…is just a red herring

Lupo via Wikimedia Commons

Real herrings are never this red.

When a writer (particularly a mystery or detective story author) places details in a story to distract the characters and/or the readers to a false conclusion, that’s called a “red herring.” For many years, dictionaries and other references claimed that the origin of the phrase was a reference to a technique that used to be used to train hunting dogs to stay on the trail and not be distracted. When certain kinds of fish are preserved by being smoked and/or brined, the flesh of the fish turned a brownish red, and they often had a very pungent odor. Such “red herrings” or kippers supposedly could be used to throw a dog off the scent.

That origin is now generally accepted to be apocryphal, with the actual origin being from a political article written in 1807 in which the author said that he once distracted a dog with a red herring, and then accused other journalists of having been deceived in a similar way by a rumor. There is no indication of any actual hunters or dog trainers making it a practice to regularly use such fish in the training of hunting dogs.

But the apocryphal story remains useful in explaining the figurative meaning: distract the reader by placing a hint that appears to lead to something interesting in her path.

For the red herring to work in any type of story in which the characters are trying to solve a puzzle, it isn’t enough for the red herring to be a distraction. The red herring should point the characters (and the reader) toward a plausible alternative solution. When the trail turns out to be a dead end or a wrong solution, the trail itself still has to be something that plausibly would happen in that world.

It’s been annoying me about a lot of series I’ve been watching lately. Characters have a problem to solve, some information is found that points in a particular direction, when suddenly, blam! a supporting character that is loved one of one of the protagonists is attacked mysteriously. For the rest of the episode, everyone runs around like chickens with their heads cut off accusing people that have absolutely no motive at all for being involved in either problem. Eventually protagonist is confronted by the very person that clues which were seen before the distraction pointed to in the beginning. And here’s the part that’s crazy: either the mysterious attack is never explained, or it was done by some random person completely unrelated to the bad guy who is revealed three episodes later as a new big bad, but no rational explanation for why the new big bad attacked that character three episodes earlier is ever given.

I’m not sure if the problem is that most shows are written by teams where there may not be a clear “coordinator” with a strong artistic vision of what the story line is supposed to do, or if they simply think that throwing random stuff at the reader/viewer is what you’re supposed to do, or if they’re always in a rush without time to think things through. Or maybe they have fallen into that trap of thinking that, since sometimes meaningless things happen in real life, it’s okay for a story teller to do it, too.

It’s not okay. It shows that you are a bad writer. Yes, random things happen in real life. And you can even have some events happen in the story where the explanation in the story is that it was just dumb luck. But you are the story teller, and it’s your story. You have chosen to show this random action happened to your character. You need to have a reason, a reason that furthers the story or reveals something about the characters, for showing the bad luck to the reader/viewer.

It is okay if a red herring occasionally leads to a laugh without furthering the plot. If you have previously established one supporting character as being a bit of a dork or a goofball, for instance, you can one clue that leads to something completely unrelated to the plot that this funny character is doing. But it needs to be something that the readers/viewers will immediately think, “Oh! That’s so like him.”

Let’s say your current puzzle involves someone apparently attempting to kill a teacher by leaving some sort of deadly device for him. While the protagonists are following up clues, they discover that the teacher’s car in the parking lot is sparkling clean, as if someone wiped down the entire exterior. You can have the characters waste time trying to find a bomb of something on the car that never turns out to be there. Eventually, another supporting character finds video showing one obscure supporting character who is a student lurking around the car earlier. Eventually, the protagonists find out that said student, but realize that he’s failing said teacher’s class, and has been trying to curry the teacher’s favor.

It was suspicious behavior, it leads to a dead end, but it also makes sense within the story and is completely believable as something that could happen independently of the real stalker. Good writing.

On the other hand, having two supporting characters shot by a mysterious person off screen, who leaves them huddled together, holding each others wounds while waiting for an ambulance, and then never showing who shot the characters? Not so plausible. Or, showing who shot the characters three episodes later, but the person who did it is someone the audience would expect to want to kill the characters who were shot, and there was absolutely no reason for her not to have finished the job three episodes earlier? Bad writing.

It’s your story, yes. But you need to tell it the best it can be told.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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