1. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    How many red herrings is too many?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Imaginarily, Aug 22, 2016.

    So I may or may not have been neglecting my own presence here for the last many weeks, and for that I may or may not be really sorry. ._. *shame*

    So I'm curious as to the function and validity of red herrings — like, the first few chapters of my WIP are going to be red herrings now, with my new and improved plotline. If the writing is interesting and engaging enough, my plot can take off wherever it wants, right? I can take readers down all kinds of roads as long as I've got their attention — right?

    I'm asking this because I feel like the first few chapters, as they are, with Jack doing the things he's doing, would serve as great world-building and character introduction type of things, and don't need to be removed or rewritten to serve New Plot #47.

    Obviously the plot has to start somewhere, and in my head now it's going to be a jarring phone call. Surprise to the protag in his daily life, surprise to the reader? Eh?
     
  2. theamorset
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    theamorset Contributing Member

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    I don't like to yank the reader around too much. I limit my red herrings to 256.
     
  3. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    You can set your bloodhounds after any number of red herrings, so long as the genuine trail is there for the reader to go back and trace, even if they didn't pick up on it the first time around.
     
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  4. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    The only way to find out is to write your story the way you want to write it. Once you're done, try it out on a few trustworthy beta readers. And listen to their feedback.

    I presume 'red herrings' are potential plotlines that don't actually happen the way the reader supposes they will, and are included to throw the reader off the scent of the 'real' plot development. If your beta readers are irritated by this sidetracking rather than excited and surprised by what actually happens, then you might want to re-think your approach.

    Discovering these kinds of issues is what a first draft is for, and that's why it's so important to finish one, and let others give you feedback. YOU know what your story intentions were, but only a beta can let you know if your intentions have succeeded.
     
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  5. SethLoki
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    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    I pass off my loose ends by dying them red and calling them herrings. * whistles
     
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  6. theamorset
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    theamorset Contributing Member

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    I think it also helps if there is someone in the mix who isn't pulled off the track by the red herring.

    And if it's a mystery, some things have to be hidden til the last.
     
  7. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would think that no matter how many red herrings are laid out, one of them would stand out as being the red herring of all red herrings so that it would serve the purpose of distracting the reader from what really happened. I don't even try to write detective fiction because I'm shit at all that subtle making-something-stand-out-when-it's-not-really-important stuff.

    I just paint the herrings blue and get on with life.
     
  8. Scot
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    Scot Active Member

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    Herring barrels contained somewhere between 700 and 1100 cured fish; which is of absolutely no help to you at all. :)

    For red herrings in your novel? Fewer than half the number of chapters sounds about right. All IMHO of course.
     
  9. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    I intend to hide everything I can for as long as I can, because spoilers.

    Can you elaborate on your first point here? I'm curious what you mean specifically.
     
  10. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    Not exactly a helpful response, but no more than you can handle. I mean, depending on what you've got going on, "too many" can be four. Beta readers will definitely help with this, because if the reader feels like you pulled the resolution of story out of the orifice of your choice, then you've got too many.
     
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  11. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    I think one red herring is enough, and if you have more you run the risk of it coming off as 'gimmicky'. The reason for having a red herring is to hide a twist, or a surprise. But if you have more than one, there should be a reason other than just hiding the surprise on it's own.
     
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  12. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    I think it depends on the type of plot - for example if you are writing a relatively accurate police procedural ( like the dead series by peter james) then there will be lots of red herrings and blind avenues because thats typical of a major police investigation into a complex crime

    If on the other hand you are writing a revenge thriller (like without remorse by tom clancy) then you might not need any red herrings if your plot is sufficiently fast paced and exciting

    As MOAM said the absolute guide is the number you can handle , otherwise you wind up with an unbelievable plot full of wholes and credibility lapses
     
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  13. Sack-a-Doo!
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    I've been doing some more thinking on this and if TV crime shows are anything to go by, perhaps two is the perfect number of red herrings.

    • the crime scene is examined
    • questioning of witnesses/connected people starts
    • the obvious suspect is pursued (1st red herring)
    • something happens that takes suspicion off the obvious suspect
    • the detective zeros in on a new suspect (2nd red herring)
    • and just as they're about to nail that suspect, new evidence appears and
    • the perpetrator is revealed.
     
  14. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    Okay but I'm not writing a crime drama. o_O
     
  15. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Interesting. I didn't know they were used outside crime stories.

    You've got me curious now.
     
  16. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    I can't tell if this is sarcasm or not
     
  17. mrieder79
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    mrieder79 Not a ground squirrel

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    Just make sure your red herrings dovetail into the narrative smoothly, preserving a logical progression and natural flow. Don't go too far into left field. Write the story, read it, and see what you think. You'll know if it works or not. Then you get to edit!
     
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  18. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    Red Herrings are a plot device which is pretty firmly associated with the crime/mystery genre. I can't say say I've ever heard of them being used outside of some sort of investigation, even if it's the court wizard trying to find out who cursed the king.
     
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  19. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    Really? I thought it was a generic term for misdirective plots...
     
  20. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    It's primarily used in connection with an investigation story. And an investigation doesn't necessarily have to be "Who is the killer?", but it could be "What is the cure for this virus?"
    Another version could be the Romantic False Lead (eg: Jacob, in Twilight), or Ruby Slippers (you had the power to go home all along!), or the Underdog (the dorky kid is a great dancer!)
     
  21. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I get annoyed if it feels like the author is deliberately misleading me to create mystery. I don't get annoyed in a detective novel, because the MC is just as confused as me, but if the MC is holding stuff back from me, I don't like it. Mostly because I need to feel close to characters to enjoy a book (generally, some exceptions).

    I don't think what you're describing are red herrings. If Jack's going about his daily life for a few chapters and then the inciting incident (the phone call) occurs, that's just... normal pacing. If I spend 1/3 of the book thinking it's going to be Plot A, and then Jack is all LOL READER I'VE BEEN LYING AND HERE'S PLOT B, I'll probably be pissed.

    ...I think @jannert is right. It all comes down to whether you can pull it off, and only betas can tell you that.
     
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  22. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    Oh okay. Thanks for the clarification. :-D

    Not to worry, Jack doesn't lie. :-D

    Yeah that seems to be the most constructive answer...
     
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  23. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Imaginarily,

    Are you really talking incorporating 'red herrings' for the betterment of the story? Or is it that you've written some early chapters that you really like, but that they don't align with the plot moving forward (ie: Plot change #47 alluded to), and what you want to know is: How much can you get away with, with respect to potential readers--using and not revising the early chapters to align with the later chapters and the story's direction?

    It's possible I misread or misunderstood your original question or concern.

    If it is the case as I correctly interpreted the question/concern, maybe finish the story/novel, considering potential new plot changes. When you reach the end, go back and revise and make the storyline flow...keeping what's appropriate, and cutting and/or revising what isn't, and adding in more 'content' if necessary, which could include red herrings.

    Just my two cents.
     
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  24. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    They're not there just to be there, no. I started this story with one plot in mind, changed the plot after some stuff had been written, wrote to that new plot, and then every time I wrote things I kept changing my mind. So yes, I guess my real question here is how much can I get away with, without having to cut and edit? What these scrapped plotlines turn out to be now are just routine events in my protagonist's daily (nightly) life...

    I think I will have to take the route you suggest — and then find some betas, since nobody wants to read half a story. Back to work with me! :write:

    ...Now if I could only find the discipline to actually write ... :wtf:
     
  25. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines a literary red herring as : "something unimportant that is used to stop people from noticing or thinking about something important."

    If it's done skillfully, red herrings work a treat in many kinds of stories. It's routine to use them in detective stories, but any time your protagonist is either avoiding or doesn't know 'the truth,' then red herrings are appropriate. Make the reader look at—oh, look, a squirrel!—something else while you quietly set up the real story. Then when you finally reveal what's really going on, the reader's reaction should be: oh, yes, of course, I should have seen that coming.
     
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