This week: Hey, Look Over There!Edited by: Jayngle Bells
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Today’s mystery crumb: The term red herring may sound odd, but its original meaning comes from its use in dog training.
One training method used smoked herring. Some citations say it was the training method itself, while others say it as a distraction method to help the dogs learn focus. Still others say it was successfully used as a diversionary tactic to throw dogs off a suspect’s scent. While the lore varies slightly, one thing is true—herring turns red when smoked.
Here, fishy, fishy!
Much like throwing the dogs off the scent, red herrings are the mystery writer’s way of distracting or misleading the reader. They can draw out suspense and generate a real page-turner. They can set up a spectacular plot twist. They can also pad a word count, plot an incoherent course, and tick off a reader.
So, how do you make sure you’re properly preparing the fish?
1. Ask yourself if your diversionary tactic adds value to the story. Does it help set up a strong plot twist? Does it implicate the wrong person for the right reasons? Or is it so far-fetched your reader is going to roll their eyes?
2. Don’t give your readers too many dead ends. If you do, you risk ending up in the ‘did not finish’ (DNF) pile. Every reader has one. While it’s fine to have some suspects or clues that don’t pan out, it should never be a full stop. The dead end should generate new clues, new suspects (or point back to an old suspect), or cause a crisis for the sleuth. How are they going to crack an unsolvable case?
3. Check your formula. Make sure you aren’t falling victim to your own favourite plot devices. There’s a running joke at my house about the show CSI. While we quite enjoy it, every time they bring in the first suspect, one of us says, “Too early. They didn’t do it.” (To be fair, once in a while it IS the first suspect). One of my favourite episodes was about a stolen house (you read that correctly)—and ended up with a ‘serial killer’ house, two corpses, one mummy, two fathers, someone returning from the dead, and one character lead on a chainsaw rampage. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was the first suspect.
4. Don’t get lazy. When you’re working with red herrings, keep track of them! There are few things as annoying as a dropped plot point. Your readers will, for a time, continue to wonder when it’s going to pop back up. If you’re very lucky, they’ll move on with the story without it nagging at them too much. If you’re very unlucky, every review will mention that you forgot your own plotline. If it’s not important enough to propel the story, if it’s not important enough to help twist the plot, and certainly if it’s not important enough to even bother wrapping up the story thread, take it out.
5. Do the legwork. Red herrings should leave your reader feeling like you’re a magician. And like any good magic show, it takes a lot of preparation. Leave enough time for the clues to resonate with the reader and make sure there are enough clues that it feels like a plausible plot element and not ‘first-suspect syndrome’.
The best stories layer the clues over each other just enough to make the plot sensible, but surprising. It’s a balancing act between giving too much information and having a forgone conclusion, and giving too little information and ending up with a climax that makes no sense.
Throwing the reader off the trail is a significant part of the mystery story. The key to selling this basket of fish is the presentation: deliberate story arcs and intentional clues driving the reader’s perceptions in specific directions at chosen times. Make sure you know where all roads lead before asking your audience to join you on the journey.
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