pile of red herrings

The Red Herring Explained

Today’s question is what is a red herring?

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

So a red herring is a clue, either literally or figuratively, basically a piece of information that’s in a story that’s purpose is to be misleading or distracting.

The reason that you would want to use red herrings, the reason you would want to have them is because number one, life is not perfect, and that applies to just about sort of mystery that your people are trying to solve.

Whether it is literally a mystery and in a mystery book. Whether it is a crime in a police procedural , or whether it is the real life mystery of whether somebody is cheating on their spouse, or what is going on in a certain mysterious cabal.

If life isn’t perfect then the steps that people would take to solve these various mysteries are not going to be perfect.

That’s why adding a red herring, and this is you as an author attempting to mislead or distract somebody, adding those misleading clues is a way of adding veracity to something so that it’s not so deus ex machina. It’s not so step-by-step. This happens, then this happens, then this happens and everything is perfect.

If you have red herrings then those are evidence of your story just having more veracity.

Another reason is because red herrings occur in real life just because things are sloppy.

mystery paraphernalia: hat, key, magnifying glass, handcuffsI’m making this up but the killer was wearing a red hat and there’s another guy in the story who always wears a red hat. That’s the sort of thing that occurs in real life.

Not everything is a clue.

Not everything is causation.

Or not everything is some sort of an indictment.

Just because the killer in a story wore a red hat, which I realize is a stupid example but I’m sure you can come up with better ones, and you have a character who always wears a red hat, that doesn’t mean and it would not mean in real life that that is the only clue that matters.

Or that somebody had a tattoo, or that somebody was in a certain place at a certain time. These do not mean that they are the killer or whatever it is that they’re trying to solve.

And lastly it’s just a device as you as an author can use to keep a story exciting.

If people are following red herrings, then they’re not going to pre-guess the solution, and if they’re not going to be able to pre-guess the solution because you’re throwing red herrings at them, they’re going to enjoy the book more because it’s a little bit more of a challenge.

So good luck, don’t make things quite so easy on your readers and have fun.

How to Write Fast - FREE Download!

In the indie publishing world of rapid releases and blistering word counts, it’s easy to end up burned out with subpar work, and a loss of the enjoyment that once fueled your craft.

There’s a better way...

Claim your free download: