The Art of Subterfuge

Subterfuge: A fancy word for tricking your readers.

I was reading one of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files last night (I’ve been working my way through the series since I got the first one in a Wicked & Tricksy contest a few months ago), and realized I had absolutely no idea how it was going to end. Oh, I had several possible endings rolling around in my brain, I even knew there’d be a big twist…I just didn’t know what.

And that’s why I love subterfuge!

It’s rare for us authors to find ourselves completely tricked while we’re reading. We know the standard tropes and plot lines used in most novels. We pick up on subtle clues more readily than other readers, because we’ve studied exactly how to plant them ourselves. I usually have at least a basic idea of what twists are coming and how the author plans to write his or her way out of a tough situation.

So I always get a little thrill from NOT knowing, from those wonderful scheming books that DO manage to trick me ‘til the end.

Makes me want to be able to do the same, and I’ve been thinking about characteristics these books have in common:

A large cast of wily characters
To set the stage for good subterfuge, it helps to have lots of characters. It makes each of them less essential (Read: Gives you more freedom to kill or injure some of them – even the beloved ones), and makes their intentions more unknown (Read: They’re free to plot against each other with layers and layers of schemes and sub-schemes that readers can’t necessarily keep up).

The key word here is “wily.” Unpredictable characters make for great twists! Even if readers guess correctly about half of your plot threads, you’ll likely surprise them with many because they’re never exactly sure where everyone stands on the chessboard, or who’s in control of the next move.

An author who KNOWS their story
I don’t mean you simply remember the plot and understand what you wrote. I mean know it. In your bones. Inside and out.

One of the reasons this is so powerful when creating great twisty stories is that you can peel back your characters to discover their hidden motivations. You’ll be able to use a bit of info here, a dash of intrigue there…things that aren’t top of mind for your readers, but that have been percolating in your brain for a while.

The best subterfuge
  1. Asks “What’s the most unexpected thing I could have happen?”
  2. Creates a plot that smoothly connects those dots while pointing in a totally different direction until practically the last page.
Work the creativity!

Discipline around subtlety
This is so hard! Most writers (me included) tend to overplay their hand and reveal too much, too soon. The best know how to dribble out clues, false leads, red herrings and dead ends in a slow, maddening trickle. When in doubt, less is more. And go for casual reveals whenever you can. Slip information into longer dialogue that’s focused on another topic, for example.

I especially admire authors who can plant clues so subtly that only AFTER you know the twist, do you realize the hints were there all along. Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan is a great example of this (Don’t worry – no spoilers for those who haven’t read it!).

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Trick your readers! You’ll leave them wickedly delighted!

Also, a shout out to Eve E, who was kind enough to give me a Liebster blog award. Check out her little corner of the blogosphere here.


  1. ahhhhh thank you so much you are too kind

  2. I gave you an award on my blog!

  3. Eve and M.E. - You're Welcome and Thank You!