Turn Your Scene That’s Becoming a Cliché Into a Reader’s Surprise

“I look for ways to purposely write myself into corners and then use them to my advantage.” —Steven James (Writer’s Digest July/August 2015)


image by ClkeFreeVectorImages
image by ClkeFreeVectorImages

While writing a scene, I realized it was turning into a cliché for a Christmas story. Snow falls and the couple builds a snowman or starts a snowball fight. I thought, “Will you, much less your readers, be satisfied with that?”

Image by kerplode
Image by kerplode

To my surprise as I typed more words, the hero suggested a twist mid cliché. Something told me not to backspace through the paragraphs leading into the cliché activity. I allowed my hero to switch from the familiar pursuit to an activity I’d done in my past. Something most characters don’t do in a Christmas story.

Two benefits naturally emerged from my unique solution:

  1. I was forced to bring out much deeper character values than in the developing cliché. Better than the heroine squealing and yelling, “Don’t you dare hit me with that snowball!”
  1. By allowing the scene to head into a cliché, it became a red herring. I started out in one direction then orchestrated a switcheroo. Surprise! The bonus: the reader’s greater understanding of the characters’ values and characters.

I added this idea to my scene checklist:

Look for cliché activities and turn them into surprises for the reader. Click to tweet.


Sarah pulled herself into a sitting position and rested her back against the headboard. If she didn’t overcome this illness soon and help Clay in the fields, they’d lose much of the crop. They still didn’t know if the drought had hurt the wheat. As it was, the proceeds would barely be enough to pay their bills.

She slid her legs over the edge of the bed. When she stood, lightheadedness and nausea seized her, and her knees wobbled. She crawled into bed. Clay didn’t need to come home and find her on the floor. He already spent too much time worrying about her slow progress.

image by Jan Temmel
image by Jan Temmel

As she stared out the window, a tear rolled to her jaw. In the distance, Clay strode in from the fields for lunch. She grabbed her comb from the bedside table and went to work on her tangled hair. Was that flowers he was carrying?

The door opened and paper rustled in the other room. What was Clay doing?

Clay clomped into the bedroom and held out the flowers concealed in a sheet of her drawing paper. His lips trembled, and he looked as if he’d cry at any moment. What had Clay done wrong that brought on rare tears and flowers?

image by sushi
image by sushi

Studying his face for a clue, she accepted his guilt offering. Her fingers shook as she unwrapped a posy of … healthy green wheat.


To me, a man bringing flowers to his sick wife is nice, but a little cliché-like. Making this activity a red herring for his wife and the reader will liven up the scene. Their actions say a lot about them and their relationship.

What are other cliché-like activities?

Surprise Your Readers With a Red Herring; They’ll Love It

“What your characters observe—or don’t—can be effective red herrings.” —Jane K. Cleland (Writer’s Digest February 2016)

Image by PublicDomainImages

Definition of a red herring:

In storytelling, a red herring is an author’s intentional misdirection of the reader or a character. The author introduces a



issue, or

“smoke screen”





diverts, or

throws off


the reader or

a character


from the original issue and leads him


in the wrong direction or

to a false conclusion.

Red herrings aren’t for mysteries alone. Their subsequent surprises delight readers as does a gotcha, twist, or unexpected revelation.

Image by Kaz
Image by Kaz

A popular version for the origin of “red herring” is:

A hunting dog training technique. When the pungent odor of a smoked fish no longer diverts a dog from other scents, he’s ready for work.



How to incorporate red herrings in a story:

  1. Work to keep red herrings from being obvious. Thread them into the details of the story, such as into a character’s habits or his profession.
image by nrjfalcon
image by nrjfalcon

For example, we might believe a high school teacher talks to his students in social situations about the evils of drunk driving because he cares about their and others’ safety. Then we find out his real motive is to learn which teen is the hit-and-run driver that put his son in a wheelchair for life.

In this example, the red herring is a caring teacher. The reader is willing to believe a teacher is about education. And we’re on his side because he uses his free time to encourage teens to abstain from drinking and driving. Our preconceived notions about teachers facilitate creating the red herring of a caring teacher.

  1. A red herring can also be an item that causes a false conclusion. Here’s an example for a romance.
image by OpenClipartVectors
image by OpenClipartVectors

People see Sadie often carrying a small toolbox around town. She asks Deputy Wade to fix a leaking pipe at her home, a broken shelf at her shop, and the radiator in her Sunday school classroom. Her friends and the reader think Sadie uses tools to break things to woo bachelor Wade while he fixes her sabotages.

However, in the locked toolbox is a Colt 45. The gun is too large and heavy for Sadie’s purse. And children are too curious to see what’s inside a basket. When questioned she says she’s trying to repair things, a.k.a. her life.

She learns Lyle, who knew her when she worked in a saloon, is now out of prison and is coming to kill her reputation and her. Her testimony at his trial put him away for ten years. She’s called on Deputy Wade to fix things to have him close by for her safety, not for love. Of course, the reformed saloon gal and the deputy warm up to each other in his visits.

In this case, the toolbox and Sadie’s motives are red herrings.

Here are movies and TV shows that contain great red herrings:

LOST (motives)

Legally Blonde (her client’s motive)

The Usual Suspects (Roger’s story)

The Da Vinci Code (Bishop Aringarosa’s name translates “red herring.”)

Great Expectations (Pip’s benefactor)

Include red herrings to spice up your reader’s experience in all genres. Click to tweet.

What red herring have you intentionally used?