Monday, December 20, 2010

Lack of Red Herrings - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

The Hidden Staircase (Nancy Drew Mystery Stories #2)PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

SPOILER ALERT! I'll be discussing the plots of The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery and The Mystery at Lilac Inn.

One of the joys of reading a mystery is trying to outgess the author. "Red herrings" are the intentional planting of information which casts suspicion on non-guilty parties and keeps the reader guessing, hopefully until the last minute.

Incidentally, for you history buffs, the phrase "red herring" seems to originally comes from the practice of using a kipper to distract tracking dogs from a scent that the handlers didn't want them to follow. It was coined into print by journalist William Cobbett in 1807. Of course that may be a red herring in itself.

The Bungalow Mystery (Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, Bk 3)Back to Nancy Drew, in these stories there are no red herrings. If anything happens in the story you can absolutely bet that its related to the plot. By the time I was two or three chapters into The Hidden Staircase, I was positive that the threatening visit by Nathan Gombet was directly related to the haunting of the Turnbull sisters' house.

In The Bungalow Mystery, the plot involves Laura Pendleton, a young girl who is orphaned, and who dislikes her new guardians. Just before Nancy goes to meet with Laura, we're introduced to an unpleasant woman, and we know instantly that this is going to be Mrs. Aborn, the guardian's wife. Soon thereafter, the woman asks Laura to give her the jewels that Laura inherited and its  obvious that the guardians are running some sort of a scam and possibly not who they say they are.

Of the six books I'm discussing, only the Mystery at Lilac Inn breaks this mold, throwing some suspicion on a character who isn't the central villain of the plot. Of course despite the fact that this person isn't the jewel thief, they are blackmailing one of the other characters.

Nancy Drew 04: The Mystery at Lilac InnGranted, throwing in a few leads which don't pan out or adding a few other mildly suspicious characters who turn out not to be the culprits would lengthen the books, but it would have gone a long way toward keeping the reader guessing.

An example from a modern mystery, in A is for Alibi, by Sue Grafton, we're introduced to a raft of characters who at one time or another fall under detective Kinsey Millhone's suspicion. Every one of them acts shady at some point, and some of them actually are.

In your own stories, especially if you're writing a mystery, try to include a few other characters who are acting suspicious. Remember that everyone has their own secrets, whether they're the murderer or not, and sometimes they don't want their personal business discussed.

A is for Alibi (Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries, No. 1)

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games

1 comment:

  1. I agree, but you must also make sure your red herring is believable. For instance, it is not believable to make someone look suspicious if we learned the chapter prior that they were no where near the area where a murder occurred. It's simply not going to be effective. Writers must be careful when crafting their scenes together not to make such mistakes.