Nope, I'm not talking about smoked fish. I'm talking about false clues in a mystery--the misleading information that can distract readers from the real villain.
I searched the Writer's Knowledge Base for tips on how to do this well, and found lots of great information. Here are a couple of quotes from mystery writer extraordinaire, Elizabeth S. Craig.
"A word about clues and red herrings: Throughout your book, you'll want to scatter bits of information that suggest different suspects as the murderer. When these bits of information truly point to the killer, they're clues...when they send the sleuth off in the wrong direction or when they point to a suspect who isn't the killer, they're red herrings." Source: Elizabeth S. Craig's post Tips for Writing a Murder Mystery on Nicole Basaraba's blog.
"Use red herrings, but don't let the red herrings continue too long or be too frustrating. Red herrings mislead the reader and sleuth. Mysteries need red herrings to give the sleuth false leads to investigate. But if a red herring stretches the entire length of the mystery before being proven wrong in the last chapter, it may feel unfair to the reader...or make it seem that they've wasted too much time on a lead that didn't pan out." Source: Elizabeth S. Craig's post 15 Tips for Writing a Murder Mystery on Writers in the Storm Blog.
So how did I put this into practice without being obvious? I'm not an expert, but here's how I tackled it:
- Use existing characters: Instead of creating all new characters for the sole purpose of the red herring, I beefed up doubts about two existing characters. I spent some time working in additional backstory for them, and created mischief. I also went through my early notes on this book and found a couple of plot lines I hadn't used, and added those to the newly troubled characters.
- Use existing scene details: The groundwork had already been laid for red herrings, I just had to think differently about the details. I realized some of those scene details could be used as false clues or leads. I took a second look at clothing, jewelry, and cars, and thought of ways to add doubt for my main character.
- Use an existing story thread: In my case, I had existing story threads that could be amped up as a distraction. A few words here and there will hopefully add enough doubt.
My goal is to embed plausible scenarios, but like Elizabeth said, I don't want to frustrate the reader. Now that my red herrings are in place, my job is to make sure they aren't obvious. Super powerful beta readers wearing red capes can help me with that task ;)
Have you ever written a mystery? Did you add your red herrings from the start, or did you add them later? Do you have additional tips you'd like to share?
For more information about red herrings and foreshadowing, read this post on Janice Hardy's blog. And if you haven't visited the Writer's Knowledge Base yet, you're in for a real treat. It's like a Google search for writers.
Love these links!ReplyDelete
This is something I forget to do at times, usually getting to it on second or third read through after the first draft is completed. For me, the most important aspect of using 'red herrings' is to make sure they don't become tedious or frustrating for the reader and even the characters. A few times, I've written myself into a gully and then have had to backtrack.
This is an awesome post, thanks for the info :) I love red herrings when I'm reading or watching mysteries, cause then I also feel proud of myself when I guess right. While my current WIP is not a mystery I have been wondering if I'm giving away to much information to early, this will be something I look at on my next read through.ReplyDelete
This is a great post.ReplyDelete
I haven't written a mystery, but one of the characters in one of my earlier books has a - I'll describe it as a "run in" with someone. She or the reader doesn't know who it is... I used some red herrings there to make it look as if it is a random event. Later, she, and the reader, realizes it was someone she knows and a much more dangerous encounter than she thought.
Now that is something I must read!!ReplyDelete
I have not written a mystery, but my writing mentor - Carolyn Rose - is an author of several mysteries. Your post is a great tip for all genres; red herrings seem to prevent against predictability. Thanks, Julie!ReplyDelete
Julie, my hat is off to you! I could NEVER write a mystery. :)ReplyDelete
Great post, Julie. I love Red Herrings. Though I have not yet written a mystery I have plans of writing one in the future, I will definitely use Red Herrings to keep the interest level high.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for the mention, Julie! I appreciate it. :)ReplyDelete
Your tips about existing characters and scenes are something I also do. I always do this in the revision -- ha, I'm not savvy enough figure out it on the first draft.ReplyDelete
As a reader, I love it when I have several suspects in a mystery.
Love Elizabeth's & your tips! Awesome. Adding in the mystery elements is tough! I'm still working on it :)ReplyDelete
Thanks for the comments and suggestions, guys. This was a new one for me, and I'm so glad Elizabeth steers us in the right direction!ReplyDelete
This is fantastic information. I actually wrote a thriller, but as they say..."Reads like a mystery." This came about because I added a few Red Herrings along the way.ReplyDelete
This information really helps for novel number two, because I hadn't thought about using existing characters in lieu of adding new... or not stringing them through to the end, because I had added them after the story was underway in my first.
These tips are great cautions for me since I plan to add them in the beginning for the sequel. Thank you!
I've written a YA mystery that's on sub now, as well as a thriller and another WIP that's a mystery. I LOVE red herrings - adding them is the best fun. All your suggestions are great ones.ReplyDelete
My WIP is a mystery, too. I use the Save the Cat! method of "beating out" my story before I start writing, so I figure out the red herrings during that process. But if another good one comes to me during the writing phase, I certainly incorporate it!ReplyDelete
Hi Julie! Really enjoyed your post about red herrings. I've never written a mystery, but I do enjoy reading them.ReplyDelete
I'm amazed at the complexity of it all.ReplyDelete
I love those light bulb moments!ReplyDelete
And usually I don't write murder mysteries, but this info still helps for any info you want to keep hidden for a while! Thanks!! <3
Sounds like you tackled it in the right way! I think that what we need is usually already there, but often it takes time to flesh out the potential we set down from the beginning. Trying to squish in new things for the purpose of creating a red herring tends to read too obvious, but making it work with what you've already got (IMO) always feels natural if done smoothly. Good luck!ReplyDelete
I'm not skilled enough to write a mystery. I do think red herrings are important as long as they're not over used or, like you said, used too long. But doubting multiple characters is always fun & perplexing.ReplyDelete
Oooh! I like red herrings. But you're right--you have to hit just the RIGHT balance, or else the reader will feel cheated and annoyed. I can usually spot the red herrings in a movie. Not always, though. ;o)ReplyDelete
I'll bet it was a kick to be a puzzlemaker!ReplyDelete
I LOVE reading mysteries. I'm excited to read yours someday, Julie!ReplyDelete
My WiP has a mystery element in it, I guess. There's a murder, but I'm not sure it's technically a mystery. But now I'm wondering...
Thanks for all the links!
Writing mysteries can be tricky, but they are fun. Love your tips!ReplyDelete
Ahhh, excellent post! It's so hard to know how much to divulge and when, right??ReplyDelete
I think this is such a vital part of a good mystery! We (authors) get so zeroed in on telling the 'main' story I think it's sometimes easy to forget the fun the reader gets by being led down a few dead ends with the protagonist. If that makes sense...ReplyDelete
Really latched onto the second Craig quote about not letting the false trail become too frustrating, by the way.
I think a modern master of the technique is J.K. Rowling. She is insanely good at having you convinced the entire cast is guilty of something. And sometimes you're right! : )
I woke up the other night obsessed with the notion of red herrings. It was wonderful to read this post.ReplyDelete
All good stories are mysteries in one way or another, right? That's what keeps you turning the pages. But my current WIP really has an element of psychological mystery in terms of the identity of a stalker of my main character.
Suddenly, in the middle of the night I realized that I was being too linear in laying out the 'clues'. Ultimately, i will probably finish the first draft and then go back and 'salt in' a few red herrings or give a couple of side characters a little whiff of guilt. It's a fascinating exercise, no?
Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)ReplyDelete
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