Being a Better Writer: Red Herrings

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday again, and you know what that means. But first, some news.

For starters, Shadow of an Empire continues to do well both in sales and in reviews. It’s a Fantasy-Western, so it doesn’t quite appeal to everyone, but those who have picked it up have loved it, and it’s sitting nicely on Amazon with a 4.7 Star rating out of 5. It’s success has also given a bit of a boost to Colony as well, which has matched its sales almost one for one this month. Even better, Shadow of an Empire‘s footprint continues to grow! This is one that I think will end up very fondly remembered.

Second bit of news? Oh, nothing much … just 18,000 words of fiction written between Friday and Saturday! That’s right, the next writing project has begun, and once I put my fingers to the keyboard, it was like a dam had burst inside my head. Writing again, after so many months of editing; how I missed it!

Point being, while this pace probably isn’t sustainable (I still have the part-time because I have to worry about rent or bills that my royalties don’t fully cover yet), it is moving along quite rapidly now that I can finally work on it. A month or two, and I could be done, if that pace keeps up!

And in other news … actually, there isn’t any other news. I’m ready to get to today’s post now. And then onto working on Hunter/Hunted!

Right, so, red herrings. If you’ve missed the two posts prior to this one, on Chekhov’s Guns and Chekhov’s Armory, this post is definitely one that builds off of those two. With those, we discussed … well, Chekhov’s Guns and their usage. The whole idea that if you present the audience with a “gun” that’s hung on the mantle, they expect (and a good author will deliver) that at some point it will come down and be “fired.”

Really quick, this doesn’t have to be a literal “gun.” It’s a metaphor. Read the last two Being a Better Writer posts if you’re out of the loop.

But building off of that, this week I want to talk about the inverse of the Chekhov’s Gun (well, sort of). We’re going to talk about the “Red Herring.”

It’s an unusual name, I admit … though once you know the history behind it, it does make a bit of sense. A “red herring” is so-named after a particularly odorous cut of cured fish (a herring, if you must know) that gained both a bright color (red) and strong smell from the curing process. Which in turn made it a good choice for training young hounds, as it was distinct both visually and via strong scent. According to popular history, workers training foxhounds would use a “red herring” in the training by dragging the red herring back and forth across the trail of the fox the hound was supposed to tracking. The strong scent left in the wake of the red herring made for a obedience challenge for the fox hound: track the fox scent they were supposed to be tracking, or go after the much stronger, attention-grabbing new scent they’d just discovered.

Whether or not such training actually happened, in time the term red herring made the jump to literature, where it serves pretty much exactly the same purpose: A red herring became the term for a literary device that lays a strong “scent” for the audience to follow and suspect, while actually being utterly unimportant in the long run.

A misdirection, in other words. Or a false “gun.” One that says “Hey, I look important” while actually being of no real significance. Well, other than appearing significant from the PoV of the audience, or even the characters. It’s a fake-out, in other words.

Want an example? Okay, here’s a really short, quick one. Remember this famous scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark? You’ll need to skip to about 1:49 to see it, WordPress embedding apparently doesn’t handle timestamps well.

Anyway, that brief bit right there? It’s a good example of a red herring, albeit one that brings laughter to the audience when the herring is revealed almost immediately.

But that’s a red herring all the same. The audience is shown a swordsman clad in black and red (visually distinct and eye-catching from his fellows), who displays a flashy sword, the crowd moving back around him in all directions. All the indications from this reveal, from the colors to the world’s reaction, are that this guy, whoever he is, is a big deal. It promises a lengthy battle, a set-piece fight like so many others that the movie has delivered. Maybe this black-clad swordsman knows where the object of Indy’s search is, maybe …

And then Indy shoots him, the crowd splits, and the protagonist goes back to his search.

Again, this is a short-term red herring. The audience finds out almost immediately that despite appearances, the red herring was just that—a distraction to pull them (and the protagonist) away from the goal. But it serves to make them laugh because who wasn’t faked out by it the first time they saw this film?

But overall, can anyone say the swordsman had any real impact on the plot? No. He shows up, makes his appearance … and then quite quickly dies, and Indy goes right back to searching for Marion, little time lost.

Above I said something that is critical about red herrings: They must be of no real significance. If they are significant, that’s a subversion, and a Chekhov’s Gun disguised as a red herring … And I feel like I’m getting ahead of myself at that point. Let’s table that bit. Let’s just talk about red herrings and that “significance.”

See, a red herring is something that, like the original kippered fish to the hound, is supposed to draw your readers away. It acts like a lure, yet in the end winds up being coincidence, happenstance, or merely conjecture on the part of the readers that has nothing to do with the actual point of the plot.

Mystery stories, for example, tend to make heavy use of red herrings as misdirection for the reader and the characters. For example, a murder mystery that relies quite heavily on characters establishing alibis at certain times may have a character who withholds their whereabouts, instantly making them suspect to both readers and protagonists … But after some time is spent investigating it, the reason is revealed to be entirely unrelated to the case at all, and merely an embarrassing personal event that the suspect was trying to hide. Their suspicious denial then, was a red herring—it had nothing to do with the case, and was merely a bit of misdirection on the part of the writer to draw the audience (and characters) away.

Now, this may sound well and good, but here’s the thing. A red herring, like any other tool in the writer’s toolbox, isn’t always the best tool for the job. There are plenty of mysteries out there that don’t use red herrings because of the style of mystery that they are. And there are plenty more that use it poorly in a number of ways, sometimes to the detriment of the story.

Looking for your own examples, have you ever read a story that wants you so badly to believe that the obvious villain isn’t the obvious villain that the red herring might as well have a giant sign from the author begging you to buy into it? I have. I’ve read several, in fact. It’s annoying, and a sign of a weak plot.

Or what about stories that overuse red herrings to try and pull a “gotcha!” on the audience? I’ve read those too. Or stories where the red herrings, despite being something with no actual significance to the plot, end up making up the majority of the book’s plot, at which point they’re significant by the majority, despite doing nothing for the supposed actual plot.

Yeah, I’ve read all these. Odds are, you’ve read a few or all of them as well. And, if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to see those mistakes cropping up in your own writing. When you bring a red herring out of your writer’s toolbox, you want it to not be obvious, but subtle. You want it to work. So, let’s talk about how to properly use a red herring, and where those bad examples above went wrong.

First of all, your red herring cannot be the plot. If your plot is “protagonist goes after antagonist situation, is sidelined by red herring” you don’t have a plot. A red herring, by definition, has no real significance to the story outside of being a distraction. If your plot is nothing but a character going after a red herrring, because that’s the only thing stopping them from finishing the plot in the first few chapters, then you really don’t have a story, because most if it is not going to be significant as it is following nothing to do with the plot (the red herring). A red herring is not a bandage for the lack of actual events. A red herring is a subset of the plot that turns out to be a false lead.

In other words, your red herring (or herrings, depending one how convoluted you want to be) should not take up a substantial portion of your plot. Never should they take up the majority. There has to be a plot, with elements of significance, outside of the red herrings.

Again, the “sword vs gun” scene from Raiders. It works in part because of how short a herring it is. It doesn’t overstay its welcome at all. And okay, it could be longer, but its there to generate a laugh.

In that vein, when inserting a red herring, even if it doesn’t constitute the whole plot, be mindful of how much space it does take up inside your story. I can be beneficial to have the characters spend ten-percent of a story pursuing a wild goose chase, yes … but what about twenty-five percent? Forty? Remember that at the end of the reveal, where you confirm that the red herring is indeed a red herring, and of no significance, you have effectively just told a reader that the last X% of the story they’ve read was unimportant.

Now, there are ways around this. For example, a lot of stories have a character who has pursued a red herring come across something unrelated along the way that in turn prompts an epiphany that puts them back on track to the real story, even though it was part of the search after the red herring (and the herring, mind, is still insignificant, it’s just something the character finds from the journey there). But again, if you’re doing that, you still don’t want your red herring taking up a large piece of the story, or “being” the story.

Second, your red herring has to be believable as the rest of the options. This is again, something that often comes up in books trying too hard to scream “gotcha!” at their audience, or books that fall back on red herrings trying to fill in for plot. If you make a red herring too obvious (either as “this fills the slot my story needs so fully why wouldn’t anyone follow it) your readers may catch on. Or they may ask how on earth it is a red herring (which, in some stories, often runs into the issue of “author said so”).

You can make a red herring a more attractive possibility for the audience (and perhaps your protagonist), but be wary of how much more attractive it is. If it’s too attractive, especially unbelievably so (and especially if it argues a very different interpretation of events), it can be very obvious to your audience that it’s a red herring.

For example, a book I read near the beginning of this year did this. From the very beginning of the book, it was established that there was only one suspect who had the ability to pull off the crime that had taken place. The protagonist goes to confront said suspect … and is immediately handed a red herring. A red herring that screamed “I’m too good to be true, suspect the one suspect.” Of course, the protagonist followed it. And several others. Each time, it was very obvious from a narrative perspective that it was simply padding out the story with false leads until (gasp, shock and awe) the lone suspect was “revealed” as the villain the entire time.

Part of the problem with the book’s approach was that it didn’t offer any real alternatives. There wasn’t ever any real question of who the villain was. No reasonable alternatives were given, except red herrings that were shoved at the reader with such force it was obvious they were false leads that would go nowhere (oh, did I mention that they were coming from the obvious villain and primary suspect? I gave that book a low rating with good reason). The first and most obvious conclusion from the start of the book was true. There wasn’t any real discovery or additions to be made. Just endless amounts of side-tracking until the “reveal.”

Now, granted, that’s an example of a story that has issues in spades with trying too hard to get the reader to buy into its red herrings (and it’s not like there weren’t other issues, such as the lack of a real plot), but they made the authors attempts to distract all the more apparent. You don’t present a red herring as a red herring. You present it like a Chekhov’s Gun—just enough of a mention to make the audience think something will come of it later, once it’s pursued. If you “stare” hard at it and put too much attention on it, however, the audience starts asking questions. The more you push, the more suspicious it will seem.

Now, that’s dangerously close into moving into related but different topics, but the point is that if you use a red herring, don’t present it as one. Present it like you would any other Chekhov’s Gun you’ve set up. Giving too much attention or too little can be a sign to the meta-aware reader that you’re trying to pull a fast one.

Pulling things back, the biggest problem with red herrings used in these flawed ways is that they’re used to pick up slack for in a main plot. They’re used as stand-ins for having a real story, or a real mystery.

Don’t. Just don’t. A red herring is supposed to a be an aside, a distraction, but not a core part of the story. If your character’s (and readers) only choices are between a red herring and the proper conclusion, your story doesn’t have enough going for it. Give them a less completely conclusion. Give them alternatives and bits and pieces that are part of the main story, that are significant, but still not enough to carry a character to the end.

Readers who have been here before may recall what I’ve said in the past about puzzle pieces. Well, if you want to use red herrings well, rather than having them be a choice between the conclusion and the red herring, let the audience (and protagonist) be choosing between several puzzle pieces, one of which is a red herring. That’s a proper use of a herring. Let it be something organic, that fits right in with the rest of the pieces, until it doesn’t.

Now, you can subvert this. Many a story has given the audience a red herring that turns out to actually be significant later. Crud, in Rise, I wrote a story where the antagonists set up another character as a “red herring” for any watching eyes, using him to bait away prying eyes from their own activities. Of course, the moment this becomes apparent, it stops being a a red herring, because now it has significance. It’s the fox dragging the herring across its trail.

But when used straight, don’t forget that a red herring is not supposed to be significant. It’s a distraction, a dupe. Don’t overuse it. The more space of a story the herring takes, the more of your story effectively becomes, to the audience, effectively of no significance.

Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t “fire” a red herring like a Chekhov’s Gun, introducing it in once chapter and addressing and revealing it far later as a herring. But like with a Chekhov’s Gun, the gun will not be the full focus in that interim. Other stuff will happen, other events take place so that the herring isn’t the only focus that whole time.

Basically, I guess as I wrap this up, what I’m saying is to use red herrings carefully, and remember what they represent. They’re puzzle pieces that end up being from a different puzzle. False leads that appear important but have no real significance. So if you put too much on them, they’ll end up leaving readers feeling like they wasted a portion of the story.

Don’t do that. Use them as intended: A distraction from the other pieces. One that fits right in with them, but ends up being a false lead.

And remember, your characters don’t have to fall for it. Sometimes the audience can fall for it, but not the characters. Or vice-versa. Sometimes a red herring can be immediately outed.

Point being, it’s a tool when writing. Not a plot filler or a magic bullet, but a tool. Applied in the proper place, a red herring can bring fresh life, levity, or a change in pace to a story. Applied poorly, it stands out like a sore thumb.

Again, as I’ve said before, this is one of those cases where practice makes perfect. Arguably, I could also say that erring on the side of caution is best with this one. Better under-used and replaced with plot than overused and filling in for such.

In any case, practice makes perfect. Know what the tool is, know how it works, and then, when the occasion warrants, bring it out of the tool box, and give it a place in your story.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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