How to Write a Red Herring

Ciao, SEers! Sorry about the strange cartoon fish, but it’s the best I could find. Last time, I talked to you about the sidekick. Today we’re talking about red herrings, or the literary misdirect. I admit, all these years of writing them, and I never knew why the plot device was called what it was. So I looked it up.

The journalist William Cobbett is credited with originating the term “red herring” in an 1807 story. Cobbett criticized the press for prematurely reporting Napoleon’s defeat, and compared that act to using strong-smelling, smoked red herrings to distract dogs from another scent.

When I read that, I was stunned to see it went all the way back to 1807. Then I wondered what it was called before that, because such misdirects were in use before then. In any event, now you know where the term comes from. And today, I’m going to give you a few tips for how to work them into your stories.

  1. The innocent character.
    This is key. The innocent character is your red herring. You need to make sure you give him the means, motive, and opportunity to have committed the crime. Take the time to think this through and make certain you lay enough clues so that they’re believable. You want him to look guilty early and to look guilty for a long time—preferably until near the end of the story.
  2. The guilty character.
    This is just as important. The guilty character needs to initially look to be beyond reproach. His alibi needs to look solid. He shouldn’t seem to have a motive or means. ON THE SURFACE. But the clues need to be there. They should be hidden in plain sight. Things that are overlooked because we’re too busy focusing on on reasons why the red herring looks guilty.
  3. Connecting the wrong dots.
    This needs to be done delicately. You don’t want your detective to look like a buffoon or an overzealous hothead. But you also can’t have him solve the crime too quickly. That means that some of the clues you lay should do double duty. For example, if your hero finds a clue that points to the killer being involved with roses, he would immediately recognize that the red herring is a florist. Only later on does he backtrack and connect the dots that the actual killer runs a garden center, and though it’s winter, her greenhouse has roses in it.
  4. Definitely misdirect, but never mislead.
    You don’t want to cross the line with your readers. If your investigator would misinterpret a clue, it’s fine (and even desirable) for your reader to also make an incorrect assumption. But don’t intentionally make your reader think something your hero never would just to lead them down the wrong path. It’s disingenuous. You want your reader to experience an authentic journey with your hero. That’s the point of the red herring.

How about it, SEers? Do you use red herrings? Do you have any tips or tricks to share? Let’s talk about it.

Quote courtesy of:

Staci Troilo Bio

60 thoughts on “How to Write a Red Herring

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  3. Great tips, Staci. I enjoy being tricked as a reader and led down the wrong path. As long as it all makes sense. (I dislike endings that seem to come out of the blue without careful forecasting). The dots need to connect at the end.

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  4. I’d never looked at where the term came from, but I love red herrings, and unreliable narrators as well. Even MacGuffins! I love the way you explain the difference between misdirecting and misleading. One should never cheat a reader and spring up something that is not logical within the context of the novel itself (or spring up a totally unknown or unexpected motive, character or explanation at the end). Thanks for the suggestions!

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  7. Subtly done red herrings are the backbone of thrillers and crime novels. I’ve read some great stuff where the truth was out there if I’d just noticed it! Karin Slaughter’s Triptych has some wonderful shocks. Really enjoyed this, Staci – excellent advice!

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  8. Fascinating, Staci. I never understood red herring but I have tried the technique. Thank you for helping me (and others) see this plot technique more clearly. You’re a natural teacher! 😊

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  9. Because I write mysteries, I’m always using red herrings. I love the challenge of working them into the plot
    I had no idea where the term originated or that it was so old. That was quite the eye opener. Loved your tips too, Staci. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is such a great post, Staci, and for me very timely. I am writing my first novel that required red herrings and I have to admit it is quite a challenge. Especially, since it’s my first. This post is most helpful! I will take all of this advice to heart and apply it to my story. And how interesting to know where the term originated. Thank you for sharing!

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  11. First of all, thanks for the research into the origins of the term! I love knowing stuff like that, and have no clue why I’ve never bothered to look this up. So glad you did. How absolutely perfect!

    Secondly, thanks for the step by step descriptions of how to use red herrings and what to avoid. I have tried them now and then, most notably in Swamp Ghosts. I guess it worked fairly well for some, as I did have one of my original betas pitch a fit when the real villain was exposed, claiming I had TOLD them repeatedly it was someone else. Of course, I never did. I just had a character who seemed suspicious and who did have a secret. Just not the one this beta attributed to him. I don’t think I handled it as well as I would like to going ahead, but it was definitely what I was aiming for. Your tips will make it easier for me to perfect that. I don’t care much for unreliable narrators, I’m afraid, but I DO love a good red herring, though I don’t always fall for them. Still, I think they make the tale more interesting because of the characters within that do.

    Great post, Staci!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Don’t dwell on what that one beta said. You can’t please everyone. I, personally, love a good unreliable narrator, but that’s a subject for a different post. And, like I said, you can’t please everyone. 😉

      I’m glad you found something useful in this post. Thanks, Marcia.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, believe me, my other betas set him straight right away. I didn’t mind that he was misled by the character–that’s what a red herring is supposed to do. I just minded that he said I’d “absolutely stated” the guy was guilty, which of course, I hadn’t. That was totally on him. 😀

        I found your post very helpful, and am sure I’ll be referring to it often in my current WIP, and when I start my WRR novellas. There will be guilty people, and there should be a red herring or two in the mix to keep readers guessing. You’ve laid it out nicely as a guide! THANKS!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Staci, this is such a helpful post! I love to read stories where there is a red herring and my latest book does use that concept. I guess real life is full of red herrings, too! Fun to know the origin of that term, always wondered why it was used.

    Liked by 2 people

    • When I started to write the post, it occurred to me I never learned its origin. It kind of made me laugh. I would love to know what it was called before; perhaps just a misdirect. In any event, it is a fun weapon to use in our writing. Wishing you the best as you wield it in your novel.

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  13. I love that bit of history!
    I’ve used unreliable narrators to plant red herrings, where the character doesn’t get the whole picture, and the reader only knows as much as that character does. Much like your investigator in your examples. I must admit that this is the sort of writing and reading I love.
    Great post, Staci. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  15. That’s amazing the term Red Herring goes all the way back to 1807. Great tips for using them, Staci. I do like to throw them in my stories:)

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