Writing Excuses 17.4: The Gun on the Mantel is Actually a Fish
Key Points: Red herrings help make the inevitable surprising. Aim for inevitable first, build surprise second. Deconstruct shows and books that have deliberate twists to them. Drop fish into your foreshadowing to keep us distracted. Use the tricks of a stage magician, give us other things to watch. Make the red herring story significant, while the actual foreshadowing is just a small thing on the side. Include clues to support multiple endings. Beware the sudden change, and unintentional storytelling without knowing where you are going. Ambiguity can be useful! Use your context to highlight the wrong thing. Use the character that everyone likes to point the reader in the wrong direction. Synonyms, homonyms, and other misdirection. Make sure you deliver in an enticing, wonderful way.
[Season 17, Episode 4]
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, The Gun on the Mantel is Actually a Fish.
[Kaela] 15 minutes long.
[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Megan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Sandra] I’m Sandra.
[Megan] And I’m Meg.
[Howard] I was late with my line about who I am. Okay, last episode, we talked about foreshadowing. I described it as creating a thread which makes a surprise inevitable. This episode, we’re talking about red herrings. This is where we create the thread which makes the inevitable surprising. As we said last week, aim for inevitable first, and then build the surprise second. Because if you fail at inevitable, you’ve got a deus ex machina and we’re disappointed and bewildered and we feel llike we’ve been lied to. If you fail at surprise, we’re like, “Oh, I saw that coming.”
[Which, depending on…]
[Howard] I would much rather have the reader feel like they’re smarter than me than feel like they’re better than me.
[Laughter. Very true. Very, very true.]
[Howard] So. Red herrings. Let’s talk… Some good examples of ’em? Where have you seen them done really well?
[Fish market. [Whisper] I’m kidding.]
[Howard] Mmm. So tasty.
[Kaela] You just really went for that one, Meg.
[Howard] Straight in.
[I was going to give a serious answer.]
[Sandra] I think it’s useful to look at shows or books that have a deliberate twist to them. Where… A frequently used example of this is the Sixth Sense. Where you have this twist that I can see… The kid sees dead people. Oh, our protagonist is dead is the big twist at the end, and the surprise. And yet it is the surprise that makes you want to go back and rewatch the whole movie and see how absolutely clearly inevitable it was. It was absolutely there. So much there that there are many people who saw it coming from scene one. Some people were not surprised. So you go into the movie and you deconstruct and say where… How did they mislead the majority of the audience into believing that Bruce Willis was alive and interacting with the world? They put him in scene after scene after scene where there’s another human in the scene who our brains fill in the blanks, because they are sitting opposite each other in chairs. We assume that there was a part where Bruce Willis knocked on the door and came in and was welcomed and invited to sit down. We don’t see any of that. So the show uses the medium and the automatic back and fill that the medium asks of the audience to get us to back and fill something that absolutely wasn’t there. So the show actually is getting the audience to create their own red herrings. Which is kind of a cool and interesting thing that that particular show does. So that’s one of my examples and it’s fascinating to go through and figure out where was I misled.
[Kaela] Yeah. I think that’s a really good example, particularly leaning into the strengths of your medium to accomplish that. I think one for books was Harry Potter, the first one. I think that was one of the best, like, at least… I mean, admittedly, I was young when I read it, but I still think it holds up really well. The way that they make you think that Snape is the one who’s trying to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone. Because, by all means, it seems completely reasonable. Snape was the one that was muttering a curse when Harry’s broom bucks around and he nearly falls off. Snape seems to hate Harry for absolutely no reason. So you’re like, “Yup, I believe he’s a bad guy.” And, like… There’s the cut on his leg after everybody runs through the troll in the dungeon. So we have pieces of evidence that imply that it is him. But when we find out that it’s Quirrell, we also suddenly remember that Quirrell was in all of the scenes, that Snape was muttering the counter curse, Quirrell got knocked over by Hermoine’s fire stuff, and that broke his concentration for the curse. That Quirrell had run through the dungeon, Snape headed him off, and, like, they were there with Fluffy. Like, they… We forgot Quirrell was there because we were wrapped up with a very good and reasonable explanation of Snape.
[Howard] The… Oh, sorry. I was just going to say, what you’ve described here is a pattern that has a tool built right into it. Which is, any time you are laying a piece of foreshadowing, grab a fish and drop a fish next to it.
[Howard] Okay? You want to have a red herring in there with your foreshadowing, so that the audience can be misled.
[Sandra] Right. We can also take a… Learn things from stage magicians. Where there’s the patter and the hands that are waving because he is moving something from the table in front of him into his pocket. He does this big gesture with his opposite hand and tells a joke because he knows that the audience can only pay attention to a limited number of things at a time. Then there’s also that video with the passing the basketballs and the gorilla that dances through the middle of it. Nobody sees the gorilla because we’re so busy paying attention to the balls. You can do the same things in what you are creating. You can teach them, and teacher audience, okay, pay attention to the ball. Your job is to count how many times the ball is passed. When, truthfully, you’re hiding the gorilla in plain sight. Meg?
[Megan] Yeah. So the idea is to give your red herring story significance while making the actual foreshadowing something that’s just happening to the side or… Like, a small joke in the conversation, where we’re talking about the big important thing. A show that I think does this very well is The Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin. It has some of my favorite examples of long set up and payoffs for a joke in an episode. I’m going to tell you one that just happened now. The payoff won’t be as good because I’m telling you the beginning and the ending right after.
[Howard] Go ahead.
[Megan] You need to imagine there’s 40 minutes in between. But there’s a news anchor, and he’s complaining to his wardrobe assistant that, “Is there something wrong with the pants you give me? Because I keep trying to put them on, and both my legs end up in one side.” The assistant’s like, “You can’t put your pants on, and you think there’s something wrong with the pants?”
[Megan] The A story of this episode is someone is here to do a hatchet job news article about the news agency. He used to date the main producer of the show before she dated the main character, the news anchor. So the reporter and the producer are having a huge argument. She is standing up for the news anchor. She’s like, “You don’t understand. He is a great man. I mean, he struggles with things, but he’s a great man.” As she says struggles with things, we see him hop into the scene, trying to put on his pants.
[Megan] Then he falls over in the background. It’s been a half hour since we mentioned the pants, but it just comes back at like the best moment. So… Check out The Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin.
[Howard] Yeah. That’s the… As a professional humorist, that sort of thing is something that I use a lot. Sandra mentioned stage magic. In the second edition of X-treme Dungeon Mastery, we call attention to the way in which surprise, for a magician… The deception with a magician there should never be a reveal. They have red herrings, but they are never going to tell you how they perform the trick. Whereas as storytellers, the deception needs to be gentler. It can’t be, as we mentioned last week, can’t be animating Hans having a loving, kind, totally genuine expression of love while the music cues and the lighting all say this is a good boy for her to be interested in, when in fact, he’s just making a play for the kingdom. That’s deceptive. We want our reveal, for storytellers, the big payoff is in the reveal. For audiences of magicians, the big payoff is I was deceived and I don’t know how. I use the example… We illustrated the example in the book of the trick knife. If the magician says, “Aha, see, this is where I switched out the actual knife for a knife with a collapsing blade. You didn’t see it, though, did you? But, yeah, the knife just has collapsing blades. Stab, stab, stab.” Big deal. In the movie Knives Out, we are told that there is a knife that has a collapsing blade, and in the very last scene, someone attempts to commit a murder with it, and we find out that they’ve grabbed the wrong knife, and it is delightful. Because we get to see the trick knife.
[Kaela] Knives Out is a master.
[Howard] I just realized… Oh. Go ahead.
[Kaela] I say, Knives Out is a master class in red herrings and guns on the walls and like, seriously, like, pick it apart.
[Howard] So, very, very many. On the subject of red herrings, I have the book of the week. It is And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I picked this one because it is arguably the place in which red herring cemented itself in the colloquial… The jargon for a distraction. The character Vera scolds everybody for being distracted, because in the verse that applies to one of the previous character’s deaths, a red herring swallowed one, and then there were three. She’s saying, “A red herring’s swallowed one, that clearly means Armstrong was not dead. There was a distraction here.” And Then There Were None is a fine book to read. It’s short and it’s very tightly woven.
[Megan] In my eighth grade English class, I disagreed with the ending. I remember meeting with my teacher afterwards, because she was talking about, like, it was inevitable. This is the only way it could end. I’m like, challenge accepted.
[Megan] I wrote a different ending as to who the murderer was and what they were doing. I pointed out it could have happened this way. She’s like, “Okay, Megan. It’s not that deep. But good job.”
[Howard] Here’s the thing. This is… I can’t remember where I got this. I could be speaking out of class. But I have heard said that Agatha Christie often wrote these things three quarters of the way through without knowing who the murderer was herself, and then went back and made sure that the foreshadows in the red herrings all aligned and she had a proper ending in place. Which means if you… Depending on how much of the book you let yourself rewrite, yeah.
[Sandra] Yeah. Well, it’s fascinating, the movie Clue, I don’t know what year it was, but it’s the Tim Curry movie Clue, which did an experiment that they actually filmed three different endings with three different murderers. Then they sent different endings to different theaters.
[Sandra] So, theoretically, you could go see the movie in multiple different theaters and get to see the three endings. Now, in the age of streaming, they just play all three endings one after each other.
[Howard] Yeah, they’ve concatenated the endings and they’ve given the third one, they’re saying, “But this is what really happened.”
[Sandra] Right. But the whole thing is written so that there are clues to support every single ending. Which is valuable as a writer to deconstruct, because the vital clue for one ending is a red herring for a different ending, and so you can pull that apart.
[Megan] So, the writers’ strike of 2002 hit a lot of shows very hard. One of the shows it hit quite hard was the procedural Bones…
[Megan] Which is one of my favorite shows of all time. There is a recurring murderer in the third season. Which is rare for this show. Normally, we get our guy every time they show up. But there is a recurring murderer that is a cannibalistic cultist that eats people’s faces. Like the Sith, there’s always a master and an apprentice. At the very end of the season, it is revealed that someone on our team is the apprentice of the murder. Even though throughout about 90% of the season, this person has been making discovery after discovery, helping us track down the murderer. So you try and rewatch that season, and there is no clear moment when this character betrays us until you can see in the writers’ room that… Well, or lack of a writers’ room, I’m not entirely sure how the writers’ strike wrapped up the season. But…
[Megan] They had to cut the season early, and about two episodes from the end, this character starts actively working against us. But it’s clear to see that that was a decision made much later on in the season, and it doesn’t logically follow. So what we have earlier aren’t red herring, it’s just unintentional storytelling before we knew where we were going. Because you can’t go back… [Garbled]
[Howard] It was the writers’ phone booth, not room, because…
[Howard] Phoning it in. Because… That joke would have played better if I told it sooner. What other tools do we have for creating satisfying red herrings in order to make the inevitable surprising?
[Kaela] I think one of the things that… You have to use this carefully, but ambiguity is a very helpful tool when depicting things. Because ambiguity is the… Or almost an objectivity. Like, this is what happened. These are the facts of what happened. But a lot of storytelling is contextualizing what has happened. So, if you can show what happened and either just leave it there as if it’s not important or touch on the… Like, use your context to put only one part of it in focus, without obscuring the view of the rest of what happened, you can use that ambiguity to your advantage to get people to look at the wrong thing or to pay attention to the wrong thing. That still makes sense, but you haven’t hidden anything from them. You’re just leaving it ambiguous or uncommented on.
[Howard] One of the things that I try to do is take the character who is the most charismatic, the character that everybody likes the most, and have that person look at the wrong thing. The right thing is someplace else, but the person we like is looking at the wrong thing. Now, obviously, you can’t do this all the time, or you’re just like, “Okay. Check everything in the room that he didn’t look at. That’s a possible clue. That list of things will thread to the answer.” But, yeah, the audience is going to follow… They’re going to follow the funny, they’re going to follow the cool turns of phrase, the… When I write, I try and put the funny around the wrong thing enough of the time that people mislead themselves.
[Kaela] The power of misdirection. Like you were talking about with the magician’s stuff, where you’re shoving the context over here. That doesn’t mean that you turn out the lights on everything else and you are deceiving them, but you’re like, “Hey, look at this cool thing.” I love using a trusted, likable character to do that. Where you’re like, “Oh, I love this character. I appreciate this character.” Or even “I trust this character, they’re really smart.” Then, you’re like, “Oh, but they didn’t have all of the picture either. They didn’t tell me that this thing was the answer, but I thought it was.”
[Howard] Sandra. Sorry.
[Sandra] A quick set of tools depending on what medium you’re working in. If you’re in a prose medium, you can use synonyms and homonyms carefully. That’s a potential tool depending on what you’re writing. Auditory, then you want things that sound the same but mean different things. Then visual mediums, you can do visual misdirection again. So it’s all… Just another set of tools to think about. Meg?
[Megan] I want to kind of wrap this up by saying it’s okay if the audience guesses what’s coming, if you can deliver on it in a very enticing way. That’s Chekhov’s cauldron of hot lead is coming back. Because I had just assumed they were going to put on some red and orange lights when it’s time to spill it, because we’re in a small theater, we’re inside. They set off fireworks inside the building.
[Megan] There was just a fountain of real live sparks and fire on the stage. So I knew the scene was coming, and just didn’t care. Then they delivered with an actual explosion. I was like, “Oh. I was wrong. Oh, my gosh.” So, that was great. That was wonderful.
[Howard] The 1812 overture…
[Howard] Done by the high school, in which the sheriff is backstage firing his shotgun into a bucket.
[Howard] Sandra, I think you got this week’s homework. We could keep talking and talking and talking about this. We need to get people homework.
[Sandra] Yeah. The homework is, this is a paired episode with last week’s episode. So, do the reverse of last week’s homework. Instead of finding a thing in the beginning and writing a scene at the end, find something that is important at the end and find a place early where you can rewrite the scene to put that on the mantle in some way. Then, maybe, take some of the tricks and tools to magician misdirect so that it’s there, but it is not the focus of attention. So…
[Howard] Outstanding. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.