beautifully. The groundwork—preparing to handle a seducer when the man is really something much darker and more cruel—is well and unobtrusively laid. You don't see it coming until it happens. And then you believe it.

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