In logic, a red herring is a fallacy of distraction: bringing up another point to redirect the argument. In the financial world, a red herring is a predictor of how a business or its stock is likely to perform.
In a mystery, a red herring is a false clue that leads the sleuth away from the villain. The red herring distracts the reader from knowing the true culprit.
The origin of the term is vague and entomology scholars debate the source. Some people believe it originated in a news story by English journalist William Cobbett. He claimed that he used a red herring, cured and salted, not fresh, to mislead hounds following a trail. At the time of publication, the term served as a metaphor for false news accounts.
Why Red Herrings Work
Red herrings create mystery in your story by testing your sleuth’s abilities and decision-making skills. Each false trail creates another obstacle to keep them from discovering the true villain.
Use red herrings as a device in the middle section of your story to build tension. When you’ve built a strong protagonist, the reader will believe, as the protagonist does, that they have discovered a true clue.
Here are some examples of using red herrings to build suspense for your reader.
- An innocent character has a strong motive to kill the victim. As you introduce a suspect, give them strong reasons to hate and kill the victim – jealousy, envy, a debt unpaid, a stolen wife or girlfriend.
- A character appears to have committed the murder. For example, the sleuth discovers they were nearby, have no alibi, were scheduled to meet the victim, and a witness saw them leave the scene of the murder.
- An object appears to incriminate a suspect. For example, an earring on the floor matches a suspect’s earrings, but turns out to be a common earring worn by several people.
- A clue that presents conflicting evidence. As your sleuth follows a conflicting red herring, he discovers the first clue is valid.
As a device in a mystery, the red herrings you use divert attention from the real clues and the right suspect. Because a mystery is a puzzle, the sleuth – and your reader – must separate the pieces that fit from the pieces that do not lead to solving the puzzle.
Throughout the first half of your mystery, the sleuth is in discovery mode. All the evidence, clues, and suspect interviews appear to have equal weight. This section of your novel is the right place for red herrings. They seem equivalent to other clues. As the detective periodically sorts through clues and rearranges thoughts about the murder, red herrings may not be revealed until much later in the story.
The theme of every mystery is the pursuit of truth. As the sleuth tackles clues and suspects to discover the truth, obstacles deter and prevent them from discovering the truth. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have a story. One of the benefits of creating red herrings is to block the sleuth from a true understanding of circumstances.
Limit Red Herrings in Your Story
Although red herrings are fun to create for a writer, adding too many in your story will frustrate your reader. They will keep a mental list of clues, attempting to outsmart your sleuth.
Readers love a puzzle but they don’t want to be tricked. Make sure the red herrings you create integrate with the overall theme and mystery, otherwise they will feel “added” to pad the story. The same holds true for too many false starts. Your reader will feel they are being cheated from solving the crime. You need to balance frustrating your sleuth and losing your reader.
Aim to keep a ratio between real clues and the false ones. The majority of your clues need to lead the detective toward the killer. Have no more than three red herrings in your mystery.
English crime writer Mark Billingham understands the relationship between red herrings and story:
When you think of a great twist or a red herring or a way of misdirecting the reader, it is good, but you know that they are just tricks at the end of the day, and the way to keep interest is to write characters that people care about.
Readers Expect Red Herrings
Red herrings are a standard trope in mystery novels. Readers love to follow your hero’s challenges. They enjoy rooting for your sleuth and discovering how he meets each challenge to solve the crime. Keep your readers guessing with well-placed false clues.
False Clues on the Path to Truth
A red herring in a novel is just like a fallacious argument in logic: it is irrelevant. Your sleuth’s skills will reveal that your false clue has no bearing on the case. If you plant a false clue in your story, at some point, you need to reveal that it is not relevant. If you leave a red herring hanging, your reader will be confused. The scene with the red herring will feel like padding.
The sleuth and your reader should discover the false premise later in the story, long after the red herring is introduced. This discernment on the part of your sleuth clears the path to exposing the killer.
Make Your Reader Care About Your Story
As we suggested earlier, if you're relying on red herrings to make your story interesting, you're probably patching over a bigger problem. Check out our guide to finding and fixing plot holes to make sure a red herring is what your story needs.
On the other hand, even the most effective red herrings rely on your reader caring enough about the rest of your plot not to be put off by the false clue.
A sure-fire way to lose your reader is by making avoidable mistakes. We're talking grammar and spelling issues, of course, but also overusing emotion tells, poor readability, distracting dialogue tags, sticky sentences and other errors that will make your reader stop reading.
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