Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fishing in the Red Herring Pool

In my suspense novel Fool Me Twice the reader knows from the beginning who the bad guys are. It’s not a whodunit—it’s more of a whydunit, what are they really up to, and will the heroine realize the danger in time. You can create just as much suspense when the reader knows the identity of the villain as when the reader doesn’t—it just depends on what type of story you want to tell. In a suspense novel, you don’t necessarily need to hide the identity of the villain; the suspense in the reader’s mind arises from story questions other than, “Who killed Bob?” But in a mystery, where whodunit plays a big role, you want to keep the reader guessing.

Concealing the villain and misdirecting the mystery reader is a balancing act for a writer, and requires the presence of red herrings—characters other than the real villain whom the reader can suspect of committing the crime (the term “red herring” comes from the fish used to confuse hunting dogs following a trail). Mystery readers like misdirection on the trail.

Creating red herrings can be a challenge. One of these days, I’d like to write another suspense novel where the villain isn’t hidden—my last three books, including the book coming out this fall (as well as my work in progress), all have a whodunit element. I think it’s time to write a book that scraps the whodunit, starts off by announcing that Jane killed Bob and then, whew, now that that’s out of way, we can move on. No red herrings needed. Sounds good to me.

But meanwhile, as I develop my current WIP, I’m still splashing around in the red herring pond. The good news: so far I have a handful of possible suspects. Fish all around! The shocking news: I’m thinking of de-herring-izing one of the main suspects. To the other characters, he’ll still be a suspect, but to the reader, he won’t be.

I know. Why would I do such a wacky thing? Normally, the more the merrier when it comes to stocking the herring pool, but I’m wondering if I need to change my approach with this character. He’s a good potential villain, but the heroine is coming up too short on people to trust—I don’t want the book to feel so bleak that it’s just depressing. I’d like her to start trusting this guy, but right now, I fear he’s a little too creepy—not for anything he’s done, but because of what some people believe about him. In order to soften him, make him more appealing, and get the reader rooting for him (and to make it more credible that the heroine would come to trust him), maybe I need to plunge into his point of view and let the reader see things through his eyes.

It’s worth a try, anyway, and though it's a shame to lose him from the suspect pool, I think the benefit to the story might outweigh the loss of him as a possible villain. Fortunately, in this story the reader doesn’t need to know any facts about the villain (for example, whether it’s a man or a woman), so that makes it easier to add more herring to the pool. Even the butler could have done it (guess it's time to hire a butler).

I did an opposite type of red-herring flip in my upcoming novel Rearview Mirror. I had a character who was a POV character and not a suspect. Because the book was too long, I decided to cut her POV scenes. This both helped tighten things and added the bonus of allowing her to become a red herring, since the reader was no longer inside her thoughts. You can have scenes from the villain’s POV without giving things away; I've done it twice. In one story, you knew you were in the villain's POV but didn't know who he was; in the other, you knew the character, but his/her thoughts didn't lead you to the revelation of his/her guilt. The POV scenes worked for that character; they wouldn't work for every villainous character. Often, jumping into the villain's thoughts means exposing his crime. But in the case of my WIP, I'm seeking the opposite effect--jumping into the suspect's thoughts so the reader can see that he's a nice guy.

If I don't like the effect, I can always toss him back in the pond.


  1. It's always interesting for me to get a peek into your process. I'm really looking forward to Rearview Mirror!

  2. Thank you, Shanda! I hope you like it!

  3. Oooo ... clever girl. As a fan of Wheel of Time series as we've speculated on who might be good guys and who might be bad, looking back on whether we ever got a POV scene with certain characters can tell a lot.

    "my last three books, including the book coming out this fall (as well as my work in progress), all have a whodunit element."

    So ... are you saying Philip didn't do it? O_o

  4. Donna, I'd better not say anything at all, lest I give something away :)

  5. Great advice! Like Shanda, I love reading about your process!

  6. It's funny, because I too thought that we knew "whodunnit" in Cold as Ice...

    I guess I can't say too much, but I thought the ... love interest in that one came across as a bit creepy when we first met him.

  7. Uh, oh. I think I just met him (in the book) ... because there was a handsome but creepy guy. I need to exercise more since I'm limited in my reading time. *sigh*

  8. Thanks, Jordan!

    And I'm already starting to rethink my strategy on my WIP's handsome-yet-possibly-creepy guy. I started a scene from his POV and it just wasn't adding much. Hmm . . .

  9. What fun it was to join you in brainstorming about your novel, like we were all sitting in a room enjoying each other's company, laughing, and talking over ideas for our books as writer friends! Thanks for inviting us over!
    And thanks for being a follower on my blog!

  10. Thank you, Brenda! I'm so glad I found your blog! So fun to be able to stay in touch.

  11. I feel the sudden need to use the word deherringize in a sentence.

  12. :) Excellent. It'll be in the next Oxford Unabridged.