My daughter and I were at the Halloween store last weekend, trying to find her a costume. For some reason, it’s never easy finding one for her—she has this perfect mental image of what she’s looking for…and the store rarely has it.
We decided to walk around the store a little bit. It was one of those huge Halloween warehouse places that’s a temporary store—it opens up wherever there’s a vacant big-box store or a vacant strip mall spot, then closes down after Halloween is over.
This store had some really scary stuff in it. Not only did it have creepy masks and costumes, but it also had a large amount of Halloween yard decorations. So there were leering, six-feet tall clowns, a large zombie baby display, a huge werewolf, and—at the back of the store—three life-sized recreations of horror movie favorites Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees.
They had “try me” buttons. You’d hit the button and then they’d say something really creepy and lift a knife or a claw-like hand threateningly.
At this point I was ready to go back to the Halloween costumes and do some shopping. I didn’t need any nightmares from a certain 9 year old girl. But she was determined to press the buttons. So I thought…well, okay. Maybe they’d look really fake and we’d laugh and that would be the end of it.
She tentatively reached out, then pulled her hand back. These things really did look terrifying. “Do you want me to press the button?” I asked. She shook her head. “No. I want to do it.”
She leaned forward again and I held my breath as we both focused on the Freddy Krueger she was reaching out for.
Suddenly a store clerk came up from behind us, grabbed my daughter’s shoulders and yelled, “Boo!!!”
My daughter jumped a mile, but she quickly recovered and laughed at the joke. Me? I was still trying to get my heart out of my throat—I wasn’t able to manage a laugh. We’d been so intent on looking at the creature that we weren’t paying any attention to anything else.
So by having our attention diverted with that much focus, we were able to receive a huge surprise.
The use for this is obvious for thriller writers—pull reader attention to the closet door, then have something come through the window.
Other genres could use this kind of technique, too. Make sure your reader is totally absorbed in one character, or one problem and then twist the plot so that the problem is actually something really different and surprising to both the character and the reader.
Mystery writers use this distraction technique to slip clues in. They reveal a clue then distract the reader (and sleuth) by creating an absorbing diversion somewhere else—maybe by laying down a fake clue (red herring) that looks like more of an important clue than the actual clue itself is.
Or, just when everything seems completely ordinary and banal in the character’s world, drop a bomb into it (not literally. Well…but you could…) Great for conflict and to stress our characters out—which is good for our books.
Have a character unveil a surprise—about themselves. We’ve focused the reader attention on the character’s good qualities or made the reader think about the character in a particular way—then shatter their illusions.
How do you distract your readers then surprise them?