Plot Devices: Foreshadowing and Red Herrings

29 May

There’s this book I’m reading. It’s making me grit my teeth.  A lot.

I’m not going to name and shame, not just yet.  I’m a quarter of the way through and still determined to chug along to the end, but more because I like the frame story than because I like the meat of the book.   Add to that the odd compulsion I have that, once I start a book I need to finish it, and I’m doomed to stick this one out for another 600 or so pages.  (I’ve gotten better about the compulsion, by the way.  Some things I can put down.  Others I’ll skim.  But doing either of those is damned hard for me.)

Anyway, this book.  Remember when we talked about Chekhov’s Gun?  I mentioned my penchant for catching the not-really-throwaway lines and the camera angles that linger a fraction of a section too long on something seemingly insignificant.  The author is doing that on just about every page.  Some are intended to misdirect, others are real clues.

The problem is, it’s overkill, and it’s an insult to both the character’s and the reader’s intelligence — especially when we’re then following the protagonist around as he chases every last wild goose in the gaggle.

Writers, don’t do this.  Some misdirection is fine — great, even — when it adds to the tension and lets you develop character or drop more clues toward the actual plot.  But beware of meandering.  If the characters are following false lead after false lead and the plot doesn’t progress, your readers will get bored.

Ask yourself what’s so important about the dead ends?

  • How does being wrong about a hunch or misinterpreting a clue impact the story?  Maybe while your character was following a false lead, the villain took the opportunity to strike again.  Or maybe the character’s insistence on sticking to a cold trail shows that he can be stubborn to a fault, or that he’s feeling increasingly desperate to solve the case.
  • What are the consequences of jumping to the wrong conclusion?  Did your hero just accuse his best friend of betraying him?  How does the friend react?  Does it tip the hero’s hand and let the villain get away?

If the answer to those is instead a resounding silence, chances are they can be cut or quickly dismissed by the characters.  Right now, in this book I’m reading (oh, this book.  GRRRR, this book) we’re running down a checklist of all the things a mysterious ailment isn’t, and all the people who aren’t causing it, when, oh, a hundred pages ago, the ailment was not only heavily foreshadowed, but the only person who isn’t a suspect has been acting increasingly guilty and weird.

What I’m trying to say is this:  trust your readers.  Start by trusting your characters.  If you’ve declared that Joe Detective is the Best Private Eye Ever, ask yourself if he’d fall for all the tricks you’re throwing at him.  Don’t bestow exceptional intelligence or uncanny powers of intuition upon your characters unless you’re going to let them use those assets.

Why did Randy live through Scream when his classmates were dying left and right?  Because he never forgot The Rules:

And neither did the scriptwriters.


5 Responses to “Plot Devices: Foreshadowing and Red Herrings”

  1. Liz Hellebuyck May 29, 2011 at 10:58 pm #

    The book your reading sounds really bad. I understand you wanting to finish what you started though. I fight with that too.

    I like the way you explain a red herring. I am working on my first novel, I only have one red herring, but the way you explained the necessity of it really helps me think about it more. I want to make sure it adds to the story.

    • falconesse June 1, 2011 at 10:14 am #

      I’m not opposed to red herrings in general, as long as they either move the plot along or develop a character. I’m also rereading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods right now, and the misdirection in there is done brilliantly and with about half the pages. (I’m sorely tempted to compare this other book to it when I’ve finished both, actually.)

      Good luck on your novel!

  2. Jason May 30, 2011 at 2:36 am #

    If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re reading Wise Man’s Fear.


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