Friday, September 16, 2011

Twisting in the Wind: Plotting Red Herrings and Other Distractions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A great plot twist is both fun to read and to write, but how do you know where that line is between giving it away and keeping readers guessing? I saw a movie that had a great twist, but they did something at the start that ruined it. One simple thing in the beginning could have fixed that.

The movie is Unknown with Liam Neeson and January Jones. I tried to find a way to talk about it without giving anything away, but that’s going to be impossible with this movie. So if you haven’t seen it and want to, stop reading now. If you don’t mind knowing the twist (and even if you do there are still plenty of things to surprise you), then read on. I do recommend the movie as a plot twist study, even though they did this one thing I’ll be talking about. They got everything else right.

Here’s the synopsis:

Liam Neeson headlines this thriller about a prominent doctor on a business trip to Germany when he awakens from a coma to find that another man has stolen his identity and taken over his life. Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) has just arrived in Berlin to deliver an important presentation when he realizes that his briefcase has gone missing, and leaves his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), at their hotel to try and retrieve it. During his cab ride back to the airport, however, a serious car accident lands Dr. Harris in the hospital, where he lies in a coma for four days.

Upon awakening, Dr. Harris is horrified to discover that every relic of his identity has been completely erased. His shock is soon compounded when, upon seeking out his wife at a lavish party, another man (Aidan Quinn) appears by her side claiming to be the real Dr. Martin Harris, and requests that hotel security protect them from the unstable "impostor." Harris starts trying to prove who he is and find out what’s going on.

Sounds cool right? The problem is there in the second paragraph.

Harris confronts his wife at the party and she has no clue who he is. We’ve already seen them interacting, so we know that she is indeed his wife. The plotter in me (and the hubby) found it impossible to believe she wouldn’t know him, especially since the accident was clearly an accident and not a setup designed to get rid of him. So we started thinking up reasons for this implausible scenario to make sense. Why would the wife pretend not to know who he was?

1. She’s being forced to do that by the guy pretending to be her husband.

2. She knows who he is but can’t say for another reason.

We couldn’t go with #1 because she didn’t act scared or nervous at all. In fact, no one else was near her when Harris first speaks to her, so she could have said something then if she was being held captive. She just didn’t act like someone under duress.

So it had to be reason #2.

Several other details at this point made this reason more obvious. The film shows a press conference with a radical prince being at the conference, and mentions previous attempts on his life. Well, bam, instantly we think this is a pair of spies or assassins, and their names are just covers to get them into the conference to kill the prince. When Harris is injured, they had to send in a second agent to play his role and the wife can’t risk breaking cover.

Although the details weren’t exactly what we thought, and there were indeed some very cool twists and red herrings past this, this is basically the truth behind the twist. So we knew right away that Harris wasn’t really Harris. And this hurt the movie for us because we got it way too early.

Later in the movie, Harris meets the wife in a secluded area and she acts like she knows him and basically says it’s too dangerous to recognize him and he should stop trying to prove his identity or he’d get them both killed. I wish they’d moved this up to the beginning of the movie, because then we’d have had a reason for the wife not to know him, and we wouldn’t have tried to figure out what was up. We’d have been trying to figure out what was going on that they had to duplicate Harris, which led brilliantly to the red herring the movie set up.

So, what can writers learn from this?

1. If you have a major twist and some red herrings, leave enough clues to make the red herring feel like it’s real. 

We couldn’t buy that they wife wouldn’t know him, and that made us look for a credible meaning for her behavior. But had we been given a reason for this, we’d never have looked further. If you want readers to think one thing, let them see what they expect to see. (Just make sure you’re not tricking or lying to them of course). Even when the wife “knew” him later, what she said had multiple reasons that fit all the various twists of the movie. It both hinted at the truth, and made you think the red herring was real. It was very well done.

2. If the reader can’t buy something that happens, they will trying to make sense of it. 

Or they’ll stop reading altogether. But let’s say they keep reading and try to figure it out. If you don’t want them to figure it out early on, don’t create a situation that forces them where you don’t yet want them to go. If the only explanation is something you don’t plan to reveal for 100 pages, don’t make that the only possible reason for a character’s behavior. It steals all the suspense.

3. Use layers and fake outs to let the reader think the “wrong” thing without actually lying to them. 

Two very nice things about this movie were the multiple layers of plot and secrets, and the fake outs they used to surprise you. They did a great job making you think one thing when it was really another, and everything (baring that wife bit) fit together perfectly. When folks talk about wheels within wheels, this is what they mean. Just when you think you know something, you find out there’s more to it. I recommend this movie for that alone. Study how they plotted it if you’re trying to do some layered plot twists yourself.

Twists and red herrings are especially tough because you have to lay so much groundwork to make it all work right. Too much and the twist isn’t a surprise, too little and it doesn’t make sense. The wrong red herrings can piss off a reader and make them feel lied to, the right ones can surprise and delight them. Anyone who’d like me to go into this more specifically, I can in a different post that folks won’t stumble upon accidentally.

Have you seen the movie? What did you think? What do you find challenging about writing plot twists and laying red herrings? 

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I enjoyed Unknown, but they already kind of blew the "spies" part in the trailer so It was clear they were agents there for one reason or another. Shame, really. I love psychological thrillers where the protagonist has to struggle to make sense of everything going on around them.

  2. I haven't watched the move yet, but read on to learn your tips. Don't worry I'll still watch the movie. But since I usually fall asleep through a little bit of it, now I'll get the twists. And hopefully how to weave them into my own stories.

  3. Hi Janice :)

    Very interesting topic.

    1. The spy having a family cover is becoming a cliché in spying movies or series. I was 99% sure that was the case. So, actually the ignorant husband or wife, not knowing his/her spouse is a spy, is not a surprise. It was that or murder intent from the spouse, but in case of murder intent some emotion would have shown on the spouse. Spies are supposed to be trained not to show any emotion.

    2. If the private encounter with the wife would have been shown earlier, then it would have been "served on a plate" = boring.

    The thing is that in this movie, they tried to have as a main point of the plot, Dr.Harris loss of identity and confusion.
    But they failed. The result was to have actually two plots, one the loss of identity & confusion and the other the spying business. Neither plot was properly structured, nor complete, because one can not have two plots at the same time in a movie, sharing characters.

    As a good plot for loss of identity, a good example is "The Net" with Sandra Bullock. But it's only about that.

    I liked the twist in the movie "Next" with Nicholas Cage, where the end leaves question marks. Did it happen or not? :D

    Your points on writing are very good.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post :)

  4. Paul, ah, I barely remember the trailer, and didn't know they spilled the spy part. I remembered it as being a stolen identity thing.

    Natalie, I did like how they layered things. You fall asleep in movies! Egads (grin)

    Jacqvern, it wasn't that the wife didn't know he was a spy, it was that she didn't know who he was at all. That's actually what made us think "oh, spy" right away since that made the most sense.

    I disagree about the wife encounter being boring if shown earlier (though had I known from the trailer it was a spy movie I might feel differently here) Had I seen the wife admitting she knew him but had to pretend otherwise, I would have spent time trying to figure out what the "bad guys" were up to and why they stole his identity and replaced him, and if he could expose them. So the twist that he *was* the bad guy would have been more of a surprise.

    I took it more as "what happens when an undercover agent believes his cover identity and sets out to stop his own plan?" than a loss of identity issue. The antag becomes the protag for himself. I thought they wove the two plots together well from that perspective. It wasn't so much about him finding out who he was, but finding out who Harris was and how he fit into what was going on.

    I enjoyed Next as well for that reason. A very interesting and effective take on that particular twist.

  5. I'm feeling stupid now. I saw this movie and was completely taken in! When his wife didn't recognize him, I was unable to figure out why and it really drew me in. How could she not know him? Was he in a parallel dimension? My brain went absolutely wild and I was hooked. lol.

  6. I saw the movie and agree, for the most part, about the wife thing. However, I also like what Ruth mentioned about her brain going wild with possibilities.

    They could have made it a parallel dimension or a coma dream. They could have had the wife be brainwashed or drugged. Their mistake was that they went with the most obvious twist.

    I'll admit that, while I watched the scene for the first time, I was scrambling to figure out other, out-of-the-box possibilities because the spy thing seemed too mundane. I thought, "Surely this very cool, highly anticipated movie will throw in a new twist." :) So, then I was thrown off and disappointed when they didn't.

    I think that's something for authors to keep in mind, too. If we set up a red herring or a twist, we'd better deliver on it in a way that satisfies readers.

  7. I'm going to watch this movie now--thanks for the post!

  8. They could have done so much more with this movie had Harris woken up in a parallel world (for some reason lol)!

    The people in this world would look like everyone he knew but they wouldnt be ... He could go to the party and watch himself deliver the presentation. Harris and the audience would be so perplexed by all of this -- how no one knows who he is, not even his wife/friends -- that it'd keep the movie going.

    And then, when Harris wakes up from the coma, he could say something like: What happened?! And then the real wife would be like: "You've been in a coma for days, honey. I thought I was going to loose you! The office even had someone else do your presentation."

    And then Harris comes out of his wife's embrace, and sees the suitcase sitting on a table opposite the bed.


    That's just my idea :)

  9. Ruth, no need to feel stupid at all! The movie totally worked for you and that's great. Everyone sees different things, and sometimes I try hard NOT to think too hard about a plot so I can just enjoy the movie.

    Nicole, you said it. Satisfying readers should always be high on the list :)

    Anon: LOL That would have been a very different movie for sure

  10. NO spoiler here, but The Usual Suspects has the cousin to this problem: If you pay close attention, the director gives away who Keyser Soze is with a bad edit/cut-to-person-at-wrong-time that just ever so slightly gives it away. I spent the final hour of that movie bored to tears waiting for the reveal.

    And, again, NO spoilers, but The Sixth Sense had a problem where, if you took facts at face value, the "big reveal" was NOT news. The kid says, "I...," and the whole time I watched, I thought, "Well, then, Lead Character must be..."

    Twists done wrong can ruin the entire journey.

    1. I wonder of that was done on purpose? Like a hint for those who were paying attention.

      I think any story that relies on a major twist runs the risk of losing those who figure it out early. The story has to be entertaining even if you know the secret.