Film is one of the few places where you can mislead and distract your audience and have them be happy about it. When weaving together a story for a film there are often times where you only want to lay breadcrumbs to where the story is headed to avoid giving away the ending.
In these cases a little misdirection is needed. Using a red herring is one of the most effective and well-known ways with a few different ways to execute. The folks at StudioBinder appear to agree with this and have broken down five different techniques that filmmakers can use to mislead and distract the audience.
A red herring is a specific technique with a fun history as to the name. When training dogs to catch foxes, the handler would actually use a herring to coat the trail with another smell. Training the dog to ignore this extra scent was the goal. Though when the dog was fooled it was said to be following the red herring.
In film it is a way to intentionally mislead the audience to subvert their expectations. There are issues though if not executed well. It can’t be too obvious or too subtle. Here are some ways to pull it off.
1. The Whodunit
Perhaps the most classic red herring is the whodunit in mystery and thriller movies. Nobody know who did the crime and everyone is a suspect. Good writers will leave clues and hints here or there that can draw the viewer away from the truth without being a direct lie. You don’t want people to figure it out until the very last minute otherwise the power of the reveal is lost.
An example of subverting this trope is in Murder on the Orient Express where everyone is looking for the killer before the twist is revealed and you find out that every subject was involved in the murder. The red herring was the desire to suss out the red herrings.
2. Unreliable Narrator
Many films follow the point of view of a single individual or group. If that person telling the story is not giving a proper account of the events. You are seeing what is being said but that isn’t actually the truth – or it is at least intended to be misleading. In The Usual Suspects the fact that the story is being told by Keyser Soze himself makes the entire story the red herring. You believe every word until the very end you find out that he was lying the whole time and tricked everyone.
3. Emotional Effect
You can use a red herring to create an emotional effect. Saving Private Ryan does this very well. The introduction has an unknown character before we head into a flashback focused on Tom Hanks’ character.
Since we moved from one to the other without any detail, we assume that Hanks’ character must survive the entire ordeal, which could mean that he failed his mission to save Private Ryan. At the end, you find out that Hanks’ character doesn’t survive and it is actually Ryan going to pay his respects. It subverts the expectations of the audience from the beginning.
4. Historical Subversion
One thing Tarantino likes doing is taking historical events and giving them a new spin. The way he structures the film—with plenty of real moments – makes us believe that things are going to play out just as we expect. Then, when the twist shows up, he takes a new approach. By altering history we are completely shocked and perhaps a more satisfying result.
5. Casting & Marketing
When we consider films today, the marketing campaigns play a significant impact on audience expectations. In the original Scream, they casted Drew Barrymore and in Psycho they casted Janet Leigh and both were killed off relatively early in the movies.
We understand that big stars generally have strong plot armor and survive through the worst of it. When they don’t it comes as a huge shock to the audience.
Another casting misdirection is going against the roles actors are known for playing. If you take a comedic and nice actor and make them the surprise villian you can throw people off.
A red herring is a nice technique that can make the impact of the story much stronger.
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