Sometimes a storyteller must be sneaky and sprinkle false clues —AKA “red herrings” among the “useful” bits and pieces of information in a work of fiction. The best mystery writers are adept at this kind of misdirection. The seemingly casual mention of a dog barking every night at a particular time, a observation about a character arriving late for an appointment, or a detailed description of the items on a desk could be clues to solve the mystery OR false clues meant to draw the readers attention away from the woman who lets her cat out at exactly that time each night, the arrival of another character earlier than expected for the same meeting or an item that is missing from the list of stuff on the desk.
It’s like a magician saying —“Watch the coin in my left hand.” So you don’t see the flower in his right hand —sleight of word tricks!
My agent/writing guru/primary critic & cheerleader once used the phrase “Hang a lantern on it.” It’s a term in screenwriting, usually describing a visual cue/clue in the script that calls subtle attention to a particular action that will later turn out to be important. Show the character looking under the sofa for the missing broach. He may actually use that time to conceal the purloined jewelry inside the cat bed beside couch, but this doesn’t come out until later.
Somewhere along the line, in my twisted imagination, I conflated RED HERRING and HANG A LANTERN into my personal —HANG A RED LANTERN credo. Now, when I want to throw suspicion on an innocent character I hang a red lantern on an action or have them say something that could be misinterpreted by the protagonist.
That’s the game I’m playing right now. The principal character in my newest-in-progress is young and, although she is bright and well educated, she is naïve because of her lack of life experience. I want to her to suspect nefarious motives on the part of a genuinely good person while trusting a few less-than-savory characters in the mix.
It’s time to smoke some herrings, light up the lanterns and have some fun!
Link for more information on how Red Herrings got their fishy name…