To create a RED HERRING, the writer plants details that purposefully mislead readers, to lead them down a phony trail which prevents the audience from predicting the sought-out conclusion. Red herrings are techniques the writer employs to steer her readers astray and thereby surprise them when the truth is finally revealed. As a plausible misconception in which unrelated material is presented alongside relevant information, the red herring shifts attention from the predictable outcome the writer strives to hide from her readers.
To illustrate this idea further, Savannah Gilbo, a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories, instructs writers to “use a mixture of “true clues” (to play fair) and “false clues” (to send readers down the wrong path). She explains how these “false clues” called Red Herrings might include any of the following:
- 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.
She further elaborates that Red Herrings are a type of foreshadowing (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 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” aka red herrings, do their job.
Red herrings aren’t easy to craft–they must 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 Savannah Gilbo’s top five tips:
- 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.
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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
Like so many writing techniques I suggest, based on my unending desire to learn, the idea of creating Red Herrings in our fictional narratives are often relevant to our own daily life stories as individuals. In fiction, a Red Herring is a good thing, a helpful tool created for the reader who does not expect it, or ask for it- or is aware of how much she needs it, but it is always in her best interest.
On the contrary, in real life a Red Herring might be compared to an outright lie, a manipulation, or some kind of deceit to satisfy its creator’s selfish need or intention. A Red Herring in our fictional narrative is a good thing that allows our readers to get what they came for. But, in our real lives, not so much! And this, in the end, is what makes the Red Herring sparkle. It is the prickly thorn on the stem of the rose that enables the velvet petals above to shine. We know the rose is beautiful, but we sometimes forget that the thorns on the way up there often cut.
Use red herrings skillfully as authors and beware of them in life.