Kansas City Shuffle

Going one way when everyone is looking towards the other can help you stand out when writing, publishing, and marketing your work.

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A Kansas City Shuffle is, in its simplest form, where everyone looks one way and you go the other. It has many applications in writing, from crafting a narrative to promoting your work, but it comes from a con.

As a confidence trick, the Kansas City Shuffle is a bait-and-switch move. The mark (or victim) must be aware they are involved in a scam and allowed to believe they see the way it works. That is the bait, which gives the mark the idea that they can beat the con. The trickster then switches the deception, so the mark’s actions, and their attempts to outsmart the con artist, result in their downfall.

The name originally was used for a game in which the trickster asks the mark which US state Kansas City is in, placing money on the outcome. The mark, believing the con artist is attempting to trick them into saying Kansas, instead identifies Kansas City in Missouri. The trickster then reveals the correct answer is Kansas City in Kansas, thereby winning the bet.

The phrase was brought to popular culture in part through the film Lucky Number Slevin, where the simplicity of the scam is explained.

“They look right…and you…go left.”

Lucky Number Slevin by Jason Smilovic

To use a Kansas City Shuffle as a writer, you need to anticipate what others expect. If they are looking right, you should go left.

Creating characters is a perfect opportunity for misdirection. After several yuppie characters obsessed by greed and material wealth in the supposedly cut-throat world of finance, Bret Easton Ellis dreamed up Patrick Bateman, who in American Psycho literally cuts throats. There were hundreds of blonde, attractive, popular girls in high schools that were frequently selfish, shallow, underwritten characters, so Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How you write your characters is up to you but taking an unexpected turn in characterisation will only ever create stronger characters that make a lasting impression upon your readers.

Thinking bigger than an individual character, the entire plot of a story can be shuffled. The way your narrative starts can suggest a particular route—with key story beats that one expects—but it does not need to be one that you stick to. Building a false sense of security at the beginning of a tale by giving the reader an impression of what is to come will make the later narrative changes so much more shocking.

Whilst misleading and then surprising the audience brings a risk of division in reactions, ultimately if you love what you have written then it will appeal to the kind of readers you are aiming to reach, and those who dislike it will fuel debate and discussion, which is hardly a negative.

Once a story is complete and you are considering publishing methods, the idea of going one way when everyone is facing the other can help you gain some visibility in what is now a very crowded market. So many authors wanting to self-publish follow the same release and marketing strategy as each other that they practically become facsimiles. A photocopied release strategy will not gain attention but, instead, blend into the background that it is already part of. The same principle applies to traditional publishing, from independent up to the Big Five. Trying to repeat someone else’s success or follow market trends will never really work as it will always come in second place, and that is the best-case scenario. The likely result of copying others is, basically, the same as everyone else—not much. Instead, make your own way.

Your approach to writing, marketing, self-promotion, plotting, characters, ideas, tropes, genre, or anything to do with writing should stand out from everyone else simply by not being the same as everyone else. You don’t need to try too hard to be different, just don’t be identical to your peers. If they look right, then you go left.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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