Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Red Herrings Must Lead to a Truth

To a dog, a stinky old red herring smells awfully interesting. Drag one across the path of a beagle or bloodhound, and he'll follow it rather than what he's supposed to follow.

And that's where the term "Red Herring" comes from in a mystery. People tend to use it to refer to any suspects who turn out to have not done it. But as a writer, I think it's much more useful to think of it as any clue or element that leads the detective - and audience - astray.

If we're going to write a mystery, it's important to mystify. And to properly mystify, you have to let the audience feel that they know something. If everything is a complete puzzle, and they know nothing, the audience will only be confused and bored and likely never follow the trail.

A red herring has to fascinate the reader. It's got to be nice and stinky and distracting and full of all kinds of great information.

I think, more importantly, that a red herring has to be more than a trick of the trade. We're not just mystery writers, we're storytellers. And in a good story, nothing is wasted and everything is relevant.

So above all, a red herring must pay off. It must lead to good information for the detective, and the reader. For one thing, the reader will not feel that her time has been wasted when she finds out the truth. For another, it gives the reader respect for the detective, if the detective overcomes both the lure and the failure of a red herring, and wrestles a triumph out of it.

So the fact that the butler was behaving so suspiciously only because he was having a fling with the daughter of the house must lead to the revelation that the daughter, on her way to the assignation, saw a blue car pull away from the grange an hour earlier than anyone knew. And it may also cause some other alibi to crumble, or reveal a motive.

This is basic stuff, but it can be easy to forget or overlook when you are wrestling with all the layers and complications of a good whodunnit. Red Herrings are not just distractions, they are pieces of the puzzle.

In the meantime today was a really hellish day at the day job, and my favorite Cantonese restaurant would not answer the phone, so I didn't get to have any Three Cup Chicken as reward. I consoled myself with a bag of potato chips, a container of sour cream and a bag of double-chocolate Milano cookies, and watched Chuck on Hulu with my cats.

I think, though, that I shall take tomorrow off from blogging. (Unless I come up with some really interesting thing to say.)


Helena Soister said...

First, my sympathy on your bad work day. I had a doozy of a suck-all bad day last Friday and still feel like I haven't recovered.
Second, I like watching Chuck too.
Third and most important,you are so right about red herrings. When they're done just right they can make the story delicious to the reader. I love it when I've been fooled by a really good one which, in retrospect, makes perfect sense.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Helena. We're going to have good sushi on Friday.

I may also do some more thinking about misdirection and blog about techniques later.

Elizabeth McKenzie said...

I've heard the term before, but never got the meaning. I enjoyed you post and words of wisdom.

Laura S. said...

Double-chocolate Milano cookies!!! Mmmm, they sound SO good right now!

I've read novels where red herrings weren't tied up at the end. It's so annoying to finish a book and wonder, "Okaaay, but what happened with this?" Or, "So why was he acting this way then?" Great reminder to make every detail add something to the story! You don't want any smelly fish bits at the end, haha.

I hope you're having a restful day!!!

Carol Kilgore said...

Good post. I'm having a time fitting everything together properly in my WIP so this came at a good time.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks all. Today went better. Chief problems were kept under control, and a friend (after reading last night's post) took me out to excellent Chinese food tonight.

As for loose ends - yeah, it's easy to overlook the fact that you cut the scene that tied that one up, etc. I think that's a part of the value of critique partners. Even non-writers can help you see that you forgot to identify who killed the chauffeur*.

(*"Who killed the chauffeur?" of course, is a reference to the famous loose end of THE BIG SLEEP. Long after it was published, people asked Chandler about it, and he had no idea!)