Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Brain Is Quicker than the Eye (and This Is Not a Red Herring)

There’s an interesting little mind-bender that’s been going around the Internet lately.  If you haven’t tried it, go  to this link:   

(You may have to do a cut-and-paste.  That's okay.  I'll wait till you get back.)

Was that not weird?  After you’ve done it a time or two, then you can get every word/color correct, but the first time around?  What becomes obvious upon repetition and familiarity was rather tricky, wasn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but my brain registered the word and went ahead and clicked on the wrong answer before the eye could say, “Hey, wait a minute there!”   

This is very much the effect that we fair-play mystery writers try to achieve in our writing.  We’ll show you all the clues, but we hope you can be distracted by your brain’s own logic and not what you’re actually seeing on the page.  I might “show” you a suspect’s double-chin and his pudgy fingers  as he wipes away beads of perspiration from his brow and I'll underline his weight by describing how his damp shirt clings to his little round belly.  I will even show him trying to suck it in.  If I’m successful, I’ll have you so focussed on his belly and pudgy fingers that you won’t wonder why he’s so damp with sweat, which is, of course, the important clue in that scene.  

Or I’ll have my protagonist interview a motor-mouth who goes on and on about the irritating aspects of her job and who her co-workers are and how they never pull their share of the load and if the boss only knew how much extra she did—not that she would ever complain, mind you, even though that clerk two desks over snaps his gum so loud that she wants to scream and. . . but you get the idea.  By the time she shuts up and and my sleuth starts to question the next witness, you’re just glad to be done with her.  And yet, somewhere in all her chatter was buried a vital clue.

Agatha Christie was the absolute master at misdirection.  No matter how much we think we’re being logical when we read her, she always manages to send us swimming after red herrings while ignoring that huge whale in the corner of the tank.

With a little luck, I’ll slip my own small sardine past you, too!

Blog Archive