A plot element is given sufficient play and attention over the course of a season that the audience is certain that The Law of Conservation of Detail
is at work, promising a payoff of some kind. Then, inexplicably, the plot element is abandoned, forgotten or explained away.
The Red Herring Twist is a story telling tool designed to distract the audience from the primary plot. It almost always goes hand in hand with a twist-ending. It most commonly pops up in murder mysteries when the story teller does not want the audience to guess the identity of the killer too soon so uses plot elements to suggest that an innocent character may be guilty. If a plot arc is abandoned because of lazy writing or executive meddling then it is not a Red Herring Twist, but an Aborted Arc
Compare Trapped by Mountain Lions
, Left Hanging
, Kudzu Plot
, They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot
, Cliffhanger Copout
. Subtrope of Red Herring
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- The Abandoned Dorm in Yu-Gi-Oh! GX. A huge plot point in Season 1, with Fubuki Tenjoin having disappeared there. After his rescue, he makes a few vague references to the place, but has amnesia as far as what took place there. It remains irrelevant for Seasons 2 and 3. In Season 4, it's revealed that the place was the site of a ritual used to summon the embodiment of Darkness itself. It's also stated off-handedly that the other students that disappeared there returned. However, no further details are given, and the building ends up being destroyed during the course of the season. So it's technically resolved, but only vaguely.
- In Märchen Awakens Romance, early episodes contained foreshadowing about a mysterious and shadowy Thieves' Guild, which conspired to steal the main character's mystical weapon Babbo. Shortly afterward, after the author changed his mind, someone from the Chess Pieces stepped into the Thieves' Guild hideout and unceremoniously wiped them out. I suppose you could call that closure, but only on a technicality.
- The beginning of Senki Zesshou Symphogear foreshadowed Hibiki's death at the start of the first episode. Even after singing her Ultimate Song, she comes back at the very end of season 1 alive and well.
- Quite a few in Hellsing. Most viewers were not expecting Walter to turn traitor or for Schrödinger to be the one to ultimately take down Alucard. There are a handful of tiny hints given throughout the series, but the vast majority of viewers will be focusing their attention on the more obvious and detailed enemies, such as Iscariot Section XIII and Millennium's actual elites. The latter are still vital to the overall plot, but it's the most unsuspecting background characters who deliver the most damage and manipulation when it's all said and done.
- As the Comic Irregulars point out in The Rant of this comic, the whole shapeshifting thing in Attack of the Clones is a prime example of this trope. One assassin is a shapeshifter. Said assassin does nothing with this ability but die.
- Note that this was not an intentional example: after the principal photography has ended the creators just decided to include a cool shapeshifting assassin by adding a line of dialogue and CGI transformation sequences in post- production. The implications eventually became actual plot points in Star Wars Expanded Universe... which already had various shape-shifting species from decades before.
- The Big Lebowski seems to be mostly made out of these, entirely deliberately. The entire main plot turns out to basically be a big Red Herring, with none of the elements really tying together at all. The real climax of the film is the villains mugging the heroes for all the money they're carrying, which adds up to about 25 bucks, and the only event to have a lasting impact ( Donnie's fatal heart attack) is barely foreshadows and has nothing to do with the rest of the plot. It really works, though.
Live Action TV
- An infamous Red Herring Twist is in Twin Peaks, where two brothers (Ben and Jerry) who owned the hotel, suddenly became obsessed with a miniature Civil War battlefield. Week after week they punished us with that one. Then, as is often the case with a Red Herring Twist, it just mysteriously disappeared.
- Twin Peaks was the exception to the frustration rule, however, because it was in fact almost nothing but an endless series of Red Herring Twist(s) strung together by other devices (particularly halfway through the second season). It became a kind of sport to watch how far the writers could go before the show completely self-destructed. It never really did and even spawned a movie that tied up a few loose ends and some all new Red Herring Twist(s).
- Curb Your Enthusiasm's third season arc had Larry David opening a restaurant with his celebrity friends. The restaurant was never brought up again.
- Teri Bauer's amnesia in the first season of 24 served no narrative purpose other than giving Teri a reason to be on-screen for a few hours, and is considered by many of the show's fans to be the one significant flaw in an otherwise outstanding season (other than the very existence of Kim Bauer, that is).
- Also in 24, an assassination attempt is made on David Palmer, who falls to the ground, dying, in the closing seconds of season two. Season three takes place three years later and has nothing to do with this event. Season two's plot was continued in a 24 video game, but, as it was only available on Playstation 2, many fans of the show never learned of it.
- At the end of Alias's 4th season, Jack Bristow tells Irina Derevko that she will enjoy getting to know Nadia (her daughter, supposedly fathered by Arvin Sloane while she was undercover as Laura Bristow, Jack's wife), because she is extraordinary. Irina pauses and then asks "I wonder who she got that from?", which fans took as a hint that Nadia was in fact Jack's daughter. This was was never touched upon again during the 5th and final season.
- While LOST contains many, many apparent examples of this trope that are actually referenced in later seasons (sometimes in blink-or-you'll-miss-it moments), the writers did seem to have a few too many plot strands to properly address everything. On the other hand, some things may have been deliberately left unanswered. We never found out the significance of Walt's special ability, or what the "magic box" was that transported Locke's father to the island, or what Alvar Hanso's deal was. Or why The Others wiped out the Dharma Initiative (though we can conclude that Jacob wasn't responsible because it's revealed in season 6 that Jacob never ever gave a direct order to the Others). Or what the Smoke Monster's real name was.
- Ben says later that the "magic box" was only a metaphor, based on what Cooper (Locke's father) tells Sawyer the Others kidnapped him (not surprising, they have plenty of presence off-Island). The Others wiped out the DHARMA Initiative because the treaty had failed and both sides were preparing to take care of the other, the Others simply managed to act faster. The Smoke Monster never had a name, since his birth mother died before naming him and his adoptive mother never bothered to give him one. Finally, in the show, Alvar Hanso seems to only exist to serve as an explanation of how DHARMA got funded, the only thing that suggests there's more to him is the LOST Experience, which isn't really a part of the show's canon from what we can tell.
- Alvar Hanso was relegated to the Lost Experience. It's possible he was intended to serve a role that became Widmore instead.
- Babylon 5 is notorious for this. The Talia Winters story arc involving gaining telekinetic powers that ended up going nowhere when the character was Put on a Bus and died there.
- Also the Sinclair story arc was aborted when the actor left the show as a main character, although he did come back for a cameo—and later a guest star appearance—to wrap up his own story which had been given so much previous build-up that it would've been impossible to abandon. To the credit of the writer(s), any Red Herring Twist on the show was a result of unforseen problems with the actors and they did their best to continue the main plot and events, only told slightly differently from the original vision and sometimes with different characters in the same role as the previous ones.
- J. Michael Straczynski actually anticipated that such events might occur, so he always wrote "trap doors" that would allow him to remove characters from the story without interrupting the flow of the story. On occasion, this also means pulling old characters back into the story after their initial absence. The Talia Winters case was the most notable.
- In the second season of The Shield, Danny Sofer had a subplot where she was forced to shoot and kill an Arab man after he threatened the life of a neighbor. The man's wife angrily promised that Danny would pay for what she'd done and for the next several episodes, Danny was continuously harassed, with it escalating worse each episode, and though the wife was the likely suspect it was never actually proven if she was behind it. Then in the middle of the season Danny is blamed for allowing a drug trafficker to get killed under her watch (which was actually caused by Shane and Lem), and the repercussions of this wind up completely taking over her plotline in the season with the harassment she was facing prior to that never being brought up again.
- Person of Interest had something of this in the first season finale in which there was massive buildup as to the true role of The Machine. In particular Alica Corwin, one of the few in the US government that knew what it was, was now determined to shut it down to avoid it falling into the wrong hands. After an episode in which an innocent psychologist was targeted by HR, [[spoiler: it appears as if Alica was the one who set up the hit in order to lure out Team Machine. She then reveals that she had been following them for weeks and already knew everything about where they were before she is shot in the back by Root who set the hit on herself to draw them out.
- In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the all-important "sugar bowl" is introduced in the tenth book, The Slippery Slope. All the bad guys want it, and all the good guys need to protect it. But what the heck is it? It's never explained or even vaguely hinted at, and is promptly forgotten after its purpose as a MacGuffin is done. The series does this with several plot points, but this is one of the most noticeable ones. This was very likely intentional, so as to demonstrate that "there will always be mysteries in the world."
- A Series of Unfortunate Events also discusses the trope, and makes the discussion plot-important in The Ersatz Elevator. In said book a large red ornamental fish is given a passing mention on a list of items being sold at the In Auction. The Baudelaires have no interest in it, instead believing that the Quagmires (who they know are secretly being smuggled through it) are in a different item. The literal red herring turns out to be the auction lot containing the Quagmires, and it is purchased by the villains.
- In Shogun, we find out that Yabu's massuer Suwo holds a grudge against his master, having been the student of Yabu's arch-enemy. Bafflingly, after this is brought up it's never referenced again, in a book that otherwise does a great job keeping track of the massive amount of plots and counter-plots going on.
- In the Discworld novel Going Postal, it is explicitly and quite obviously declared that Mr. Pump can perfectly imitate any voice he's ever heard, which comes up when he delivers a warning message from Vetinari. Despite all logic this does not come up later. The entire book is full of details and facts which don't affect the course of the plot, but most of the rest can be attributed to world-building and Moist's quest to figure out how to kill a golem, but this one has no justification at all.
- In Watchers by Dean Koontz, Vince is a vampiric hitman who's built up in the book to be an almost supernatural force. He's hunting our heroes in his quest to become immortal. However, the protagonists have other concerns and are not even aware of him until he kidnaps The Chick and the stage is set for a climactic fight scene. Then he gets distracted for a moment, allowing The Chick to shoot him point-blank with a pistol, albeit in his Kevlar vest. He runs off, only to be ambushed by a dog and then shot point-blank again by the lead character's Uzi while he's down. It's a rather unsatisfying end to his part in the story.
- In Heavy Rain, one of the protagonists Ethan Mars blacks out, only to come to several hours later holding an origami figure, the calling card of the game's Serial Killer; despite being incredibly important, it's mentioned only a few times after, and then totally dropped. The actual explanation was going to be a supernatural connection to the real serial killer, who isn't Ethan, but at some point very late into creation, the decision was made to drop the supernatural themes. Since the two sequences were too important and significant to just drop or Fix It in Post (i.e. it would require an entire rewrite for the scenes where it occurs and is discussed), it ended up being left in.