What is a Red Herring?
A Red Herring is a piece of information that misleads or distracts the reader (and sometimes the character) from an important truth or leads them to mistakenly expect one outcome over another.
Red Herrings can be anything from:
- A character who seems evil or suspicious.
- An object that seems relevant or important.
- An event that seems to be significant to the story or protagonist.
- A clue placed by the antagonist or a secondary character that sends investigators down the wrong path.
Red Herrings are a type of foreshadowing.
The term “foreshadowing” refers to all the different ways that an author can give readers hints or clues about what’s coming. Readers pick up on these hints and clues to try and figure out what’s going to happen next (or at the end of the story). But not all of these clues will lead to the truth. Some will be used to deceive the reader about what’s coming—and in these cases, the “false clues” are called Red Herrings.
Red Herrings can be used in any genre.
If your story has any kind of plot twist or surprise ending, you can use Red Herrings. Red Herrings help you to distract or mislead the reader (and your characters) from the truth of what’s actually happening. It’s also worth noting that different genres change how the reader views and responds to Red Herrings. For example, in a true mystery, red herrings are used to make the reader incorrectly guess what has already happened. In a thriller or horror novel, red herrings are used to make the reader incorrectly guess what is going to happen.
5 Tips for Writing Effective Red Herrings
Red herrings aren’t easy to craft–they have to tread a fine line between visible and invisible. They have to be obvious enough that most readers will pick up on them, but subtle enough that the reader believes it and follows the false trail. So, how do you write effective Red Herrings in your story? Here are my top five tips:
1. Incorporate the Red Herring into the fabric of the story.
Red herrings aren’t something to be pulled out of your hat when the plot lacks tension, excitement, or conflict. Like most storytelling techniques, Red Herrings have to serve a purpose and feel like they’re an organic part of the story. Not only that, but they need to be logical and have some kind of impact on the story. In the above example from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black (the Red Herring) plays a huge role in the story. If you took him out of the plot, the whole story would collapse.
2. Give your innocent characters motivation, means, and opportunity.
If you’re planning to use a character as a Red Herring, you’ll need to convince readers that this person could legitimately be guilty. To do this, you could create an innocent character that either:
- benefits from the crime
- had the means or opportunity to commit the crime
- has a strong motive
- or all of the above.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black is widely believed to have been the Potter’s “secret keeper.” That gives him both the means and the opportunity to betray their location to Voldemort.
3. Give the reader no (obvious) reason to suspect your guilty character.
In contrast to an innocent character having the motive, means, and opportunity to commit a crime, you’ll want to do the opposite with the real culprit. In other words, give the real culprit no (obvious) motive, means, or opportunity to be involved in the crime. To do this, you could have a guilty character who is acting strange but the protagonist can’t put his or her finger on why (at least not yet).
You could also discredit the guilty character by giving them a personality or skill set that doesn’t feel typical of someone “bad.” In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor McGonagall describes Peter Pettigrew as being “a stupid and foolish boy.” She also says that he was “a less than average student.” Nobody would have believed that Peter Pettigrew was capable of not only betraying his friends but of siding with Lord Voldemort too. This is what makes the surprise even more enjoyable.
4. Focus the reader’s attention elsewhere when you plant clues.
Misdirection is not about withholding information. It’s about giving the reader extra information and focusing their attention on that instead of the truth.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s easy to overlook all the clues that point to the truth about Scabbers. That’s because J.K. Rowling is a master at planting clues and directing the reader’s attention elsewhere!
Sometimes she diverts the reader’s attention away from the truth by hiding clues within a list of things. For example, the creators of the Maurader’s Map–Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs.
Other times she distracts readers with action or high emotion. For example, when Crookshanks chases Scabbers around the room and Hermione and Ron get into a fight).
The point? Don’t hold important information back from the reader. Figure out a way to not only discretely plant the truth in your story, but to distract the reader from that truth with something interesting too.
5. Always play fair with the reader.
When someone reads your story, they give you their trust. They expect that what you tell them is the truth. They build on each bit of information, trying to understand the big picture and figure out what’s going to happen next.
Tricking the reader by misleading them is fun (both for them and for you). But if you fool them by leaving out information they would legitimately have expected to be given, then you are just messing with them.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling gave readers all the clues they needed to figure out Scabbers’ true identity. When the truth was revealed, readers were able to connect all the dots because all the clues were there from the start.
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