Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Red Herrings

by Mary Allen

A red herring is a distraction from the relevant, a misleading clue which ratchets up the suspense and keeps us guessing. Frankly, it’s hard to surprise others so a successful red herring is a delight that adds depth to a story. For example, think of when you realized the truth in “Sixth Sense”. Bet you didn’t see it coming. I didn’t and I usually have it the plot line figured out.

Genres that rely on red herrings are mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. For instance, perhaps the guy we think is evil isn’t so bad and the one we thought was good suddenly shows his true devilish bent. (Gasp!) This throws the hero deeper into danger.

Red herrings are not just for mysteries. Recently I read a book entitled “Something Mis ing” by Matthew Dicks. A thief obtains long term clients, catalogs their lives, and takes for his personal use items they would never miss such as extra rolls of toilet paper, boxes of macaroni or unopened salad dressing that is about to expire. Of course, being a thief, he does take the occasional big ticket item like a never-used silver platter. Problems arise when his attachment and loyalty to his clients compel him to intervene in their lives. How does he stop a violent crime, protect his client, and maintain his anonymity?

In this scenario Dicks drops a false clue that caused me to think I knew how our thief, Martin, is going to accomplish this noble deed. Then, it all goes sideways and much to my satisfaction, the problem is solved in a manner I never anticipated.

Red herrings are a bit of literary magic.

In some formulaic stories, such as romance, red herrings are not much used. We want the boy to get the girl, but even then the twists and turns they take to that destination can afford opportunity for misdirection. Maybe she chooses the guy you wouldn’t pick. In a nice little historical, “A Promise for Ellie” a bride to be is rethinking her upcoming nuptials to the boy she’s always loved. In this case, I thought I had the red herring by its sly little tail. Instead I picked the wrong guy. I should’ve seen it coming.

My chosen genre is women's fiction. In my upcoming release entitled, “God’s Love Most Gentle”, a pregnant missionary suffers from PTSD after witnessing her husband’s murder. For a while her dark secrets pull her further from God and deeper into trouble. Offsetting this is the comic relief of her widowed mother’s romances and I've added a little twist on the side. When it happens you say, 

and search the story to verify the facts. I hope my readers will enjoy it.

Red herrings are a bit of literary magic. Do you add them to your writing whatever your genre? What popular story held your favorite red herring? Perhaps an obscure story now stands out in your mind because of its ability to misdirect and thus surprise you. Tell me. I’d love to know it. 

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