Rabbit Holes and Red Herrings

Updated: Dec 29, 2020


has their faults – I have more than my fair share. As an author, these flaws can gather enormous momentum, barrelling the writer down a path to a point of no return. I’ll talk about two of them here – rabbit holes and red herrings. I suppose that the rabbit hole is easier to define. It’s a plot thread that tempts the author into developing the plot out of its original intent to an entirely different novel or novelette in its own right. A red herring, on the other hand, is an idea that either intrudes from one’s subconscious into the storyline with a similar disastrous effect. Herein lies the one of the biggest challenges I’ve found and it’s not finding a literary agent or even a publisher. The challenge, my dear budding authors out there, is to discard an idea or at least curtail it to obedience.

It can be damnably tempting to take such a brilliant idea and take it to its potential, full throttle and to hell with speeding tickets. I have a few examples and a few coping mechanisms.

An example of a red herring happened to be a character in my book The Tech. I won’t tell you which one – perhaps you may guess. I love all my characters, by the way, good, bad and ugly. But I fell in love with this particular character, so much so that she (Ah ha! A clue!) suddenly became attractive, took on a lover, had the temerity to fall for our hero and threatened to transform into an antiheroine. Let’s just say that I had to take drastic measures to curb my running-away enthusiasm and to preserve the integrity of my story. Any more elaboration will result in a plot spoiler.

"Another, much harder, but in many ways more efficient, is ruthlessly discarding said idea or character. Believe me when I say that I’ve done that too."

In my last blog, The Lighthouse Effect, I referred to one of the plots in chapter two threatening to become the main subject of the book, because, as I mentioned in that blog, the subject was one I felt very strongly about. The dangers may not be immediately apparent. Worse, they can be insidious.

I actually found myself debating within, trying to convince myself that these dangers, that it was a splendid idea to give that character a bigger role in the play and alter the course of the plot to make human trafficking the plot! Why didn’t I? In the end, I recognised the true value of the original plot – it was my baby so’s to speak, so it wasn’t that hard. I also realised that the red herring was taking on Moby Dick proportions and had to be Ahabbed.

Here are some coping mechanisms. At least, these are the arguments and techniques I used in plot development. I didn’t actually have anyone to help me with this although I did have reviewers and copyeditors – plural – to help me with the identification of fallacies within my fiction. Elements of illogic that crept in because of said rabbit hole and red herring. But before I get there – what in the hell, may you ask, is the difference? They sound exactly the same – at least in concept - although one may reference a small mammal and the other a foot-long fish. The difference is – the rabbit hole is a plot element that can swallow the plot whole all by itself. The red herring, one the other hand, is usually just an irritating distraction that can swallow one or more of the protagonists.

Do you agree with Mark so far?

The simplest, most effective technique is to give such importance to that idea or character to file it away for the future. Does it sound too simple? Oops. Didn’t quite mean it that way. The ‘filing away’ cannot simply be lip service to the herring or the rabbit in question. I actually, wrote down the plot of another book to take the subject close to my heart to its proper, well-deserved conclusion. Just not in this book. But that’s not all. You also have to make sure that you don’t destroy it in the process of correcting your mistake. You have to make it work for you in your original plot. The feelings that I had invested had to be represented with due respect. To be perfectly honest with you, I am not sure if succeeded completely. Something, as the saying goes, has to give. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, there is a sadness within me that I didn’t give the subject more respect, or the character more airtime.

Another, much harder, but in many ways more efficient, is ruthlessly discarding said idea or character. Believe me when I say that I’ve done that too. As a matter of fact, at the very first copyedit of my book, I was given a clear choice. Get rid of the character or change the plot to make it work. It was a hard choice. In the end, I chose the plot, filing away the character for future use in another book. Don’t forget that the character is not simply a name with physical and behavioural characteristics. In my mind, they are real, live people (I may have mentioned this in one of first blogs). I can’t simply ignore them or completely discard them! (Imagine Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction saying those words and you’ll get my meaning!!).

Drop the character or change the plot? Comment below

There’s a reason that I found myself in this position. One of the biggest dangers that authors face, me included, is missing the forest for the trees. I’m always – and should be – far too close to my work to find every single plot hole, to fix all the possible SPAG foibles, check for overuse of adverbs, ensure consistency of characters, timelines work and most importantly, root out those nasty red herrings that find their way into my manuscript. That’s why I have at least one copyeditor, one proof-reader and three independent reviewers before the book sees the light of day.

I’ll confess to another flaw. To begin with, in one of my first drafts, my ending truly sucked. I say so myself because I now have several reviewers simply loving the way I ended the book. Although I wasn’t convinced at the time, it took two copyeditors and one proof-reader to point out to me rather politely that the ending was less than satisfactory. I agonised over their feedback for weeks. It wasn’t just that the book was my baby. It wasn’t even the fact that I felt that the ending was great. It was just that … I had carefully selected it from one of several endings, each outdoing the other for complex twists and cliffhanging abilities. I caved. I changed it, foregoing only the flaw and not making the mistake of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. When you read the book, if you haven’t already, you might just guess the identities of the baby and the flaw. Go on. I dare you. But before I conclude, back to tips and tricks.

The most fantastic piece of advice that I can give you is – when you go back and review a manuscript, check out each and every character, human and animal alike and ensure that they get due respect – no more, no less. That they develop through the story, along with your plot – they grow, diminish, die or elevate as the plot demands, naturally and in an uncontrived manner. See to it, lovingly, that they are likeable, relatable, debatable or detestable – depending on the impact that you wish to achieve. But don’t let them take over the plot. Don’t let a single sequence or plot element become the plot.

I try. I don’t always succeed. You see, it’s the journey. It has to be fun. It has been for me thus far and I have hopes for the future. Hope you enjoyed it. I know that I did. Let me know what you think.

Mark Ravine

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