How To Write Better Stories: Red Herrings and More Tension

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your humble host
I’m using Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets to show examples of great storytelling that you can use in your writing.

The transition from chapter 11 to chapter 12 is a split scene really for drama, not necessity. End of 11: this must be where Dumbledore lives. Start of 12: they knock on the door. (You’re not supposed to do that. Time is supposed to pass or you’re supposed to go to a different scene, not just pick up where you left off.)

Again, I like those. What’s up with my editor anyway?

And again we are made to consider Harry’s possible expulsion so the stakes for his actions are always present.

Clues We Get From The Writer’s Style

From his importance, we don’t ever really get a lot of descriptions of Dumbledore, but when Harry goes into Dumbledore’s office, Rowling takes a paragraph to describe the room and some of the stuff in it. This isn’t super important, but Rowling doesn’t usually dive too deep into detail unless it’s necessary. Here, it may only be necessary for one reason – the sorting hat is there and Harry has wondered if maybe he talked the hat out of sending him to Slitherin house. In other words, he is still wondering if he may be the heir of Slitherin (MYSTERY). And of course he has to try on that find out – but does he dare? (TENSION) Dumbledore could walk in at any second!

The reason I mention this is because we just got told the kid is worried about being expelled, and while he has found himself in Dumbledore’s office for a moment, and he is alone, the first thing he does is something that might get him even further in the trouble. Somehow I don’t think it will because Dumbledore seems to not intervene negatively on Harry’s behalf. That’s just the vibe I have, not anything that may be actually accurate, But I think Dumbledore is kind of watching out for Harry.

By the way, in the book, the sorting hat goes all the way over his eyes because it’s so big. In this movie, it more or less fits every kid it is put on. A little big but it doesn’t go over their eyes.

Not a big deal but when it’s covering their eyes, it talks to them. In the movie, the hat just kind of talks in general, to the room.

Red herring (also known as a fake out)? Or real clue?

Mess with your reader! (In a good way.)

I mention this because when Harry is trying on the hat the first time and again now, it’s statement to him can be read two ways. He takes it one way – and pretty much takes readers with him. I like that. I have tried to do that in some of my stories and you should try to do it in yours. It’s very difficult for a reader to not go along with what the author is saying, and it’s a great way to go down a blind alley or chase a red herring. It’s simply may not be accurate but the reader thinks it probably is true because the characters think it probably is true. Characters can be wrong. And when they are, the reader is fooled with them. Done properly, that’s not a cheat. It’s too early to know if this is a red herring or not. I think it is.

But that’s part of the fun reading these books, isn’t it? Trying to solve the mystery in your head as well as going along well the characters try to solve it.

And that’s another thing I’m learning. I wouldn’t say I was a great reader of mysteries before. But by slowly bringing me into a mystery story by telling me there’s this whole wizard world that most of the rest of the population of the earth has fallen in love with, I stepped in to the pool to see what the fuss was all about and I am being totally sucked in now. As I am, I am explaining what I see or what I think I see, as I see itand I’m learning about how to write a mystery. That’s pretty cool. That’s something I wasn’t expecting to get from the series and yet

here I am thinking, okay, when I’m done with these books I will probably be able to write a good mystery because I’ve seen a great example laid out in a relatively simple manner.

What did Stephen King say? If you want to be a writer, Read a lot? Maybe he was right.

Romance is the biggest genre. Mystery is second. I wanted to write in each. I did romance and the feedback was really good. Mystery eluded me. I didn’t understand it nor how to write it. Now I think I’m starting to get it.

For example, look at these following scenes: the sorting hat tells people which house they’re going to go to. In book one, Harry  tries it on and the hat eventually decides to let him be in Griffyndor house – after mentioning Slitherin and saying he would do well in Slitherin.

Fast forwarded to book 2, the mystery about the chamber of secrets indicates that the heir to Slitherin is involved. Harry worries he’s actually an heir to Slitherin because the sorting hat said he’d do well there. Now he’s tried it on again and the hat confirms its original statement, that Harry would do well in slither in. The problem is, that is not saying he should have gone there. It’s a slightly different answer. You’d be good there. You’d be good anywhere. But you belong here. See?

But because Harry concludes differently, the reader goes along with Harry. That may be a total fake out by Rowling.

I think it is. Let’s see who’s right.

But these little bits and pieces, laid out like steps 1, 2, 3, they build the mystery and the tension because Harry the main character is seriously worried that he’s related to the bad guys. The heir to Slitherin is indicated to be a bad person, a practicer of dark magic, and Harry has some of the abilities – like talking to snakes – that the dark magic practicers tend to have. Again, we are fed this information by Ron; it’s not necessarily accurate. Earlier in the story Rowling says the students are full of gossiping and rumors, so just because all the kids believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. We don’t know if it’s true. In fact, we have been told by at least one source that it is not true.

See all the mysteries? Who do you believe?

The professor who says it’s not true or the other professors who indicate – indicate – that it is true. Kind of like the way the sorting hat indicated Slitherin house for Harry – but that’s not really necessarily what the hat was saying. Was it?

Mysteries are fun. Maybe that’s why they’re popular.

One thing that’s important to remember is this: at no time have I ever really been seriously worried that Harry Potter was going to die. Nor was I worried that Ron or Hermione were.

In Game of Thrones, we are constantly worried that our favorite characters are going to die.

When I wrote The Navigators, I needed a few  (three) main characters to do the story, but I had to add in fourth and fifth so I could kind of kill them off, Star Trek style. In the original Star Trek TV show, whoever the new guy on the crew was that you’d never seen in prior episodes? He was going to get killed as soon as they landed on planet X.

So I introduced my characters  in the first scene and I didn’t really give too much time to any one character – so readers were not really sure who’s going to get “killed.” In the second chapter, I give a lot of emphasis to people who are going to turn out to be minor characters, so that we can get to know them a little bit and maybe start to care for them before their lives get threatened.

But it was only after I knew I had to “kill” a few of them off that I realized I needed extra people. So I had to go back to the beginning of the story and add them in. I hadn’t done that when I started, there were only three people who I knew survived to the end.

In your story you may need to create someone a character that’s going to get “killed,” and if you do, you’ll be well served to make them sympathetic to readers, for me just to identify with them somehow.

That will make the death scene more tragic, and really make your reader wonder if any of the characters are safe. So far I never thought Harry, Ron, Hermione Dumbledore, Snape,  – you get the idea – I’ve never thought any of them were in any real trouble of being killed off. It’s a kid’s book. You’re probably not writing a kid’s book. You probably need the possibility of death for characters in your mysteries. If they go that way. And you should probably seriously consider killing off a beloved character.

And right about the time I’m thinking the story’s getting complacent, Harry is alone with Dumbledore’s bird – and it bursts into flames.

Put your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them. Harry thinks Dumbledore will blame him for killing the bird. Harry’s been getting blamed for everything else; wrong place, wrong time kind of stuff.

Also, don’t let too many pages go without something really interesting happening.

Everything is supposed to reveal characters or move the plot forward, and you will think at times that’s not possible, but here we see a terrific example of how it is.

The bird bursting into flames. I didn’t see that coming. (Did you?)

And Rowling probably wouldn’t introduce a new character – a phoenix – into the story unless it was going to play an integral role, would she?

One of the things Jenny is always pointing out in the heroes journey is the reluctance of the hero to take the journey. I think part of that applies, where it suggests the hero’s weaknesses should stand in the way of achieving his goals. Harry is basically seen as a good boy because when we first meet him he is innocent and completely tortured by the Dursleys. On the other hand, he is constantly breaking the rules because he feels he is in the right. The end justifies the means. Had he gone forward with his information and told the teachers, they would’ve handled it and he wouldn’t always be on the verge of getting in trouble or being expelled. It is his inability to trust the teachers to do their jobs that causes him to constantly imperil himself and others. He is breaking rules. He should be expelled. But because we like him, we look the other way.

One of the things I noticed about Ron in the movie that I didn’t necessarily pick up in the book: he is sarcastic and funny. (Maybe that’s on me.)

In the book he is often the person who says no to the plan Hermione  comes up with. Harry is kind of often just going with the flow. Ron will give the reason why they should not go do something, thereby creating necessary tension.

For example, Hermione decides to create a potion that will change the three friends into the appearance of three others from Slitherin so they can figure out if Malfoy is the heir to the bad guy. She explains how this is to be done, and at the end of the scene Ron says, “Have you ever heard of a plan where so many things could go wrong?”

It is often Ron’s character who brings up what a reader might be thinking, and by addressing it, we don’t feel cheated that it’s all going too easy.

Occasionally the characters remind us that they are up a tree and rocks are being thrown at them.

Another fun bit of tension: they have to drink a potion to turn into the other kids. When the potion is ready, it is described as a sick yellow color. Ron does not want to drink it. The fact that he has to, in order to continue with their plan, adds tension. He doesn’t want to do it. Typical Ron.

It looks bad. He says he thinks it will taste disgusting.

Then, because as they get ready to drink them, they decide to going to different stalls in the bathroom to do it, delaying the transformation we’re all waiting for, and thereby adding tension.

It was a good reason to do it, but the point is by doing this:

get ready, get set…

wait

wait

wait

– that adds tension.

Little things like that tend to make a big difference if you do them right.

Rowling takes three fourths of a page to get them ready to drink their drinks. That’s a lot of tension for just drinking a cup of potion. Well done.

And really, we’re all waiting to see not only if it works – I’m sure it will – but in our imagination we’re wanting to see the transformation happen. More magic is fun!

By making us wait, Rowling teases the reader – and let’s face it, we love being teased as long as there’s a payoff.

The next three fourths of a page describes the transformation, part Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, part Incredible Hulk, as Harry becomes Goyle, one of Malfoy’s confederates. It was a good description but I pointed it out because Rowling doesn’t usually go in for a ton of description.

More tension. From behind her clothed bathroom stall door, Hermione does not want to come out. She drank the potion but we are thinking something’s gone wrong. She tells the boys to go on without her.

Very un-Hermionelike.

Again, by being such a headstrong character, when we see her cry or hesitate, it heightens the suspense because that’s not like the character we’ve come to know.

In The Navigators I did that with Missy.  Even her nickname, Missy, indicates a young girl, which Melissa, in her 20’s, is not.  Having her ask questions or occasionally cry – to the criticism of some female critique partners who saw her as not heroic enough (hey, not every young woman is Katniss Everdeen) – which made it all the more difficult when Missy had to step up and assume the leadership role. It was more difficult for her because that was not her nature.

So, what tension: the boys leave Hermione in the bathroom and go off in search of Malfoy.

Also, more mystery. What is Percy doing wandering the halls by himself?

Malfoy thinks he knows. Malfoy thinks Percy is trying to catch the heir to Slitherin all by himself. We will have to see.

See why people like mysteries???

See all these different ways my brain is engaged in the story, ripping it apart and analyzing it and hoping I’m right and plotting my own conclusions but I still have to read on to find out.

And in their disguises, Harry and Ron get to hear Malfoy go on and on about his dislike of the non-magical people, further making it look like he is probably the heir to Slitherin – a likely red herring.

And we learn that Azkaban is the wizard prison, and if I’m not mistaken that’s the name of the next book…

Another nice bit of tension as the boys start transforming back before they are ready, while they are still in Malfoy’s presence.

All this tension makes a book un-put-downable.

You want that, so learn how to add tension to your story.

And red herrings add tension, too. Just in a different way. More subtly, and over a longer period of time.

The boys go back to the restroom, where Hermione has been hiding this whole time and…

Well, Hermione turned herself into a cat. Didn’t see that coming!

End of chapter. Well done.

13 thoughts on “How To Write Better Stories: Red Herrings and More Tension

  1. Great post for writers! I am working on a new genre novel to be a trilogy or a series and I really needed to read this, again and again and copy it to review frequently. “It hit the nail on the head” for me at this juncture in by novel. I feel fortunate that I saw your post!! For me, there are two key elements in writing a novel – a mystery and a moral imperative. Thank you! K. D.

    Liked by 1 person

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