Bright Red Herrings in Flashing Neon

Happy New Year!

I hope the coming year brings you wonderful things and multiple viewings of The Force Awakens.

I finished reading a book yesterday. This in and of itself is news because it means the book was good enough to keep my attention the entire way through, which is not always easy. The book is The Screaming Staircase, the first book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. I really enjoyed the world he set up, and his prose was smooth and kept me turning pages, so I recommend it to anyone looking for a fun, supernatural middle grade yarn.

And now I’m going to go all negative on it.

Not that it’s bad, because it isn’t (see my recommendation above). But it commits a fatal flaw that would have had me toss the book aside if Stroud wasn’t as good a writer as he is.

SPOILER ALERT

Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.

I always wanted to say that. 🙂

OK, in all seriousness, here’s my beef.

Stroud gives us a mystery. A whodunnit. It is not the central plot of the book, but it is a large element. He then gives us a suspect–a horrible man who was the last known to see the victim alive. There is no direct evidence implicating this man, but our characters very quickly decide it has to be him. He’s just so evil, it must be him. So he’s arrested.

The fact that he’s a red herring is so ridiculously obvious, my four-year-old cat could have picked it up. In fact, she did. She was on my lap while I read the book, and when the new guy showed up, she jumped off my lap and threw up a hairball.  He’s not a Red Herring, he’s a (title of post alert) Bright Red Herring in Flashing Neon. With big yellow arrows pointing to him and a dancing penguin tap-dancing ‘red herring’ in Morse code on the page.

Then another character shows up out of the blue with a too-good-to-be-true offer for the characters. While there is no mention of any connection to the murder, anyone with a pulse (and many without one, this is a supernatural story about ghosts after all) notices that the new guy has all the necessary factors that would connect him with the murder. He’s the right age. He’s a guy.

That’s pretty much all you need.

So here I am, three-fifths of the way through the book, and I suddenly know the big twist awaiting me at the end. I try to tell myself that maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Stroud, who is a good writer, is throwing me a left hook after a fake right-handed slam to the gut. Maybe I’ll get to the end and be all ‘Wow! I didn’t see that coming! Brilliant! Woo hoo!’

Nope.

I get to the end (enjoy the the read the entire time) and the reveal lays out for me like a kitty hoping for a back rub. And it’s exactly what I thought. And I’m bummed.

Did knowing the twist dim my enjoyment of the book? Yes, though only a bit. I’m still planning on reading the second book of the series, because the world is really cool and the characters are fun to follow. But Stroud’s a good author. Why, then, did he telegraph his twist?

One of his problems is a lack of suspects. In the immortal film, Throw Mama From the Train, Billy Crystal explains to Danny DeVito that DeVito’s book doesn’t work because it’s called “Murder at My Friend Larry’s” and there are only two characters, one of whom dies half-way through.

By creating such an obvious red herring, Stroud leaves us wondering who the real killer might be. Since the murder happened 50 years ago, we know it has to be someone old enough to have been alive 50 years ago. At the time of the red herring, there is literally no other character old enough to have committed the murder. And then we suddenly, out-of-the-blue, meet an older character.

It’s not hard to connect the dots.

My upcoming novel Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (have you pre-ordered your copy yet?) doesn’t really have a ‘gotcha!’ twist in it, but my second book, the untitled (for now) book being published in 2017, does. I spent a lot of time with my reveal, working backwards, making sure it wasn’t obvious. Leaving tantalizing hints that are not too obvious, but also making sure there are other plausible suspects. I had my advanced readers let me know if they thought it was either too obvious or too ‘swooped in at the last minute with something new so there is no way anyone cold have possibly guessed.’ In the end, I feel fairly confident that my twist will be truly twisty.

Why didn’t Stroud take the same precautions?

Writing twists is a time-honored task for a writer, an opportunity placed in our hands that we must care for and nurture. It is not to be attempted by hacks (not that Stroud is a hack, I just think he got lazy).

So if you’re out there writing a story and you’re considering using a red herring, know that you do at your own peril. Red herrings can be tasty, but if you don’t de-bone them properly, you’ll end up choking, rupturing your esophagus, and frothing up a spout of blood.

That’s never pretty.

Author: neilsendavid

Author of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom.

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