Monday, August 13, 2018

The Importance of the Red Herring


In every good murder mystery, it is important to choose your antagonist wisely. With a little careful planning, you can develop a smorgasbord of possible suspects from which your reader can choose their favorite candidate; dropping clues and motives and suspicious behavior; and the best part is: you can use your fellow mystery authors’ devices to your advantage.

In this Mystery Monday post, I’m going to take you through three common cons that I’ve found useful to deceive readers into thinking the plot was going to go sideways, zigging one way, when it was actually zagging another.

To avoid spoilers, I will not be referencing any of my books in this post to use as examples. You’re just going to have to trust me that these work well. Very well.

The Lifetime Movie Gambit

This one is easy because it plays on a plot structure that is used in so many predictable Made-For-Television movies that we all grew up watching, back before Hulu and Netflix ruined the genre by making them so damned good.

And you know this plot better than you think you do:
  • Act 1: Our lovely heroine is struck by a tragic event. The death of a loved one. A stalker making her life difficult. A vicious attack from which she must recover.
  • Act 2: Said lovely heroine meets a man. A wonderful man. A kind man. But she can’t see what the camera shows us and the clever film composer alludes to - there’s something off.
  • Act 3: The wonderful man isn’t wonderful at all. He’s the reason for her tragedy and she must fight him to save her life.

There are many variations on this plot. And the reason it became so popular is probably because Mary Higgins Clark did it so fucking well and so successfully in more than a few of her best sellers.

But we know this one. We’ve grown immune to its deception. We roll our eyes and say, “The dude did it. What is wrong with her? Nobody is that nice.”

Out of the Past

This makes it a great one to throw in as a distraction. Because most readers will gravitate towards you being trite. Don’t feel bad. Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane teed up Mary Higgins Clark with that whole Femme Fatale nonsense. MHC just changed up the play and the Lifetime Movie Network took the ball and ran with it.

All you have to do is not be trite. 

Sure, it’s fun to make the nice guy/gal really be the bad guy/gal and fuck with your main character’s emotions. But it’s predictable. A generation of authors has beat us all to the punch.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use it. It just means you’re going to have to be super cunning to pull it off.

For the rest of us, it does make a fabulous red herring to manipulate our reader into assuming the most obvious solution is the correct one. While we hide clues in plain sight pointing to the real killer.

The Stereotype Ploy

We all have biases. Gender bias. Sexual Orientation bias. And they’re not all bad. Hear me out on this. I am not advocating for you to cater to a reader's racist, sexist, or homophobic impulses. I’m talking about that other kind of bias.

I write what I like to call Feminist Noir™. My heroine is tough. Her husband is egalitarian as fuck. My readers, by and large, share my viewpoint. So, I know, for example, they’re not going to take issue with a drag queen. In fact, they’re going to have a natural impulse to defend her.

Let’s add fuel to that fiery impulse and make this drag queen incredibly charming. She’s talented and intelligent and witty and kind and the last person about whom any of my readers would ever think a nasty thought. Because they believe, as I do, that we’re all created equal and we all have the right to self-determination.

In the same novel, let’s add an ignorant white dude with anger issues. He pops off too easy. He says cruel and hurtful things. Maybe he drinks too much or has a drug problem. 

Who, I ask you, are they going to suspect more? The charming drag queen with the fabulous shoe collection?  Or the dick with the drug habit?

You following me, now?

The Stereotype Ploy allows you to play with society’s norms while leading your readers down the primrose path of distraction.

This is a James Patterson technique that’s brilliant. It’s the sweet and thoughtful cop who turns out to be a serial killer. It’s the caregiver who bakes the best chocolate chip cookies that happen to be slowly poisoning everyone around them. In other words, it’s the person you want to love. Usually, they’re also the underdog in some way. Maybe they’ve just gone through a divorce. Maybe they have a stutter. Some minor disadvantage that makes you root for them all the more.

But this works best when you throw in a character that is designed and developed to rouse the reader’s animosity. That’s when you really get them.

Which leads us directly to our next red herring technique…

The Douchebag Maneuver

The characters we love to hate are so much fun to write, making this technique a hell of a good time to create. For this to work, you have to develop a character has done something despicable that the reader will have a difficult time forgiving.

A mother who abandoned her children. A lawyer who defrauded their clients. 

They’re not a nice person. But, someone we do care about, usually our main character, cares for them. This horrible person who really annoys you and gives you a great big case of the blechs is important to the character who was designed for you to only love.

This is a tricky one, and super fun, because it can actually play out either way. It works whether the douchecanoe in question is the killer or not.

And here’s why: Gone Girl.

Gone Girl (Movie)
That’s right. Love it or hate it, you can thank the viral success of Gone Girl and the books that followed for this technique working so well. 

Your reader will not want to believe that you are being so derivative as to make this despicable person the killer while simultaneously making them hope that they are.

If you really want to cook their noodle, you can provide some acceptable motivation for this character’s douchebaggery. Maybe the mother didn’t leave her children at all; their father actually stole them from her. Maybe the lawyer defrauded clients who were horrible people themselves.

Now your readers are going to want the douchebag to be redeemed. And a desire for redemption is a powerfully manipulative emotion. Just ask anyone who’s ever been in a co-dependent relationship.

The trick here is the motivation revelation. If they are the killer, you’re going to have to draw this out a lot longer. Drop weird clues pointing to another viable suspect. Shift blame around. 

In this game, you are not drawing a straight line or even a squiggly one, you are drawing a perfect figure eight that leads the reader right back to their initial assumption.

Like I said, it’s a fun one.

And the cool thing about this technique is that if your characters are like mine and have a mind of their own? You can always pin the crime on another character and use your Douchebag Maneuver as a distraction.

Think about the movie Clue and its three endings. The movie was shot in such a way that two members of the cast of despicable idiots could have committed any of the crimes.

Actually, that movie uses all three of these schemes really well. And that’s because they work well when used in conjunction with one another. 

So, be creative. Be original. Break a rule or two. Crafting an interesting journey to the solution is the best way to ensure your novel is fresh and new. And even if a few of your readers see right through you? Make them glad they’re on that path with you. Because that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?