The Art of the Red Herring

The use of the red herring is rich in mystery, suspense and thriller stories. Red herrings are a fact or an idea to distract readers and/or characters from the mystery at hand; a misdirection or fallacy that induces them to make false conclusions. But using them correctly is also an art form, as I learned from a discussion at Boucheron 2019.

Authors who’ve created great red herrings were cited by panel members. Their examples included:

Dan Brown: In Da Vinci Code, Bishop Aringarosa serves as a red herring throughout the novel. The character is presented in such a way that the readers suspect him to be the mastermind of the whole conspiracy in the church. If you know Italian, the very name Aringarosa translates in English to mean “red herring”.

Raymond Chandler: In The Big Sleep, the initial blackmailing plot is itself one huge red herring, largely unrelated to the final revelations about the covered-up murder of Regan and the other blackmail that has been going on regarding this murder.

Gillian Flynn: In Gone Girl, Amy’s diary entries are revealed to be fake, which also brings the story into the realm of the unreliable narrator.

Agatha Christie: She is considered to be the “queen” of the mystery red herring. She employed them expertly in her many books.

So how do authors construct a great red herring? I learned a lot about what a red herring is and what it is not:

  • Red herrings need to serve a purpose.
  • They also need to make sense.
  • Red herrings should be thoughtful and planned out.
  • A good red herring shouldn’t be written specifically as a red herring.
  • You don’t want the reader to figure out the red herring until the protagonist does.
  • A red herring has to be driven by what’s happening in the plot.
  • Characters must add to the story, not simply be red herrings.
  • Clues can’t be too obvious.
  • A red herring has to be believable.

The panel also noted there is a vast difference between authors being “creative” with a red herring and being “manipulative”.

Some other panels observations:

  • In the noir genre, red herrings are based on the characters motivations.
  • Sometimes the first person suspected does in fact turn out to be the killer.
  • Why they did it is almost as important as who done it.
  • Authors have to be quite detail-oriented when juggling multiple suspects.

This discussion certainly helped me understand how to best use a red herring and keep those pages turning.


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