Red Herrings for Beginners

Okay, to be clear, those are not red herrings. They’re smoked herrings. You actually don’t want to eat red herrings, as lying out in the woods for several days at a time will turn a fresh herring into a rotten one. Smoked herrings, however, should be completely edible and tasty, resembling bacon when cooked. You should give it a try some time.

But anyway, now that I have my customary red herring out of the way, (catch on yet?) let’s launch into the article. Today we’re addressing a literary red herring. I’ll hand out some hot tips on how to use it, how not to use it, and where red herrings are logically applicable. (hint: it’s not in the frying pan)

So what exactly do I mean by “red herring”? Most people know, but I’ll give you a clear definition to stick to: a red herring points to a false path; it’s a piece of evidence that points to a potentially untrue outcome. In arguments, they’re used to divert the conversation from the main point to something that’s irrelevant. However, narratively speaking, red herrings are used to hide truth from the reader.

If you’ve been keeping up with The Rings of Power, you know that the Stranger is a red herring. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but even though the Stranger appears to be a good guy, there are some telling aspects about him that question whether or not he’s truly on the good side. As of this writing, we don’t know for sure whether he’s good or evil, but either way there will turn out to be some red herrings for either side.

Red herrings are actually very frustrating when used outside of an information plot. If there’s no mystery or intrigue surrounding a given character, place, motive, action, or otherwise, don’t try to put red herrings in your story. It all too obviously looks like you’re trying to fool the reader into thinking something that’s obviously wrong.

But let’s say that you do have something to hide. You fear that the reader might rule out the culprit pretty easily. So you want to spice it up and add two red herrings that will lead the gullible reader astray, not allowing them to parse through the lies and find the truth until it’s far too late.

So, how exactly do you pull off a good red herring?

Let’s say you’re trying to divert the reader away from finding the culprit of a murder. You need to start off with a few vague details under your belt (the culprit is middle-aged, bald, computer-savvy, and has a black belt in Brazilian ju-jitsu). This way, you open up the possibility that the culprit could be pretty much anyone, therefore setting up a red herring very well.

Then you lay your first fish: produce a piece of genuine-looking evidence on someone who is unrelated to the crime. Make the person shady, but not too obviously so. Balancing “only mildly suspicious” with “obviously up to no good” is tricky, and you need to strike a happy medium between the two. The goal is to keep the reader confused.

While some stories can do with only one red herring, I suggest two or three for maximum effect. But I wouldn’t advise going over three: you need the red herrings to be ever-present in the mind of the reader, and flooding the book with dead fish is going to cause a TMIIF (Too Much Info Information Overload) and, needless to say, you don’t want that.

But it’s not enough to just introduce a red herring that seems like the culprit at first glance. Maintain the suspect’s continuity and continue to make it seem as if they’re really the one who’s guilty. If the reader can’t tell who the culprit is, the red herrings are doing their job.

Then there’s the question of how to dispose of red herrings. Usually you can let them alone to decompose on their own, but the more elaborate ones need explaining. You might be able to tie the red herrings back to the villain (that is if he/she was the one who set them up), but if you think a red herring is too difficult for the reader to puzzle out for themselves, I’d advise some kind of light explanation. Otherwise it should be pretty obvious.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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