Monday 26 January 2015

Tricks of the Trade 2: Red Herrings

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).

You can find part one of this series here. If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Red herrings are tricky. I don't think I'm very good with them.

dolorah said...

This is why I don't write mysteries, too hard to keep the secret all the way to the end.

Sarah Foster said...

I don't think I've ever used a red herring. I'm not sure if I could pull off tricking the reader like that.

Author Leanne Dyck said...

I like using red herring, but can I like using red herrings too much? How many times should I? Does it depend on the number of pages?
I'm currently writing a mystery. But I've added red herrings to thrillers and literary fiction, as well. It's a very versatile ingredient.

Melissa Sugar said...

I have a question about red herrings, plants and reveals and can't think of a better person to ask. In my NIP, a child's actual birthdate will become a key clue to solving more than one mystery and will ultimately lead to the real killer's identity and motive.

In part one of my manuscript I believe I have inserted the plant in a way that involves the story and not for the sole purpose of planting a clue. Early on my protagonist is with a lawyer ( they will become romantically involved later on) and he is giving her all the reasons he will be unavailable to see her for the next week or so. One of his reasons is that he is co-hosting his son's 5th bday party with his ex- wife, who he has portrayed as a vindictive and jealous woman, although the protagonist never sees this side of the ex and begins to believe her new beaux is nothing more than the charismatic womanizer so many have warned her about.

This date will become crucial. Actually the protagonist assumes the date of the party is the child's birthday so in part four ( or act three) when she finally discovers the birthdate that will lead her to her suspect , she is initially relieved because its not this man's child's date of birth and other clues have slowly been forcing her to consider him a suspect . Then she discovers that the bday party was on a weekend and not the kids actual bday which puts her badk on the trail of the man she has fallen for.

Is it enough that the party date is mentioned early in part one and then the actual birthdate is mentioned in passing around the first pinch point ( give or take a few scenes) or is that not enough to be considered playing fair with readers. This is not the only clue, not by far, but in my effort to keep readers from too easily picking up on the clue, am I going overboard ( the wrong way) by only having the date(s) come up twice before the big reveal?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I'm learning, during my umpteenth round of revisions that there is a very fine line between burying the clue and not broadcasting it and allowing the clue to make subtle appearances .

mooderino said...

@Alex - the more I think about writing the trickier everything gets. I should really stop thinking so much.

@Dolorah - and not just in mysteries.

@Sarah - any time a character believes something that later turns out to be not true you're probably employing a red herring.

@Leanne - I'd like to play the "It depends" card, please.

mooderino said...

@Melissa - mentioning key info (like a date) only once is fine as long as it's memorable

How you do that can vary. Repeating info is one way, but there are plenty of others.

Make the date a memorable one, like the birthday happens to fall on Valentine's or is the same as a famous person's etc. and work it into the conversation can work, but can also feel a bit clunky if it feels too crowbarred in.

Bear in mind that the date itself isn't that important. In fact you can get away with not mentioning the actual date at all as long as the occasion has an impact. So making the fact that he's going to his kid's party memorable helps, e.g. by him making a big deal about how awful his ex will be, or maybe afterwards she asks him how the party went and he has a horrible story to recount.

The point being if the party has some actual effect on the characters (or our view of them) then we are far more likely to remember it.

And then when she says, "But his party was on such and such date so i thought...", the fact we easily remember the party being part of the story and can follow her logic is more important than remembering the actual date itself.

On the other hand, if he just says, "I can't make it on the 21st, go to go to my kid's birthday party", and that's the only mention, it will feel expositional. The information has been placed, but it's unconnected to the narrative in any other way.

I see this approach a lot. You know the info's in there, and you've established the guy doesn't get on with his ex, no need to say anything else, the reader gets it. And they do, sort of, but in order maximise the pay-off later it really helps to take time to come up with something unexpected, emotional, funny, whatever to make the party stick in the reader's head, rather than the actual date.

Not sure if any of that's relevant to your particular story, but hope something in there helps.

Melissa Sugar said...

Yes, it's very relevant and helpful. I was struggling with the issue because the date will become an intrical part of solving the murder and the child's date of birth will also tie into the killer's motivation for the crime. Thank you. Your answer was extremely helpful. I can see the benefit of making the event, " bday party," play a role in the story, independent of the actual date. I revised some scenes a while back to include an argument between the protagonist and the man, about the party. She catches him in a couple of lies about the extent of his relationship with the ex. I also have a scene where another parent ( guest) at the party discloses information about the (ex) couple , but not with the intent of sharing the info or throwing it in the protagonist face. In fact she is unaware of their budding relationship and her comments are innocent and not directed toward the protagonist .

I appreciate your help . It's amazing how we can can read and re-read a few scenes over and over , knowing that something is missing or flat, but still unable to pinpoint the problem. Then someone can take the bare bones of those scenes ( like you have) and instantly come up with a solution. I suppose that's why we always need a pair of fresh and neutral eyes on our work. It makes sense now that I should concentrate on the event and not the date and find other ways for the date or the event to flow naturally in the story.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. I'm eager now to work on more ways for the party to have an effect on the crucial characters. I see the advantage of this and how it will make for a much better reveal later in the book. My brain is already spinning with ideas and ways to make the party memorable so when the time frame becomes crucial , hopefully the readers will remember the party from part one . Many thanks.

mooderino said...

@Melissa - you're very welcome.

Al Diaz said...

I loved to use red herrings on my stories but I'm not quite sure they had strong emotional connection. I must remember this part.

Kitty Bucholtz said...

Love your post! Best one I've read on red herrings, which I LOVE. JK Rowling does a great job with them, and her Harry Potter books were the first time I consciously thought, oh, not just for murder mysteries! :-) Great explanation, thanks!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

M. Night Shyamalan was pretty good at red herrings. His career has kind of tanked though.

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