Posted in Film, Writing

How to Implement Red Herrings in Your Fiction

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

Twenty-one years ago, when I was barely 13 years old, I gave a very favorable review to I Know What You Did Last Summer, thinking it was the future of horror cinema, and that the magic of Scream had been transferred to another movie penned by Kevin Williamson.

It was an exciting time to be a horror movie buff, or so we thought, as we look back on those movies now with at least a slight amount of pain and embarrassment. The only movies that come out of that era circa 1996–2000 that still work well is the Scream trilogy, and even those feel a little dated. Oh the joy of revisiting movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, The Faculty, and, yes, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. These movies were a lot of fun at 13 and 14 years old, but now, it’s amazing to see just how bad these movies are.

I Know What You Did Last Summer definitely has its moments, and it’s still pretty entertaining, but the movie falls flat in the last fifteen minutes, and the performance by Jennifer Love Hewitt, in looking at it today, is pretty over-the-top and terrible. It all begins when four high school friends, the summer before graduation, go for a wild car ride up in the hills and accidentally hit a man in the middle of the road. Instead of calling the police, they dump his body into a watery grave and leave him for dead.

It turns out, a year later, he’s back to wreak vengeance on those that wronged him! Why did he wait a whole year? Did he have to wait until they all got home from college? I especially love that the killer takes time out of his day to send a letter to Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character Julie that merely says “I know what you did last summer!” with an exclamation point just to make sure she’s excited about it. Julie has not been doing well her first year at college, as one can see from her pale face and bored demeanor. All four of the friends have failed at living up to their dreams and aspirations, and no one can put the past behind them.

Jennifer Love Hewitt, fresh off of Party of Five, decided to wear outfits in this film that made her character look tough, and, well, delicious to every teen male boy out in the audience. In fact I bet there have been a lot of teen boys who have watched this movie a lot just for the sight of her tank top. Sarah Michelle Gellar, who shot this movie in between seasons 1 and 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, comes off the best, especially in scenes when she’s running away from the killer and trying to make sense of the whole ordeal. Even though she screams a little too much, she never strays away from her character.

Ryan Phillippe and Freddie Prinze Jr. are the manly men, who say more with a hurtful look and a confused stare than anyone in the history of horror movies. Kidding, of course, as Prinze Jr never actually changes the look on his face throughout the entire movie. Phillippe is a lot better… It’s sad that Phillippe dies pretty early on in the movie, and then Gellar follows suit close after. Therefore all the fans of this movie had a year to look forward to the next installment, when Hewitt and Prinze Jr could re-unite with newcomer Brandy and a not-yet-famous-yet Jack Black for a sequel. Yay!

The killer in the movie turns out to be pretty lame. Well, he wears a fisherman’s outfit to begin with, and then he has a hook in his hand, even though he has both hands. We’re supposed to be scared of this guy, but he’s so slow and clumsy that it’s surprising he manages the killings that he does. When watching a lame horror movie, I try to get inside the killer’s head and figure out what he’s thinking when it comes to his every move. There’s a scene in this movie where he stands in a clothing shop and stays completely still, like a mannequin, with a large see-through sheet over his face. Gellar’s character Helen Shivers (a pretty great name I must say) stands in the middle of the room, in the quiet, and turns around. Silence for a moment, and then he strikes! What exactly was his intention with that scenario? She had nowhere to go; all he had to do was charge at her from behind and kill her. He didn’t have to be that elaborate. And then in the end, he has about five chances to slash into Julie, when instead he takes time to talk to her, saying things like “Next time you leave someone for dead, make sure they’re really dead,” and, my personal favorite, “Happy 4th of July Julie!” Ugh…

I Know What You Did Last Summer remains entertaining to this day, but with the passing years, the movie’s suck factor keeps getting kicked up a few notches. I don’t want to know what this movie’s going to be like another twenty-one years from now. It’s still one of the better horror movies of that four-year period, certainly better than its horrendous sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. I have yet to see the third installment I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, but for now, we have the original, not old enough yet to be considered a teen classic, but old enough to be considered dated, flawed, and not nearly as good as it was when I was at the indelible age of 13.

Watching Like a Writer

One element of I Know What You Did Last Summer I didn’t discuss in the review that I think actually works well is the red herring aspect of the storyline. Julie and Helen go to the home of David Egan, the man Julie believes is the one they hit with their car on the 4th of July. At the house they meet his sister Missy, played by a extra-creepy Anne Heche, who’s still devastated by her brother’s death, and a little suspicious as to why Julie and Helen want to know so much about him. For much of the movie you think as the viewer David is the villain, and maybe Missy is in on it too, but by the end, we discover that David was actually murdered by the real killer, Ben Willis, and that Missy and David have had nothing to do with the terror currently wreaking havoc on the seaside town.

Red herrings can be tricky in your fiction. They have to be handled extremely well. You can’t just throw in a red herring halfway through your mystery novel because you think, oh, crap, the reader might know who the killer is! Quick! Shove in a red herring! As long as the red herring doesn’t feel cheap in any way, as long as it makes sense to the progression of the plot and feels right for your central characters to believe in, then red herrings can be effective tools to use in your narrative.

Exercise!

Think of three red herrings you could potentially use if you were writing a murder mystery. What would the red herrings be? How would you make sure they fit naturally in the story and didn’t come off as cheap?

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