Until recently I didn't think this was a controversial opinion. I thought it was a standard approach to writing mysteries. Sure, I'd sometimes heard authors say before that they didn't need to explain by the end of their stories why Character X said Y because Y was a red herring, but I thought they were mistaken, and since I wasn't their teacher, it wasn't my place to correct their misguided notion. But recently I edited a story by an author I respect, someone who's a solid writer, and the issue arose. Since I was this person's editor, it was my job to say my piece.
I'm going to talk about the story, but I'm completely changing the names and plot so that you can't identify the author because who this person is doesn't matter. In the whodunit story, Princess Consuella tells Annie the Amateur Sleuth that murder suspect Bad Bad Leroy Brown lied about something, based on personal observation, and therefore, it seems, Leroy must be the killer. Princess Consuella was believable and seemed absolutely certain, so I suspect most readers would have finished that scene believing Leroy had indeed lied and thus must have been the killer. It's what I thought. Yet at the end of the story, I learned I'd been fooled. Leroy may be bad, but he never killed anyone--at least not in that story.
I raised the problem with the author--that no explanation of Princess Consuella's statement about Bad Bad Leroy Brown was provided by the story's end. Either Leroy did lie (which by the story's end didn't seem right, since we never learned any reason Leroy would have lied about the issue in question) or the princess had been wrong (but how could that have been true, since she had seen with her own eyes the thing she was certain Leroy lied about, and it wasn't the type of thing that could have been misunderstood, and she had no reason to lie, either). The reader would be left wondering how to reconcile this situation, so some explanation should be provided, I said. The author pushed back, saying that no explanation was necessary since it was a red herring designed to fool the reader into thinking the wrong suspect was the killer. The reader learns who the actual killer is by the end, and that's what matters, the author said; we don't need to revisit the red herring.
That response prompted me to do some research about red herrings. Had I been wrong all these years? Did red herrings, by their very nature, not require explanation? To my surprise, I found nothing addressing this issue. There are a lot of articles about crafting solid red herrings, but I found nothing addressing the idea that red herrings should be explained by a story's end, that the reader should be able to understand how she got fooled. Even now, some time later, I remain quite surprised, because if authors can toss in red herrings without eventually providing an explanation for them, it makes writing too easy. It feels like a cheat.
In the case of Bad Bad Leroy Brown, sure, he could have been lying for reasons the reader never learns, despite seeming to have no reason to lie. Alternately, Princess Consuella could have lied for reasons the reader never learns about or she could have been wrong, despite being so certain and giving the reader no reason to explain how she could have been so mistaken. It certainly would make life easy for authors if they could write red herrings that didn't have to be explained in the end, but I think it would leave readers with a bad taste in their mouths. That is why I believe such scenarios need to be resolved. Did Leroy lie and why? Or did the princess get it wrong and how could that be? Without an explanation, the red herring feels contrived. It makes me feel like the author was playing games with me.
This is why I recommended the author use a little misdirection when the red herring was introduced. More specifically, I suggested that when the princess called Leroy a liar, the author should use the wiggle word "recall" in the dialogue. Notice the slight difference:
Scenario B: The princess slams her hand on the table, its sound echoing throughout the castle. "Bad Bad Leroy Brown is a liar! I was sitting right next to him in the dungeon cafe last week, and I don't recall him leaving money for his meal on the table when he left. I wonder what else he's lying about. I bet he rips off restaurants throughout the kingdom all the time. He's a rip-off artist."
In Scenario A, the reader ends the story shrugging, thinking Leroy (who has a reputation for honesty, despite his name) had no reason to lie when he said he paid for his lunch, yet the princess's adamant accusation against Leroy remains unexplained. (She too had no reason to lie and her certainty indicated she hadn't made a mistake.) In Scenario B, the reader can go back and reread the language of the princess's accusation and think, "Oh. The author fooled me."
Here's why Scenario B works: Because (1) the reader has no reason to think the princess lied; (2) the princess seems so certain, so the reader will believe her account; and (3) the princess distracts the reader by slamming the table, muttering about what else Leroy might have lied about, and declaring that he's a rip-off artist, the reader easily could read right past the key words--the princess didn't recall Leroy leaving his payment. When the reader gets to the end of the story, she could flip back to reread the princess's accusation and think, "Oh! It was right there. She merely didn't remember it. I was distracted by her certainty. I was fooled fair and square." That's the way to make a red herring work. That's the way to make the reader feel satisfied rather than feeling played.
Alternately, the reader could learn by the story's end that Leroy did lie for reasons unrelated to the murder. If there was a good reason for his lie, especially something that worked well with the plot, then revealing both the lie and the reason for it could have elevated the story. It also could have left the reader feeling satisfied because, while she was fooled, she wasn't played for a fool. Distracting the reader into missing a key word is playing fair with the reader. In contrast, dropping a lie into the story to fool the reader without any ultimate explanation isn't playing fair, not to me, at least.
So that's my advice about red herrings. If you're going to use them, make sure they're explained by the end so they don't seem contrived. Otherwise, you're taking an easy way out and you're not playing fair with the reader. Just like fish that sits out too long, that approach stinks.
I welcome your comments on this issue. And if I'm wrong and there are tons of articles addressing this subject and I need to brush up on my research skills, please share that information too.
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