Red herring plotlines and satisfying plot twists

Aug 27, 2023  |  4 min
More mature than a scribble, but not yet what digital gardener Maggie Appleton calls an “evergreen” idea. A note may have taken a fair amount of time to develop. I think the idea has merit.
(See digital gardening.)
 |  Payoff Story structure Story Craft

Summary: Storytellers can build satisfying payoffs by using beats from a visible plotline to lay the foundation for a second, hidden plotline

You could think of this note as a part two. In the previous note, I explored what I call the “realm of appropriate payoffs.” Here’s what we covered:

  • To be maximally satisfying, story payoffs need to have some element of unexpectedness.
  • But, paradoxically, they must also fulfill the promise established in the setup.
  • When surprise endings don’t satisfy, it’s often because they fail on the second point — they don’t match the “appropriate realm” of payoff promised in the setup.
  • One of the most straightforward ways to achieve a satisfying twist is to fulfill the kind of payoff promised by the setup but subvert expectations in terms of magnitude. In other words, make the ending better than expected.

A hidden plot and a visible plot

In this note, we’ll talk about a second, slightly more complex way to deliver a satisfying subversion of expectations. In this approach, you use the setup to establish multiple appropriate realms of outcomes. Like an illusionist’s sleight of hand, you point the audience’s expectation toward a particular outcome, a “red herring” of sorts. Then, in the payoff you deliver a subtler but more meaningful one.

This type of payoff is constructed so that key moments in the story support both the red herring and the true outcome. I think of this roughly like a DNA double helix. On one side is the more visible plot. Connected to key story moments in this plot, like rungs on a ladder, are the moments in the hidden plot. Then, in the payoff, the plots swap positions, and the hidden one comes to the fore.

A diagram with a double helix where one side is highlighted until the helixes cross and then the other side is highlighted.

Key to pulling this off, of course, is that the payoff of the hidden plot must feel more gratifying to the audience than the payoff of the visible plot would have. You must always deliver better than expected.

Casablanca: love vs. redemption

There’s a masterful example in Curtiz’s 1942 film, Casablanca.

Here’s the setup: Rick Blaine is painted as a disillusioned patriot, someone who is capable of great heroism but has become jaded. Next, Ilsa Lund enters the scene. We learn that Ilsa is the reason Rick is jaded. They were lovers, and she abandoned him without explanation the day he fled the Nazi occupation of Paris. Ilsa is now married to Victor Lazlo, a Czech freedom fighter resisting the Nazi occupation of Europe.

There are two plotlines being established here. Lazlo is the connection between them.

The more obvious plotline — the one that audiences inevitable watch closely and anticipate a resolution for — is the love story between Rick and Ilsa. The writers engineer the story in such a way as to make us desire to see Rick’s jaded heart soften and to see the couple reunite in bliss.

In this plotline, Victor Lazlo is played as an obstacle to the goal, a rival to Rick. He is the “man in the way” keeping Ilsa and Rick apart.

Yet, at the same time, Lazlo illustrates the ideal of the freedom fighter Rick used to be (and could be again). This sets up the plotline of Rick’s redemption story.

While Lazlo’s purity and idealism makes him unrelatable, audiences are led to respect his dedication to the cause. Rick respects it as well, though in his disillusioned state he wouldn’t admit it — perhaps not even to himself. Lazlo is a positive foil for Rick.

In the redemption plotline, Victor Lazlo ends up becoming the goal, a macguffin of sorts. Lazlo is the one who must be saved at all costs. If Lazlo is captured by the Nazis, the hope of the freedom of Europe (and the world, by extension — we pull no punches here) goes with him. For Rick’s character to be redeemed, Lazlo must be saved. A

Through the vehicle of Lazlo, major moments in the story that advance the visible, love plotline simultaneously advance the hidden, redpemption plotline.

As the final payoff draws near, audiences are primed to expect Rick and Ilsa to ride of together in romantic bliss. But that’s a red herring. Because Rick must save Lazlo — and because Lazlo could not be what he is without Ilsa — the traditional resolution of the love plotline would not be completely satisfying.

Instead, there is an unexpected reversal. In the final payoff, the hidden redemption plotline that has been building all along takes over. In spite of his deep love for her, Rick chooses to give Ilsa up. This unexpected self-sacrificial twist not only saves Victor Lazlo, it proves that Rick is still worthy of the cause of freedom. He loses the girl, but he recovers his soul. While we were busy watching the love story, all along it was laying the foundation for something deeper — Rick’s redemption. B

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The realm of appropriate payoffs
The best story payoffs match the setup while being better than expected.