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This week: Red HerringsEdited by: SoCalScribe
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"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
- Carl Sagan
This week's Mystery Newsletter editor is SoCalScribe . It's his first official newsletter, so please be gentle.
red herring n : something that distracts attention from the real issue.
Anyone familiar with the mystery genre knows about red herrings. They're all those false leads, dead ends, and suspicious circumstances that make a story, well, mysterious. After all, a mystery would be pretty boring if you know what's going to happen every step of the way. Red herrings can be difficult to work into a story though; not only do they have to be believable, but if you have too many or too few, it can ruin the story.
Too few red herrings make it easy to figure out the real narrative underneath the smoke and mirrors. After all, when most people read a mystery, they expect some twists and turns ... and if there are only one or two obvious red herrings, the reader isn't going to have a hard time figuring out what's really going on.
By contrast, too many red herrings can confuse or obscure the narrative, to the point where the real reveal at the end is either less impactful or comes out of left field. When a reader is conditioned to think that every little thing in a story is significant and these things later turn out not to be, a reader can become frustrated or even feel cheated by the ending, which could seem like just one of the many possible endings, rather than the one inevitable ending that perfectly fits into the story.
Like most things in writing, people often learn just as much - if not more - by seeing what not to do, and what doesn't work. So let's examine a few of the ways that red herrings can be ineffective. Let's use a basic example of a murder mystery.
Limited number of key characters. When there are a comparatively few number of key characters in your story, it makes the red herrings (and real twists) easier to spot. In our murder mystery, what if the only real suspects were the victim's wife and mistress? Savvy mystery readers understand that, at some point, necessity dictates that they be misdirected. So whichever one it seems like it's going to be heading into the home stretch, it's probably the other. With too few red herring suspects, it makes guessing the real story much easier. Make sure you have enough red herrings to keep your reader guessing throughout the story.
Too many key characters. Just like too few key characters can make the real story easier to predict, too many key characters can leave the reader feeling confused and overwhelmed. An important part of the experience of reading a mystery is guessing what's going to happen next, formulating a theory of the crime and seeing if it's correct or if you fell for a red herring as you go along. If our murder mystery includes the wife and mistress as suspects, as well as the estranged son, the jealous sister, the greedy boss, the conniving secretary, the manipulative golf buddy, a potential business partner, the gardener, and an ex-girlfriend from high school, there are so many red herrings that you may not be giving your audience enough time to think, "Hmm, maybe it's her (or him)," before going off in another direction. Even worse, if twenty people had motive to kill the victim, it could dilute the impact of the real murderer's actions. Make sure you don't have so many red herrings that the reader loses track of or interest in the story.
Inequality of motives. It's important that each red herring suspect have an equally compelling motive. When there are unequal motives, at best you're going to have readers who can easily pick out the real culprit. At worst, you're going to have readers who feel cheated because the real culprit had less of a compelling reason than someone else to commit the crime. In our murder mystery, what if the wife found out about the affair and was worried about her husband asking for a divorce and leaving her with nothing because of a prenup? And suppose the mistress had asked for a pair of diamond earrings and hadn't gotten them? Then, as a writer, you're in the precarious position of having your reader either realizing it's the wife all along, or feeling that the story took an unsatisfying twist when it ends up being the mistress who killed him, despite the wife's much more compelling motive. Make sure each of your red herrings has an equal chance of being the culprit, and an equal motivation for committing the crime.
Lack of development. One of the biggest problems with red herrings is when they're not fully developed. The subplot for a red herring has to be just as compelling and well crafted as the regular plot, with even more thought put into how they're worked into that main plot. In our murder mystery, imagine following the investigation as they look at the wife, in chapter after chapter, trying to figure out how she figures into the story, and then the subplot with the mistress only takes up a couple chapters. Or is suspected and immediately dismissed. The key to a successful red herring is getting the reader to believe that it could potentially be the real thing. Make sure your red herrings are just as well developed and as involved as your real story.
Not fully integrated into the main story. Sometimes, red herrings aren't an intrinsic part of the main story. Whenever this happens, you run the risk of having your readers pick up on that fact and eliminate the red herring before you want them to. Imagine in our murder mystery if the wife is really the killer, but you want both his mistress and his business partner to be red herrings. If the mistress is only introduced during a lull in the main story, or the business partner is peripherally worked in, smart readers are going to realize that their storylines are there to flesh out the narrative or to misdirect at a specific point. Just like if you were doing a magic trick, you don't want your audience to know they're being misdirected; that will ruin the magic. You want them to be misdirected without knowing it. Make sure your red herrings are fully integrated subplots in your main story, so they're indistinguishable from that main story.
Red herrings are one of those literary devices that are easy to spot when they're bad, and a real challenge to do right. But if you can effectively work red herrings into your story, it will create a satisfying, engaging mystery that your reader can appreciate ... and hopefully read over and over again to see if they can pick up those subtle nuances that you used to trick them in the first place.
Until next time,
This week, I would encourage you to check out the following mystery items:
"It was pitch black in the old laboratory. The silhouette of the man in the white coat appeared at the far end of the room as he entered through a single door that opened with a mechanical sliding action. His slim shadow was cast on the floor as brilliant white light from the hallway flooded only a part of the laboratory directly beyond the entrance. His face was still hidden beyond a layer of shadow. As he walked forward, he raised his hands level with his head and snapped his fingers."
"A late evening wander around the park. Beyond the treetops I spy the tip-top of a circus tent. I make my way towards it through the trees. No sign of life. I traipse right round the circumference of the tent until I spot a pair of open flaps that serve as the entrance. I am drawn to them."
"And I like keeping the pain to myself in my darkness. Existence is quiet and cozy in the darkness I wear like a warm, fuzzy sweater of a dark grey-blue material. There is no necessity for beauty or truth. Nothing has a face or visible outline. Even monsters are merely liquid shadows with anonymous voices. Dreams are never dark. Nightmares always have stage-lighting. Darkness is the place in which you hide. Where there is safety in unknown; you're safe when you can't be seen."
"During the perfunctory cleaning, I found a pair of very ancient and very curious keys, in the junk drawer, in the kitchen. I placed them into my pocket and found that I was fondling them constantly. They became very familiar. I knew every groove, ding, and tooth in the pair of them. My curious nature had to know where and what these mysterious keys belonged to. What would they open? What would I find? My fingers danced over them as if they were magic. Maybe they would open a door to a magical world. I simply had to find the secret these keys held."
"It's always a long day for her, but today she got home early not knowing what she was about to encounter in her own home. Exhaustion was taking over her as she parked her car out front, not even realizing the unknown car she pulled up next to. Barely being able to keep her eyes open, she staggered to the front door, put the key in the lock, but then noticed that the door was already open."
"My boat was smashed to pieces and my crew taken to realm below. I awoke the next morning, freezing and soaked to my very bones. The storm was dying, but still a heavy rain fell and a strong wind blew. Knowing that I had to get up on dry land I began looking for a way up. As I was shaking from the cold, climbing the cliffs was no easy task. I still don't really know how I made it here, but I did. The grass field was wet and soggy, and quickly my feet were covered in mud. I could barely feel my feet when I saw it in the distance. A small, cozy house on a green, hostile island. Could there be someone else here?"
"Someone had switched the music to country. I wondered about the kids' parents - who lets their child wander around at nearly one in the morning - and then I wondered about myself - when had I gotten old enough to care about kids wondered the streets unsupervised? "I'll go ask about the check," I said then, eager, suddenly, to be on the move. It was then that the screaming started. "
"Private detective George Quest was sitting at his desk, reading the paper. He was leafing through a story about a Mr. Solomon Grundy, who had died shortly after his wedding to a Mrs. Edna Wilson. The paper stated that the couple had been married on Wednesday last. Mr. Grundy had taken ill the next day, gotten worse on Friday, and finally died last Saturday. The doctor didn't suspect anything out of the ordinary, and everyone had thought that was the end of Solomon Grundy. This was one of those unfortunate accidents, thought George. And tragic, too, considering he had just gotten married. At the end of the day, George didn't think there was any criminal involvement. But Miss Berryfield, George's personal secretary, was of another opinion."
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