Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rabbit Trails and Red Herrings

Rabbit trails are enticing. It's easy to leave the path, travel a few steps, look back to the original path then continue along the rabbit trail. What's the motivation?  New, exciting enticements planted along a trail which leads away from the path.

I turned on the radio as a speaker introduced his speech.  The title piqued my interest.  The speaker opened with an amusing story which drew laughter from the audience.

He gave his first point then illustrated with a personal example.  He went on and on and on and on. The audience laughed.  I did too, at first. Then I wondered, what does this story have to do with the topic?  Why did the speaker spend the last fifteen minutes telling a story and spawning other illustrations which drove listeners away from the point? I couldn't stand it any longer, I changed the station.

Rabbit trails take readers through a maze of seemingly related anecdotes, metaphors, illustrations, examples, and models intended to support a point.  These fluff and stuff scenes pad word counts and ultimately bore readers. I grabbed my WIP to search for rabbit trails sprinkled through my text.  Aack!  Gack! I had to save an editor from slashing these rabbit trail scenes.

Red Herrings, by contrast, provide parallel scenerios convincing the reader of a plausible bend in the plot. Mystery writers use red herrings a lot. But, other writers use this tool as well.  The wizard in The Wizard of Oz, sent Dorothy and her friends on a mission to get the Wicked Witch of the West's broom.  He knew the broom wouldn't provide the way home for Dorothy, courage for Cowardly Lion, a brain for Scare Crow, or a heart for Tin Man. 

The wizard used the broom as a red herring to make Dorothy leave.  Little did he realize, the adventure would provide their true hearts' desires. This Red Herring provided the spice to the story (and caused many kids like myself to hide their faces when the monkeys came...and yes, that was a rabbit trail comment :) )

How can we test if a scene is a red herring?

1. The scene leads back to the story:     Dorothy left the Emerald City, found the broom, and delivered it back to the Emerald City.

2. The scene parallels the main story in direction:     Mystery writers challenge readers by setting up false clues while embedding grains of truthful evidence. The ultimate goal is to determine "whodunit."

3. The scene adds spicy sidebar to the story:  The battles for Middle Earth in J. R. R. Tolkien's  Lord of the Rings, adds spice as a red herring.

4. The scene brings out possible solutions:  Gaston from Beauty and the Beast rallies the townspeople to rid evil by killing the beast.

Have you woven red herrings into your WIP?  How has your red herring added the oomph needed to hold your reader's attention?


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Now this is extremely interesting. I certainly understand the rabbit trails and have experienced those, but the red herrings...nope. I've never thought about that, nor have I written them into my manuscript. I would love to think of a way to do that!!!

Thanks for making me think.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks, Sherrinda. You made me think in your last post, and I am very grateful!

Red herrings add great spice and adventure to our stories.

Krista Phillips said...

Love this:-) Sherrinda, I bet you have some red herrings and don't even realize it!

I think of a red herring as something that makes a reader think something (like that the broom will solve their problems) but really, it throws the reader off course in a GOOD way. How boring would W.O.Oz have been without the broom quest!!

It adds spice, adds intrigue, and adds an element of surprise.

Now, I have to stop and try and think of some in my own books. I know they are there... hehe!

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

I'm sure they are there, too, Krista!

Thanks for you comment:)