Category Archives: The Fictorians

Red Herrings and Other Fishy Thoughts

In literature, a red herring is an informal fallacy that typically uses extraneous or irrelevant information to mislead the audience. It’s used to give an astute reader several challenges during the telling of the tale.

In other words, they’re purposeful deceits the author employs to mislead the folks who read their stories.

Red herrings are actually dried fish that are kippered, or salted and smoked, which turns their meat a reddish color. In 1807, a writer named William Corbett wrote about using red herrings dragged along the ground to train hunting dogs. This wasn’t actually true, but the readers didn’t know and the concept of red herrings was born.

Red herrings are used extensively in mysteries and thrillers, and are a staple for noir detective stories. By employing these misdirections, the author can attempt to get the readers to believe something is the correct answer when it is not. The concept is to include little tidbits of irrelevant yet related information that helps to push the reader into thinking a particular way.

Agatha Christie was a genius at employing red herrings. In Murder on the Orient Express, almost everything is a red herring pushing one away from focusing on the killer until you realize everyone was the killer. In her novel And Then There Were None, there’s a list of how people are going to get bumped off. Victim number four doesn’t seem to be a red herring until you realize that she told you flat out they were in the poem.

Employing red herrings should always be logical in some ways, but the information that incriminates should be irrelevant to the final solution to the mystery. Always give your readers the information that can dismiss the new clue somewhere in the text without making it obvious. For example, discovering the killer must have used their left hand to kill the victim might seem to clear a woman who always uses her right hand. But what if she was actually ambidextrous? Half the readers will wander off on the path that clears the woman, while the others might not be fooled by the accurate but not complete information. That’s the fun behind reading a mystery!

So how do you incorporate red herrings into your work? I’m glad you asked. They should be blended into the overall information you give to your readers. If it’s too straight-forward, the readers are distracted by the fumbling attempt to mislead them. Focus on giving the reader a reason to believe that something is the correct answer using information that is related yet does not factually implicate. Try reading some of the older mysteries such as Poirot, Miss Marple, and Perry Mason. You can even see them in old mysteries and detective shows on classic television.

A fascinating red herring example is Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. He’s constantly shown as a bad person throughout seven books until the last few chapters, where we finally learn that he has been trying to help Harry survive. All the red herrings are cleared up as we learn the truth, and the readers discover that the person they despised the most was the bravest person of all. That’s why Snape and, by extension, actor Alan Rickman went from evil villain to beloved savior.

 


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

 

I Heard it From a Fool

the man who knew too little“The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.”
~ Winston S. Churchill

The Fool, often known as The Jester, is a well-known and very useful trope in both TV, theater, and novels. Sometimes in our work, the tomfoolery is subtle, or devious, or creepy. With The Fool, it’s in your face.

In TV, the fool can come in various shapes and sizes. Often they really are clueless, but blessed with abundant luck and usually a cheery outlook. The ridiculous, almost accidental ways they escape bad things is always great for a laugh. They’re excellent for comic relief in an otherwise tense situation.

A great example is the movie, The Man Who Knew Too Little. Bill Murray gives a stellar performance as Wallace Richie, a bumbling incompetent who is mistaken as a spy and ends up stopping an international assassionation plot without understanding anything that’s going on. Simply brilliant.

Other times, perhaps they’re more the Profound Fool, an idiot who still offers spot-on advice and remarkable insights that no one else seems capable of figuring out, despite their genius or heroic attributes. And it’s often because the fool is so simple that they can see the truth about problems, which everyone else is complicating unnecessarily.

Bill and TedThink Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. This classic time travel sci-fi movie follows the high-school slackers Bill S. Preston and Ted Theodore Logan, who have delusions of greatness with absolutel nothing to back up their claims. They’re failing school, and can’t even play the instruments, even though they want to start a band. Even as they embark on their excellent time-traveling adventure, they really don’t seem to get it for a while.

For example, when the Evil Duke at the castle where they fall for the princesses decides to kill them by torture and orders, “Put them in the Iron Maiden.”

Instead of shuddering with their impending doom, they think he’s talking about the rock band.

But of course by the end of their awesome adventure they meet cool historical figures, ace their history presentation, and set everything right with the universe with their momentary flashes of insight, and their determination to “Be excellent to each other, and Party on.”

Then there’s the Fool of Shakespeare’s time. That kind of Fool can say anything to anyone, and they usually do. In otherwise strictly-managed social heirarchy, the fool grants a way for truth to be shared, to poke fun at pompous or foolish or disturbing tendencies or justifications.

“That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.”
~Isaac Asimov, Guide to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was famous for using ‘the fool’, and took the trope to whole new levels. They were usually ignorant or poor, low class commoners, who used their wits to tear down or humiliate or make fun of their betters. They could be used to poke fun at moral issues or the lies or justifications that nobility tried to use.

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.
~William Shakespeare

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
~Feste, Twelfth Night, I.5.328

If men could be contented to be what they are, there were no fear in marriage.
~Clown, All’s Well That Ends Well, I.3.372

Winning will put any man into courage.
~Cloten, Cymbeline, II.3.983

the Court JesterOne final type of fool I’ll mention are the Jesters. In the middle ages, these were entertainers of nobility. Singers, dancers, storytellers, satirists, and comedians. They perfected the art of being clever fools, and a wonderful example is the movie The Court Jester.

Hawkins, the main character in the classic movie, The Court Jester. Danny Kaye did an amazing job playing Hubert Hawkins, who has to go undercover as Giacomo, King of Jesters and Jester to the King. The entire move revolves around his antics and the intrigue and plots he gets caught up in more by accident than any design. If you haven’t watched the movie, do it now. You’ll thank me later.

So when designing your stories, don’t forget to consider including a Fool. It might turn out to be an extremely wise decision.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Well, that was Unexpected

 

I have a confession to make-I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until after my husband and I started dating.

I know, I know, most self-respecting geeks are at least familiar with the Doctor. Me? Nope. As a matter of fact, two friends and I went to England a few years back. Naturally we went to watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. I’d seen it before, but the others hadn’t, so we went.

During the rather dull ceremony (sorry, it’s the truth) the band played some great sci-fi music, including Star Trek. A number I didn’t recognize received thunderous applause from the crowd. Lucky for me, the friend standing next to me at least knew that it was the Doctor Who theme song.

While we were dating, my soon to be husband finally talked me into watching. The first season of the reboot is rough, and I didn’t particularly love Rose as the companion, but once I’d made it through a handful of episodes, I started to get it.

Then The Empty Child happened.

If you’re a fan, you know what I’m talking about.

The entire two-part story is based in World War II London, and through the whole thing a little boy in a gas mask keeps appearing asking if anyone and everyone is his mummy.

Seriously creepy.

I spent the entire episode trying to figure out what sort of wretched creature would do such a thing. Then the reveal at the end blew my proverbial socks off. It went so contrary to where I thought it would, that I probably sat with my mouth hanging open for a good fifteen seconds.

While my boyfriend pointed and laughed at me. (He’d seen it two or three times.)

The writers of Doctor Who have pulled this off a number of times. My personal favorite is Gridlock:

The Doctor takes Martha to New Earth, where she is kidnapped by two carjackers and taken to an underground Motorway, where the remainder of humanity on the planet live in perpetual gridlock.

What is left of humanity has been circling on the futuristic freeway full of flying cars/motor homes for who knows how long (years? Decades? Centuries?) trying to find an exit open. About half way through the episode we, the audience, figure out that they’re never getting off the freeway. It’s some sort of sick trap.

Well, the Doctor won’t stand for it (he’s got a very insistent need to protect humanity) and he and Martha set out to figure out what’s going on.

Adventure ensues.

But once again, when we expect to find a creature that is both parts cheesy and foul, we find something totally different. A friend of the Doctor’s who moves through time at a different rate than most. And he didn’t trap humanity underground on the freeway because he was mean, but because he wanted to keep them safe from whatever catastrophe happened on the surface of the planet..

It’s brilliant. In so many places the writers allude to something, and then allow the watchers to come to their own conclusions, which are totally wrong.

For me, this is one of the best thinks a story can do. Not so much trick the reader, but provide an insight that can truly delight them at the end.

MacGuffins, McGuffins, and Maguffins – Oh, My!

JULES
You win.
Jules raises his hand off the briefcase.

 

JULES
It’s all yours, Ringo.

 

PUMPKIN
Open it.

 

Jules flips the locks and opens the case, revealing it to
Pumpkin but not to us. The same light SHINES from the case.
Pumpkin’s expression goes to amazement. Honey Bunny, across
the room, can’t see inside.

 

HONEY BUNNY
What is it? What is it?

PUMPKIN
(Spoken softly) Is that what I think it is?

 

Jules nods his head: “Yes.”

 

PUMPKIN
It’s beautiful.

 

Jules nods his head: “Yes.”

 

Throughout the movie Pulp Fiction, characters have been influenced by a mysterious briefcase owned by the big crime boss Marcellus Wallace. This plain black object is found in the opening sequence when Vincent and Jules recover it from some bumbling criminals.

The briefcase is an example of a MacGuffin, sometimes spelled McGuffin or Maguffin. We know that it is important because bullets were exchanged and lives were lost in its recovery.

So, what is it?

The answer is, it really doesn’t matter.

No, seriously. The simple briefcase is there for one purpose — to begin the story or plot. The audience doesn’t really care about the briefcase because they’re more interested in what the characters are doing.

Quentin Tarantino even pokes a little fun at the audience in the ending scene, excerpted above. When Jules opens the case and shows the contents to Ringo/Pumpkin, all we (the audience) knows is that the case is valuable and, now that it’s opened, it gives off a mysterious glow that takes everyone’s breath away. Now we want to know what is in the briefcase, but Jules slams it shut and wraps up the scene and the movie. We never find out what was the impetus of over two hours of craziness. Don’t believe me? Just Google “pulp fiction briefcase” and enjoy 174,000 hits and lots of pages with different theories, including Kryptonite and Marcellus’ soul.

The joke was on us, which made the movie even more memorable. It also helped to spur debates as to what was in there, which helped to get the word out concerning the movie.

MacGuffins have been around for a while. The concept can be seen in many old stories, such as the Holy Grail or a certain black bird in a Bogart movie. The purpose of a MacGuffin is to provide a method to get the plot rolling, and the object can be anything external. A big pile of cash or even vague concepts such as glory and honor can be used to begin the tale. The plot revolves around the characters, while the MacGuffin is really ignored for the most part once the story is kickstarted in high gear.

Alfred Hitchcock was well known to use this device to begin his movies starting back in The 39 Steps. Adventures and thrillers used MacGuffins extensively in order to have the story moving along as quickly as possible. Even the original Star Wars: A New Hope uses stolen plans inside R2-D2 as a MacGuffin. Everyone is running around looking for the plans hidden in the little droid. The chase evolves, and in this case so does the MacGuffin’s container — into a beloved iconic character. The data gets extracted at the end of the movie and the final battle against the Death Star commences.

A MacGuffin is a little white lie that the audience or reader plays along with to get to the fun part of the journey. After all, a story about a briefcase would be rather boring, with it being worried about scuffs or how its hinges could use a spot of oil, thank you very much. The hand that holds the briefcase, however, can be a thrilling and satisfying tale.

 


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, MWG, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.