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Red Herring Twist

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"I think Anton Chekhov just committed suicide with his gun."
The Comic Irregulars, Darths & Droids #240

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 storytelling 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 storyteller does not want the audience to guess the killer's identity 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.

Subtrope of Red Herring. Compare Trapped by Mountain Lions, The Walrus Was Paul, Left Hanging, Kudzu Plot, Fauxshadow, Mockstery Tale, They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot, Cliffhanger Copout.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The Abandoned Dorm in Yu-Gi-Oh! GX. A huge plot point in Season 1, with Atticus 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 MÄR, 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. We suppose you could call that closure, but only on a technicality.
  • Two big ones in Eureka Seven AO, revealed back-to-back:
    • Episode 7 shows an image of Nirvash type TheEND from the original series in Generation Bleu's basement. In Episode 20 Generation Bleu's base is destroyed, exposing TheEND...which is then unceremoniously blown away by the other thing in Generation Bleu's basement.
    • In Episode 11, the character Elena Peoples is shown to have visions of the original Eureka Seven setting, and she desires to go back there. Then in Episode 14 Ao learns he may have an older sister somewhere...and Elena has an extreme reaction to seeing Eureka again, almost like an abandoned child. But then Episode 21 comes along, which reveals that Elena is actually from the past, and her visions were simply what she saw when Eureka brought her through time. It's ultimately a Mythology Gag to the original series's Compilation Movie where a group of characters see a glimpse of the original series's universe and become obsessed with finding it again.
    • And if you're wondering Ao's older sister died shortly after she was born. The twists reek of Writer Cop Out.
  • The beginning of 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.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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. Most likely, the movie's makers just thought a shape-shifting assassin would be cool without thinking of broader implications.
    "Wow, there are shapeshifters in the Star Wars universe! We've been shown that fact quite explicitly. Surely this will become important later in the plot." Only it never does.
  • 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 foreshadowed and has nothing to do with the rest of the plot. It really works, though.
  • Mulholland Dr. is also almost entirely composed of those. The first half of the movie has several seemingly unrelated storylines, implying that eventually they will tie together somehow; in the second half, they are either completely dropped (like the mafia kingpin Mr. Roque) or used in unexpected, Mind Screwy way (like the hitman Joe and his black book). Possibly explained by the fact that the whole first part of the movie was the protagonist's dream... or was it?

  • 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 at one point. In The Ersatz Elevator, 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 girl and the stage is set for a climactic fight scene. Then he gets distracted for a moment, allowing the girl 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Twin Peaks was the exception to the frustration rule, 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). For example, there are two brothers (Ben and Jerry) who owned the hotel, and 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. 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.
  • 24:
    • Teri Bauer's amnesia in the first season 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).
    • 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 (in the show at least) 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.
  • Babylon 5 is notorious for this. 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 with only minor changes from the original vision, sometimes with different characters in the same role as the previous ones.
    • 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. It did, however, end up rescuing Lyta Alexander's having viewed Kosh's true form in the pilot from being this. Talia's exit allowed for Lyta's return.
    • The Sinclair story arc was aborted when the actor left the show as a main character. 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).
    • After Corwin's promotion to Lieutenant, Sheridan and Ivanova try to gauge whether or not they can trust him with their plans against President Clark. In a Secret Test of Character, Corwin makes it clear that he believes in My Country, Right or Wrong, and they decide against it. However, a few episodes later, Sheridan declares Babylon 5's independence from Earth and gives everyone on his command crew a chance to leave - and Corwin chooses to stay. It does get a brief mention where Ivanova, the one who was responsible for Corwin's secret test, asks Corwin if he's really OK, and he says he's fine, to his own surprise. Also, the 'test' took place before a series of actions by Earth Gov where they declared martial law, then started bombing civilian targets on Mars, which may have changed his mind on the matter.
  • 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, 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.

    Video Games 
  • 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.
  • Anastasia's bus accident in Fleuret Blanc. It's suspicious as all get-out and only gets more so as Florentine learns more about Anastasia and FOIL. The protagonists frequently discuss it and assume it has a connection to the central mystery, a paranoia that only gets more justified when they find evidence that FOIL kills its former members. In the ending, however, the event is revealed to have been a legitimate coincidence, with no relation to the conspiracy.
  • Wadanohara has a combination of this and Tomato Surprise which lasts for half the game; the story establishes a kingdom under the sea complete with castle and princess, how there used to be a ruling king and a second princess, how the second princess was banished away and then it seems that said princess and her followers are coming back for revenge. Except this was all set up by the Big Bad; the invading princess is not the one who was banished and she attacks for entirely different reasons (she fell for a forged letter, big time). The real second princess was banished to underwater hell and the Big Bad eventually brings her back, cosmic horrors and Mind Rape powers included.
  • In Aquanox, it is rumoured early by multiple characters than the EntrOx corporation is developing a new type of super-light type of breathing gas and had samples of it stolen. When the player character asks the new boss of EntrOx about it much later in the storyline, he simply dismisses the rumour and the plot point is never brought up again.
  • In Fire Emblem Fates, it's mentioned that three people received the Rainbow Sage's blessing in the past: King Sumeragi of Hoshido, King Garon of Nohr, and a third, unknown knight. You'd expect this third person to be important on the Revelation route, but in the end it's never revealed who it is and it bears no relevance to the plot. Some fans believe it to be Gunter, but it's never confirmed.
  • In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, late into Part I, "those who slither in the dark" start causing chaos in the main plot, and while some of its important members are eventually dealt with for good, Thales remains at large and is set up to return in full force later. No matter the path chosen, the group is swiftly forgotten by Part II to make way to the game's main antagonists, and while Thales and co. return in due time, their overall relevance heavily differs depending on the story branch: In the Verdant Wind and Silver Snow routes, after Edelgard's death and, with some posthumous support from Hubert, the Alliance/Resistance Army invade Thales' headquarters and bring him down, but not without making way for the stories' final threat. In Crimson Flower, Thales collaborates with Edelgard to bring down a common enemy, and while it's teased multiple times their team-up is temporary and that he and his gang are next on Edelgard's list once the war's over, TWSITD is mentioned to have been fought and defeated offscreen in various epilogues. Finally, in Azure Moon, Thales and another key member are fought and killed by Dimitri but while wearing the guise of the Empire Regent and a Court Mage respectively, and the group's involvement with the Empire is heavily hinted but never directly acknowledged during the remainder of the story.

    Visual Novels 
  • Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair has a character named Byakuya Togami, who seems to be a returning character from the previous game. In the beginning he takes charge, and hints that he knows more than the other characters do. He also mentions a secret that he plans on telling the others. He quickly becomes the first murder victim. Much later in the game, the surviving characters look at a list of students and find that this Togami was an imposter. Those hints he knew something the other characters didn't? Fake. His real identity? He doesn't have one. The Reveal is structured so that it comes off as completely unimportant... which is what the character turns out to be. Incidentally, it should be mentioned that this whole thing is a deliberate inversion of something that happened in the previous game where a seemingly unimportant character becomes relevant after their death.
  • Occurs several times in Melody in a meta way. The developers rewrote the walkthrough several times during development to omit references to difficulties later on in the story due to one choice or another. Said difficulties were never written into subsequent chapters, necessitating their removal from the walkthrough.