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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.