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Red Herring: A Literary Device or an Aquatic Animal?

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I always think of the fish when the term red herring comes up in conversation. The stupid thing is herrings are more of a silvery-blue type color, not red.

But I digress. We’re not here to talk about fish, we’re here to talk about writing. The funny thing about this literary device is that it does have a connection to the fish.

What herrings actually look like

You see, herring turn reddish-brown when they’re smoked, and people smoked the fish to preserve it before the invention of the refrigerator. And according to Mental Floss, they can be really smelly too.

Scholars believe that red herrings were used to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the seventeenth century. Another theory is that prisoners used them to cover their tracks and confuse search hounds. And it’s this second theory that gives red herrings their name and role in literature.

Regardless of their real-life purposes, red herrings live in almost every literary genre and play an essential role in our narratives. And that’s what we will be looking at in today’s post.

What is a Red Herring?

Aside from a fish, what is a red herring? Here’s your definition:

Red Herring: something, especially a clue, that is misleading or distracting.

Red herrings are unrelated topics, clues, etc. that divert the attention of the audience. They mislead readers and characters or bring them to false conclusions. It’s a tactic we writers like to use to trick our readers into thinking one thing will happen while setting up something else in the background.

And they have a great effect in mystery, thriller, and suspense novels, where readers’ expectations need to be subverted so we can surprise them later. They’re also essential for adding suspense and tension to these types of books. However, they are in every genre out there, especially if they have a mystery subplot.

Examples

Let’s look at some examples. The first one I want to show you isn’t from a novel or short story, but is something that you may have used as a child:

Mother: It’s bedtime Jane

Jane: Mom, how do ants feed their babies?

Mother: Don’t know, dear, close your eyes now.

Jane: But mama, do ant babies cry when they’re hungry?

In this example, Jane is trying to distract her mom so that she can stay up longer. The red herring, in this case, would be the baby ants. She’s trying to draw her mother into a conversation about them instead of one about going to sleep.

This next example from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Bishop Aringarosa is presented in such a way that readers suspect him of being the mastermind of the whole conspiracy in the church. Later, it is revealed that he is innocent.

Another example is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Again, we have the character of Severus Snape portrayed as an “evil character” within the series, only to find out that he was trying to help and protect Harry the entire time. (Rowling does the same thing with Sirius Black in the third book.)

If you want to see some more examples from film and literature alike, you should check out this article by Industrial Scripts.

How to Use a Red Herring

Red herrings are a powerful way to engage a reader’s interest, while also keeping them in the dark about the events to come. If done well, the reader will feel surprised by the truth and enjoy the misdirection, having learned something useful about the setting or the characters along the way.

So how do we incorporate them into our stories? Well, I’ve got a few tips for you:

Read Some Books

It would be best if you read books that contain great red herrings. So read the Da Vinci Code and reread Harry Potter. And when you do, make a note of what types of red herrings are used, when they’re introduced, and how they’re resolved.

This way, you get a good idea of how other writers are using them and why some are successful, and some are not.

Write a List

I know I mentioned this in my mystery genre post, but I’ll leave it here as well. Write out the list of clues and red herrings that you’d like to use in your story. It’ll help you keep track of what is real and what is not, and it’ll let you know if you have too many false leads for your readers to follow.

How Many Red Herring is Too Many

From my research, the magic number should be at a minimum of three. These have to be false clues and have a resolution at some point in your story.

With that said, you can have more than three wrong leads. Just make sure that you wrap things up for your readers. And if you’re worried about going overboard, then I’d suggest stopping when it gets confusing for you to follow. (You’ll mostly find this out in your self-editing process.)

Be Subtle

Red herrings must be subtle because you want to trick your reader into thinking that they will lead to the solution. However, you don’t want them to be too subtle and have your readers miss them.

You’ll need to write a lot to be able to find a good balance. Reading other books and dissecting how other writers will also help you find and achieve the balance you need.

5 Ways to Use a Red Herring

And so sum it all up, here are five ways that you can use a red herring in your next novel:

5 ways to use a red herring infographic

Red herrings sneaky and can easily catch a reader unawares, giving them a quiet (or loud) thrill at the end of a book. It takes a good bit of practice to perfect the art of subtly that red herrings require, so don’t be discouraged if things don’t work out the way you wanted them at first.

Keep persevering and taking examples from other writers until you find what works for you. When it does work brilliantly, you’ll have readers squealing in delight and flipping back to the beginning so that you can take them down the same journey.

Have you ever been stumped by a red herring? What made you think it was the solution to your story?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.

Cheers,

Danielle

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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.

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