Learning About Red Herrings - A Writing Term

I've recently come across the term red herring. At first, I was baffled. Why is my favourite writing website (Masterclass) talking about herrings? Then, I realised that it was a common term in writing and one that you should know, too. Find out what red herrings are and why they're so important in the article below.

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What is a red herring in writing?

Red herrings can be anything from:

  • A character who seems evil or suspicious

  • An object that seems relevant or important

  • An event that seems to be significant to the protagonist or the story

A red herring is a writing term that refers to a misleading, or false clue. Due to this, it's naturally found in mystery and thriller novels but you should also consider sprinkling in some red herrings into your novel if you want to build excitement and throw someone off from knowing what's what. They lead readers down a false path or otherwise distract them from what's really happening in the plot - queue the grand plot twist.

Red herrings are perfect for revealing a grand plot twist because they lead the reader so astray from the central plot that when it comes to the plot twist, the reader is totally surprised. They're also perfect for keeping the reader interested. When done well, red herrings can keep the reader interested, but create a surprise when the plot twist or true plot is revealed, and the readers will enjoy the misdirection.

Examples of red herrings

Titles listed below contain spoilers.

Authors frequently use red herrings to throw the reader off and surprise them. Here are a few examples of red herrings done well;

The Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling

Throughout The Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling makes us feel that Sirius Black is a dangerous criminal and murderer who told Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter's parents' whereabouts where Voldemort went to murder them. Slowly, we learn that Sirius Black was their friend and Harry's godfather, making the betrayal even more shocking. We also learn that Sirius Black is hunting Harry to finish the job of destroying the Potters. But then, plot twist, after Harry meets Sirius Black we find out that Sirius isn't a killer at all. Why does J.K. Rowling doing well?

J.K. Rowling does this well because the book is following Harry's journey and his perspective is limited due to misinformation, the fact that he's a child, and because he's been brought up to know nothing of the wizarding world or backstories of his parent's past.

Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin

In the first few episodes of Games of Thrones, (I haven't read the books, sorry) Viserys Targaryen is introduced as a major threat. He's the son of the mad King and he wants to conquer the Westlands and reclaim a throne that he believes by birthright is his. Similarly, Daenerys Targaryen (Viserys sister) doesn't seem to be a threat at all. By the end of the first season, Viserys is killed and Daenerys is the real threat to the Westlands. Why does George R.R. Martin doing well?

The character personalities make this red herring believable. In the first season, Viserys is arrogant and the makings of a dictator whereas Daenerys is rarely allowed to speak her own thoughts. She's sold to Khal Drogo by the will of her brother, to be used as a gift to form an alliance between the Dothraki and Targaryens. It's only when Daenerys starts to speak up and think for herself that we realise that she holds the power, and is the true threat.

Tips for including red herrings in your story

Incorporate red herrings into your plot wisely

Red herrings shouldn't be randomly thrown into your story whenever you need to build excitement, they should be meticulously plotted throughout the story to be believed - which is key. They need to feel organic to the story, be logical and have some kind of impact on the plot and characters. For example, in the above example for The Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black is a fundamental character in the story, even if he doesn't physically appear until the end. If you take him, and all mentions of him out, the entire novel falls apart.

Give your character's personality traits to strengthen the red herring

If your character is a red herring, you need to give them a personality trait to confirm the reasons why your readers believe the red herring. For example, if your character turns out to be a criminal but you want the audience to think the opposite, throughout the novel you could portray them as clueless, innocent, uninteresting and not central to the plot. At the same time, the red herring needs to be believable. In this example, you don't want to make the character too innocent so that it's unbelievable that they would ever commit a crime. Maybe you could show a scene that shows that the character is smart or knowledgeable so that, when the red herring is finally revealed, the readers believe it.

Focus the reader's attention elsewhere when you plant clues

I like this quote that says misdirection is not about withholding information but rather giving the reader extra information and focussing their attention on that instead of the truth. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling diverts the reader's attention away from the truth by hiding clues within a list of things - for example, we find out that Scabbers (Peter Pettigrew) is the person who sold out Harry Potter's parents to Voldemort and is commonly known as Wormtail. Note that the creators of Maurader's Map are Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs. The point? Don't hold information back from the reader. Find a way to sprinkle the truth into the story but also distract the reader from that truth with something interesting too.

Want to find out more about red herrings?

Watch the below video from the amazing Alexa Donne.