Guest Editor Barrie Summy re: Red Herrings in MG Mysteries?

in Guest Editors/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Do you think red herrings and foreshadowing are important in middle grade novels? I’m working on a spooky mystery and am wondering if I need to pay more attention to adding red herrings. It seems like a tough element to learn. Thanks for any input you can give me.

Sincerely,
Lynn

Dear Lynn…

Yes and yes. I say go for both red herrings and foreshadowing in middle-grade novels.

A few red herrings tossed into the mix add to the fun and complexity and give your mystery those delightful twists and turns. You definitely don’t want a straight road leading directly from the problem to the solution. Sure, by the end of the mystery, you want your readers to feel that even if they didn’t crack the case, they could’ve. And, of course, some readers will actually solve it. Red herrings ensure that not every reader solves it. 🙂

I’m a huge fan of foreshadowing because it enriches the book and makes it hang together better. Will your average middle-grade reader notice foreshadowing? Perhaps not. But it will still make your story that much better.

Hope this helps. Good luck with your writing, Lynn. Middle-grade mysteries are great! (Not that I’m biased…)

-Guest Editor Barrie Summy

Barrie Summy is the author of the popular young adult mystery series I So Don’t Do: I So Don’t Do Mysteries, I So Don’t Do Spooky, and I So Don’t Do Makeup. The fourth mystery in the series, I So Don’t Do Famous, pubs May 10, 2011. In it, Sherry goes to Hollywood and figures out who’s breaking into celebrities’ homes. For more about Barrie and Sherry, go to www.barriesummy.com.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you, Barrie, for taking the time to answer my question. It’s good to know that red herrings have their place in MG novels, so I’ll pay more attention to weaving this element into my novels. And also more foreshadowing. It will take practice, but that’s what the craft of writing is all about, right?

    Thank you, DearEditor, for referring my question to Barrie. I love your site. So very helpful.

    • Lynne, so glad my answer was helpful! I think you’re right; it’s all about learning the craft. 😉 When I start to get bogged down in a mystery (the clue doesn’t work or I should put in a red herring or whatever), I always remind myself that I can take of the problem in the next draft. 😉

  2. Great question, Lynne, and a thorough answer, Barrie. Thanks for this important info. It’s timely because I’m working on a YA mystery right now, and may write an MG one in the future. I think no mystery is complete without ambiguous clues, red herrings, and foreshadowing.

    • Hi Laura! I’m working on a YA mystery now too. I think you’re absolutely right; we need those ambiguous clues, red herrings and foreshadowing. The mystery would be too straightfoward otherwise.

  3. It’s a lot like mysteries in real life. You don’t know what’s a good clue or a bad clue when you’re trying to figure something out. You consider all options, build the evidence, eventually you learn to throw out the bad stuff and hope you figure it out. What makes it hard is when you’re the omniscient author. You have to think of the red herrings and remember to put in the foreshadowing and make it all plausible and fun. Thanks Barrie. Very helpful advice with what I’m working on now. Funnily enough, in my first drafts, I often throw in what I know will eventually be foreshadowing, but have no real clue what it will truly foreshadow when I write it. I figure it out as I go along. Ahhh, the joys of first drafts.

    • Bill: you’re very welcome! I agree; in our fictional mysteries, we’re trying to simulate real-life mysteries where you don’t know which clues are bonafide, which clues will lead you on a wild-goose chase, etc. Isn’t is so much fun when you stick in foreshadowing and then, lo and behold, it turns out to be the right thing in the right place! Yay for writing when it works out like that!

      • And when it doesn’t work out, which does happen a bit…there’s always the next draft as you say. Always time to fix. The real nuances of a mystery seem to come from subsequent drafts. At least for me.

  4. I have written a MG with a mystery. I did include red herrings and foreshadowing but had to make sure I got enough feedback to make sure these elements, as well as the clues, are not too obvious/opaque. What you said about wanting readers to feel that even if they didn’t crack the case, they could have is eye-opening. I had not considered it that way. The way I want my readers to react is that after they discover the who dunnit, they would remember the real clues and go, “of course!” Not that these are necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s good to think about readers’ responses in different ways.

    • Yat Yee: We’re probably both saying the pretty much the same thing. I know when I finish reading an adult mystery (or MG or YA, for that matter), I want to feel that it was fair. That even if I didn’t solve the case, I had a shot at it. To that end, the clues have to give you some info, just not too much. Fun!

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