Last post, we solved the mystery!
Technically, we invented the solution of the mystery, so that we can start working backward. But solving the mystery sounds cooler.
In this post, we’re going to choose the red herring that keeps the mystery from being too easy for the reader (and hero) to solve.
But first, what is a red herring? According to dictionary.com, a red herring is: “something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand; a misleading clue.” These are smoke and mirrors that keep the audience focused on the wrong thing. These allow us to surprise even the savvy viewer.
Typically there are a number of these false trails in a story. We can have a handful of quickly–discarded suspicions acting as red herrings in the first act, the first logical assumptions that the main character might leap to. However, because of the nature of our mystery, we need a strong distraction. This is why we’re going to dedicate an entire post to red herrings.
First, the small misdirections. What might be the first suspicions of our character when a gun is shoved in his face? He might think that this is a joke, that the gun is fake. Then he will likely suspect that the woman sitting across from him is a lunatic, and that this might be entirely random. The woman’s demeanor will probably dispel both of these thoughts.
What next? Maybe he’ll think she’s scaring him so that he’ll give her money, and is only making it clear that she is willing to kill him so that he won’t make a scene. Knowing our villain, the suggestion that she’s just after money may anger her. In any case, she will make it abundantly clear that this isn’t the case.
Will he think that she has the wrong guy? She can correct him about that quickly.
It’s only after dismissing these that the character will start looking in what seems to be the right direction.
Keep in mind, this is the answer that we want the audience to believe we’re leading to for the majority of the movie. In order to make our red herring work, we will need its resolution to be almost as compelling as the true answer. It will be under many of the same constraints. It can’t be a misunderstanding, and it can’t make our hero monstrous. It can’t be something so prominent in the character’s mind that it’s the first answer he would jump to–but at the same time, it has to be something he’d suspect before the true answer. It also has to reveal something significant about the character. The revelation of this event must also lead to real character development, and will change the way that the main characters interact.
We also need to take the real reveal into consideration. Because the real answer deals with his job, let’s make the red herring concern something in his personal life.
What does our character’s home life look like?
He’s a guy in his mid-thirties, he’s had this job for a good five years and probably spent six or seven years in college before that. I want him to have friends and family, possibly even be married and have a kid or two. This is a man who still has his whole life ahead of him.
To be honest, right now our guy is pretty boring. He’s too perfect. I’ve attributed nothing but positive qualities to him, in an effort to make him sympathetic despite what we might discover about him later. But now it’s time to start putting in some flaws, some room for him to grow over the course of the story. This red herring is a good place to do that.
If the red herring is going to have meaning and power, then it needs to be something central to the character, something that defines who he is today. The decisions he’s made in his life have been a result of this event.
Because the real reveal is settled very much around who the character currently is and takes place relatively recently, I should balance that out. Let’s set the red herring many years ago, and let’s present that version of the character as the furthest thing from what he is today.
The current version of the character has a career, an education, a support system, and hope for the future. He helps people for a living. What’s the furthest thing from that? Jobless, ignorant, alone, lost. Hurting people without regard for anyone but himself.
Our hero was an addict.
Like suicide, addiction is a serious issue that is all-too-often used for cheap emotional punch by writers. Millions of people suffer from it; I can’t imagine many families don’t have someone that struggles with it. I know my own family has. However, like suicide, addiction not only fills the needs of the plot, but it can drive character development and help explore the themes of the movie from a different angle. It feels like it fits and it feels like I can say something worthwhile by featuring it in this story.
For now, the needs of the plot. Why does this fit?
We can set this long ago, before he became a physical therapist, before he even went to college. It can be a turning point in the character’s life, something that remains meaningful even after it’s revealed that it’s not the key to the entire plot. Because it can happen years ago, the specific event that serves as the red herring can be unclear until the moment that this backstory is revealed. And it’s easy to believe that an addict may have done something that got someone killed.
Where he’s at now can stand in stark contrast to where he once was. Who he is now becomes an achievement, and the strength of the character becomes something to admire because it feels earned. But at the same time, it can start to suggest character conflicts that bring this character to life.
Can you hold a position in a medical field if it comes out that you were an addict? Is this character hiding his past, hiding from it? Is he, then, defined by his past every bit as much as the villain? Is learning to accept and move on the lesson he learns from this story? Might this be his arc?
Perhaps he did hurt someone as an addict in his late teens/early twenties. Whether meaning to or not, he might have been responsible for the loss of a life. The guilt of this moment could have driven him from his addiction, could have motivated him to get his life back on track. Having hurt someone in the past, it may have become the force that pushed him into helping people for a living.
To take it a step further, what if he made the mistake that constitutes the true answer to the mystery because of this part of his past? What if him wanting to blend in made him unwilling to stand up for the patient? Him being defined by his past is what set this entire plot into motion. This idea helps to make the red herring feel natural and allows the plot to maintain cohesion, rather than feeling as if we only introduced this to trick the audience.
I like this. The main character now has a weight of history behind him, something to hide, and a character flaw, all in one. But what one event could have changed his life so drastically?
It’s not murder. It wouldn’t take him a half hour of discussion to suspect that was the problem, and even years later, it would be hard to forget. He didn’t actively cause the end of someone’s life. Much like the real answer, he let someone die through inaction.
This character is increasingly defined by fear. It would fit with his character to have run away from a problem rather than helping. The first thing that comes to mind is that one of his addict friends overdosed. In a panic, instead of helping, he ran. Instead of reporting it to save his friend, he saved himself from possible repercussions, told himself that his friend survived, but never wanted to know for sure.
I feel this manages a fine balance. He did something terrible. Something that changes his life forever. But it’s not something that immediately makes us lose all sympathy for him. And because he never knows for sure that the person died, he doesn’t carry the full weight of it. He thinks he’s moved on from it, even though we can see that it still shapes many of his thoughts and actions.
With any luck, this slowly-revealed backstory will be flashy enough to distract the audience while I sprinkle hints at the truth throughout the story. Either way, I think these work well together, and all help with character and theme as well as plot.
Both of these resonate through who this character is, and he hasn’t really moved on from either. The events of the movie, should he survive them, will teach him to accept his mistakes and their consequences, and allow him to move on.
Now that we have some idea of the characters, mystery, and setting, it’s time to work on plot. My next few posts will be building an outline.