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When you write a plot that becomes so convoluted that it becomes impossible to resolve without resorting to contrived or unrealistic solutions, how do you write yourself out of a corner?

For example, let's say I wrote a mystery story with too many red herrings. How do you provide a satisfying resolution without feeling like you cheated? Is there a way to disentangle yourself from such a mess?

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    Many red herrings in a detective novel is not necessarily bad. If the detective has 10 leads to investigate, and knows that at least 9 of them will be red herrings, then crossing out a lead will feel like progress. One down, x more to go. This can still be good. This depends more on the presentation than on the content. If the sequence of red herrings feels like an endless ping-pong match of plot twists, and then the final conclusion of the mystery feels very arbitrary, then it can be bad.
    – Stef
    Mar 2, 2023 at 9:26
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    I would suggest you look at how a master of American Literature handled this situation: americanliterature.com/author/mark-twain/short-story/… Mar 2, 2023 at 16:18
  • By not resorting to Deus Ex Machina Mar 3, 2023 at 3:12
  • @CrashGordon thanks for the interesting story. So the takeaway point here is that: "just be honest with the readers, and say that you mess up and it's too hard to get out of all these tangled plot"? XD
    – justhalf
    Mar 3, 2023 at 9:11

3 Answers 3

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The common advice is to write detective puzzles backwards. That is, you begin with who did it, decide how this is discovered, and then work backwards via the clues that will lead to this discovery all the way to the riddle as it presents itself to the sleuth and the reader at the beginning. That way you avoid writing yourself to a point where a case cannot be solved using the means that you provided to the protagonist.

As for other corners that one write oneself into, I have found the following procedure helpful:

  1. Put the manuscript away and work on another project.
  2. After a long enough time during which you have forgotten most of the details of your stuck project, sit down and – without looking at what you wrote before! – outline or discovery write it again.

Ideally, in your mind the story will have coagulated into a coherent form through time and distance. If not,

  1. Abandon the story or commission an editor to clean up the plot for you.
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Revision.

Go back and decide which red herrings have to go.

Sometimes this, in fact, requires inventing new red herrings because you concluded an entire subplot has to go, it produces too many bad red herrings, and leaves you without enough.

Some writers sometimes find it useful to analyze the structure of the story to figure out what the main branch is, but not all.

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Have a fight scene.

I remember some writing advice I read a while ago. It might have been for movies or roleplaying games, but it would probably fit here:

When things start getting overly confusing or boring, throw in a fight scene.

It's exciting, it's flashy, and if you're writing a detective story, it can help simplify the mystery by leaving some of the red herrings dead. This can be through literal violence leaving the suspects dead, or by the goons attacking the detective protagonists narrowing the field of suspects ("The men who attacked us were members of the Calzone gang! That must mean that the person who killed the Cardinal must be one of the gang's leaders!").

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    This sounds like "Orcs Attack!" by Matt Colville, which was intended as advice for running Dungeons and Dragons (or a similar TTRPG). TVTropes, however, makes the connection to Chandler's Law which is more broadly applied.
    – Laurel
    Mar 6, 2023 at 18:31

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