Red Herrings, typically found in mysteries and suspense novels, are not the only diversions in fiction.
You could set off a false alarm, prompting laughter (perhaps fire sprinklers set off by lovers’ overuse of candles) or a disaster unrelated or tangent to the plot’s main goal (the getaway car overheats so the bad guy must run to find a taxi). Even more fun, create a fake danger such as a false ticking time bomb distracting your protagonist from the actual threat. One technique you can use is the Boy Who Cries Wolf. Have a false alarm go off three times and only the third turns out to be a real one warranting action. Horror movies use the noise-around-the-corner this way.
Aspects of a character can be diversions from the most important threat. In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger brilliantly explained his Joker slit-face at various points in the story. Each time his tale was different. That took our attention off the main plot momentarily each time as we pondered the truth of his latest tall tale. It was creepy and entertaining and revealing of an aspect of his character, but it wasn’t essential to the plot line.
A character might lie, leading the protagonist and reader to suspect the lie is related to the plot, yet it turns out to not be. This lie acts as a distraction as well as a red herring. They aren’t key to the plot or solving the mystery, but they extend the suspense and tease and keep the readers guessing.
Make no mistake; diversions aren’t important only to a mystery audience. Romance makes use of them. How many of us remember vividly the restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan…. Well, I’ll assume you know what she did. It wasn’t essential to the plot, but it caught our attention and made the movie something people talked about; it was even emulated by those with thick skins and twisted senses of humor.
Pop in a surprise that is unrelated to the plot yet adds to the emotional content. Have a bird poop on your character as he’s racing to catch the bus. See how he reacts. One character will cuss up a storm. Another will laugh at his continued misfortune. A real nut might lick it off his shoulders. Sorry for that visual!
You can divert attention using tiny details that add suspense or a feeling that something’s not quite right. Find the front door wide open; have a gun jam during a skeet shooting scene; have a cell phone’s battery run out. These are not meant to be true warning signs. A character can create this type of distraction; a secondary character might wear a mask that doesn’t really hide anything important. They are diversions because they never pan out yet are plausible and seeming threats.
Have someone do something suspicious but only to get some attention.
Create a true hazard; divert attention from it with unrelated action. Then bring it back in a real disaster. Think Indiana Jones and the pit of snakes. On the other hand, one could give a character a weakness that the reader assumes will pan out but plays no serious role in the plot. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum has a pet hamster but, other than the threat of her not returning in time to feed it, we don’t need it to solve her mysteries. Throw in some nosy neighbors peeking out the window offering only a humorous break from the action. You may remember the riotous Fun with Dick and Jane in which the nosy neighbor only adds to embarrassment. In the old TV show, Bewitched, there was a weekly artificial threat – Gladys Kravitz’s exposure of Samantha’s special powers. Talk about an interminable Boy Who Cried Wolf technique.
Props (such as Columbo’s recurring raggedy coat and Barretta’s cockatiel) can act as diversions, offering a sense of familiarity and sometimes comedic relief.
Try adding a few extra diversions to your plot in order to distract or fool or tease your reader. Then see what happens.
About the Writer: Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at www.karenalbrightlin.com.