When we tell a story, one part of the reader's experience is illusion. The reader loves getting fooled--hoodwinked--but only if you do it fairly. Mystery writers have a box of plot tricks for pulling off illusions and any author can use them. Amongst the most fun is the tangy-sweet red herring.
In old-time fox hunts, the hounds were distracted by a fish laid in the trail. Inexperienced dogs would stop and signal a find while the rest of the hunt moved on. After a couple such fails, the smart dogs learned not to be distracted by a red herring laying too obviously on the trail.
These days, mystery authors love to share stories about their characters telling them everything. That can be true to an extent, but in mystery in particular, there is no substitute for a good plot--and fish stories are a part of that. Like foxhounds, experienced readers won't be distracted unless that red herring smells and tastes delicious. Too stinky and you know it's gone bad, too subtle and they run right past it. The most successful red herrings share a few traits:
1) Means, motive and opportunity. Your herring suspect and subplot have to be plausible. In this way, it's like writing a second book.
2) Author passion. To make the red herring real, it needs to smell delicious, to taste like a lobster thermidor, and to seem a part of the scenery--like a fish in the pond.
3) One fatal, but subtle flaw. Even though the herring is plausible, fairness requires a clue to its being a plant. Something has to feel not quite right. And I believe the best herrings contain a masked key to their falseness. Kudos to the savvy reader who finds it.
But mostly it needs to just feel right. In my first suspense novel, Distortion, I actually wrote the first two acts with three completely plausible plots. In the middle of the third act, character interactions revealed the killer to me. They also revealed the flaw in each of the other subplots. My editing job came of making sure I had laid enough clues.
And that comes back to author passion. If you write your book without knowing the final conclusion, then you the author won't know which sub-plot is the herring. You'll write it tight as plot.
The final clue adjustments will come in revision. Like all storytelling, balance and rhythm play a huge role in believability. Plot must intertwine with character feelings. In some ways, it's all a mystery.
This post is in part of the Book Blogger Fair so if you want to learn more about it check out the July 2013 directory for more authors/books, giveaways, events, and more!
About the Author:
Lucie Smoker's imagination grew up at a Little House on the Prairie and at 221B Baker Street. Her first suspense novel, Distortion, was published in November by Buzz Books USA. Its sequel is in the works. Her freelance articles appear in mutiple print and online magazines. A passionate storyteller, she lends her voice to mystery productions on two continents. For more info visit luciesmoker.wordpress.com, Facebook, or Twitter.
Artist Adele Proust is over her ex, activist Jack Thomas -- or so she thinks. At a 3-chord punk bar, Adele drinks to forget him, but when shouts of "Fire!" send the nightclub into chaos, she stumbles over a slashed-up corpse. ... Her signature technique brings out a pivotal clue that was missed by the police: a paper currency strap. The FBI thinks Jack may be behind the murder and they want Adele to spy on her friends, but she refuses ... until someone starts killing them off.
Where to Find Distortion: