Although the term red herring is usually associated with murder mysteries, most stories contain an element of misdirection to keep the reader guessing at the outcome. When it’s obvious where it’s headed, even if the route contains interesting obstacles and encounters, you miss out on that feeling of discovery when you realise the answer isn’t A, as you thought, but B (which seemed impossible but now you can see of course it was B, it was always B, sneaky, sneaky B).
In order to create the delight a reader feels when their view of the world (even when it’s a made up world) is spun around 180 degrees and they see things how they truly are you have to first convince them of the way things truly aren’t.
So you lie to them.
Which as a writer is easy. Everything in your story is a fabrication so the reader can’t really tell fiction from fiction. Which in turn means a lot of the time red herrings are simply tossed in, presented as the only possible answer, and then, when it’s convenient, discarded with little explanation and never mentioned again.
A detour that has no purpose other than to delay your journey doesn’t add anything and is just padding.
A red herring’s job is to more than mislead, it should have a pay off that elevates the narrative emotionally. And that emotion should be more than surprise.
Yes, surprise is a key element of employing red herrings, but on its own it provides a very short term effect that can be a huge missed opportunity.
If Lisa receives a Valentine from a mystery admirer she thinks is a guy at work but it turns out to be from the President of the United States, that would be surprising but very random, even if there was a plausible explanation.
For example, let’s say there’s a scene early on where Lisa goes on a tour of the White House and the tour group run into PotUS and his Secret Service detail. It’s a comic moment where our main character embarrasses herself in an interesting setting and it’s presented as no more than that. Then, later on when she discovers who sent her the Valentine, we remember the short interaction she had with the President and it makes sense, but because the President hasn’t appeared in the story since then he’s little more than a narrative device.
After the initial WTF moment, the surprise fizzles away and you’re left with a feeling that all that time you invested in trying to work out what was true and what wasn’t was a waste of time. Even though red herrings are about tricking the reader, if their focus at the moment of revelation is on being conned rather than the revelation itself and its impact on the story, it defeats the purpose of using a red herring to make a better story.
So here are a few tips for getting the most out of your red herrings and making the most of them.
First, it helps a lot if we have some kind of emotional connection with the red herring. Often, because the writer knows the red herring is a dead end, they don’t bother investing too much time on it. This is often a subconscious reaction. Why waste time giving it depth when it will ultimately be revealed as not the answer?
You can certainly mislead the reader just by having them look over here when they should have been looking over there, but you miss out on any kind of more profound emotional reaction.
If Lisa thinks her secret admirer is a guy she chats too on Facebook, who we never meet in person, and later we find out it isn’t him, so what?
Similarly it helps to have a connection to the revealed answer. If the admirer turned out to be the barista at her local Starbucks who we only saw in passing, that wouldn’t be very satisfying to learn either. Even if both FB guy and Starbucks turned up at the end of the story, we don’t know them, we have no emotional attachment to them. Whether the answer is A instead of B or B instead of A doesn’t make a whole heap of difference.
In some cases the red herring isn’t a person but an object or a piece of information, but the same thing applies: make the reader care by giving them a connection to this thing. You can do that by considering how the object/information is presented. Who notices it, who mentions it, who is responsible for it? How do they react to it? What does it mean to them?
If you simply state it objectively (a gun in a drawer, a blood stain on a dress) you skip an opportunity to personalise the object and draw the reader in (a valuable antique gun in a drawer, a blood stain on a wedding dress).
You think Jack’s the killer, but you like Jack, so when Jack is proved innocent you feel relieved. Or, you don’t like Jack and you want him to get what’s coming to him so when he’s proven innocent you’re outraged. Either way, having strong feelings about Jack will relate directly to having strong feelings about the truth.
Both the truth and the red herring should have an emotional connection to the reader, but the truth should be the more interesting or impactful. If the red herring is that all clues point to an alien abduction and the truth turns out to be misremembered drunkenness it will all feel a bit flat at the end. However, if the alien abduction stuff was planted by agents trying to discredit a journalist who is close to working out an even bigger secret involving Google and the Illuminati (I can’t say more, I’ve already said too much), then the red herring helps build the tension rather than just being a decoy.
Which brings up another useful technique, tying the red herring and the truth together. While having the red herring being one thing and the truth something entirely different will do the job, having the red herring lead to the truth can add an extra level of satisfaction to the reading experience.
If the unique-looking paperweight on Dustin’s desk indicates he’s the guy, but it turns out not to be a paperweight but a bookend, the matching pair of which belongs to Dwayne, then you can see why Dustin looked like the culprit, but also how new information about the red herring revealed the truth.
And one last technique that can be fun is the old double bluff. You think it’s the red herring, but the red herring had nothing to do with it, but wait, it was the red herring all along.
This approach is a little clichéd when it comes to murder mysteries, but less common in other genres.
Lisa thinks it’s the cute guy at work who sent the Valentine, it turns out it wasn’t him, but she spends so much time with him trying to work it out that he ends up liking her.
Or the Venutians appear to be responsible for the attack on the Andromeda base, but it wasn’t them after all, because they were too busy working on their machine that turns human brains into tasty biscuits (never trust a Venutian, especially around dinner time).
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