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On The Art Of Misdirection In Literature

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While I was researching my novel The Prestige, I came across a technique that was sometimes used by stage magicians. In the present day television has largely made it unworkable, because it is difficult to distract the unblinking stare of the electronic lens. But like all magical methods it remains part of the silent armory of techniques at the disposal of illusionists.

It is the kind of misdirection which makes use of distraction: The magician allows something to happen which grabs the attention of the audience. It might be something funny or unexpected, something seeming to go wrong or making a sudden loud noise, something ridiculous or shocking. But during those few seconds of distraction, the magician is briefly invisible to the audience and makes good use of it -- the next stage of the trick is made ready.

The Prestige was largely about another kind of misdirection: believing what you know. In this, the magician misdirects the audience by allowing them to make assumptions about what they are seeing. The most common example is the deck of cards, opened by the magician with a flourish, the cardboard sleeve thrown aside, the cellophane covering the cards crackling as it is torn away. When the cards are fanned neatly for the audience to see, most people, without being told, will assume that this is a brand-new deck of cards, unsullied by cunning or advance preparations. Naturally, this is exactly what the magician wants the audience to think, and proceeds to work with the cunningly prepared special pack.

Because I am a novelist and not a magician, my way of using this kind of material is through metaphor, character, story.

In The Prestige I used the plot to misdirect the assumptions most readers would probably make about two of my characters. I made this into a mystery that was intended to be puzzling, yet would allow the reader to work out the answer well before the end. When the book was filmed by Christopher Nolan in 2006, this mystery, central to the story, was made into a secret, one that was concealed until almost the final seconds of the film. Mysteries and secrets are in my view different in important ways, but a film is not a novel.

I have a new novel out this month, The Adjacent (Titan Books, April). It is not in fact about magicians or magic, although a couple of illusionists do make appearances during the story. Guest appearances, if you like, to suggest where my metaphors might be leading.

The Adjacent refers back to that earlier kind of misdirection, where one event occurs next to another. In fact there are many events and stories in the course of the book, some in the past, some in the near future, and they all turn out to be adjacent to each other. In this case, the adjacency is not intended to shock or amuse or surprise (or even, I hope, to distract), but to illuminate or illustrate the others.

What is the link between a woman fighter pilot in WW2 and a magician sent to the trenches of the Western Front in 1916? What is the connection between a senior civil servant who is a doctor, and a missionary who has taken a vow of silence?

These connections are, of course not, immediately obvious, but just as I left the readers of The Prestige to solve the mystery for themselves, so I think the principle of adjacency in a novel will be clear well before the end.

The story itself involves a scientific kind of adjacency: a terrible new weapon has come into existence -- a debased portable version of it has lately fallen into the hands of terrorists. It makes use of quantum physics to annihilate its victims by violently removing then to a parallel, or adjacent, reality. There is no apparent defence against this, and no recovery from it.

The central character at the beginning of the story of The Adjacent has just lost his wife to this unpleasant device. He is a modern-day photojournalist, on assignment to an aid hospital in Eastern Turkey. Removed swiftly to London to be debriefed after the death of his wife, he discovers that larger versions of the adjacency weapon have been deployed against several cities. It seems he is somehow responsible, somehow involved.

This is only the beginning, and misdirection lies ahead.

I sometimes wish I had been born to be an illusionist rather than a writer. One of the features of a good magic show is the sense of fun, the surprises, the amusement. Magic is about entertainment, not just cleverness. I believe that is and should be true of novels too, and although I cannot promise that The Adjacent contains many laughs, I hope readers will find much that will entertain.