One of the most important and entertaining parts of any mystery novel is when the reader is led astray by clues sprinkled throughout the story, ensuring the climax is truly surprising.
A ‘red herring’ is an idiom that describes a logical fallacy whereby the reader is distracted by seemingly plausible, though ultimately irrelevant, diversionary tactics. Red herrings can be totally accidental, as they often are in real life – but in mystery novels, authors use them to put the reader in the shoes of the detective and lead them to false conclusions.
The phrase was probably invented in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, referring to when he allegedly used a kipper to divert hounds from chasing a hare – although this was never proved. In reality, red herrings are not an actual species — they’re all kippers: fish (typically herrings) which have been strongly cured in brine and heavily smoked until red.
Such a strong odor would likely distract anyone from the task at hand, so the idiom is a useful one for mystery authors – but red herrings have become such a well-known plot device that readers can sniff them out a mile off, and many have become clichés.
So, how do you create a red herring that doesn’t stink for all the wrong reasons? Here are 6 methods for you to try out:
Give an innocent character a strong motive to murder the victim
Ensure that one of your innocent characters has a legitimate reason to murder the victim. Then, as close to the climax as you can, prove he could never have committed the crime. For example, the detective discovers the victim cheated on his wife, who owned the kitchen knife they found in his back. However, much later, they discover the apparently faithful (but enraged) wife was actually with another man on the night of the murder.
Give an innocent character the appearance of having committed the crime
For this method, perhaps a bystander witnessed your character stumbling away from the body with blood on his hands, or buying poison the week before the murder. For extra impact, combine this with the first suggestion above, and give a totally innocent character both the motive and the means to commit the crime – and then find a way to clear his name.
Create a guilty character whose innocence is assumed because there is no evidence of motive, weapon or opportunity
This is a common red herring (but an effective one), wherein the detective often has a hunch about a particular character who seems to be acting odd, although he can’t put his finger on exactly what it is that’s tipping him off. The detective’s hunch is often dismissed, even mocked, until it’s proven correct at the end of the story.
Use your red herrings to only deceive the investigator of the crime
For a twist on the common reader-swindling red herring, you could try giving the reader full insight into the crime. They learn the true identity of the culprit early on, and are privy to how he or she commits their deeds and why. When the detective enters the narrative, the reader is left in suspense as false clues are followed to the wrong suspect – only for the detective to figure out the truth at the eleventh hour.
Double the surprise with double meanings
Maybe an earring assumed to belong to one woman is actually a common design, owned by many women in the town? Or the letter that was assumed to be a suicide note is actually instructions for a heist? This type of red herring can lead to multiple confusions, which makes for an exciting and twisting plot where you can set up what feel like true and organic dead ends… only to pull the rug with a surprising revelation.
Use a ‘double herring’
With this approach, you introduce an intriguing clue which is thrown into dispute when the detective discovers conflicting evidence. Following this new line of inquiry, the character is led down a certain path until (almost too late) they discover the first clue was actually right all along. Perhaps the clue was too obvious, or too convenient – too stinky a red herring – which made both the detective and the reader skeptical at first… but which turns out to point to the murderer all along.
There we have it – 6 approaches to red herrings that, with a little storytelling skill, won’t stink up your mystery with predictability.
But don’t forget: When you’re introducing red herrings, it’s important that they’re logical and inform the plot. You can’t treat them as an afterthought to stuff in later just so you can add a few more winding roads to your mystery. Readers love to be fooled… but they don’t love feeling like their time has been needlessly wasted.
What do you think? Are there any of the above that you prefer to use in your stories? Have a few effective red herring techniques we’ve missed? Share them in the comments!