Red Herrings and Other Fishy Thoughts
In literature, a red herring is an informal fallacy that typically uses extraneous or irrelevant information to mislead the audience. It’s used to give an astute reader several challenges during the telling of the tale.
In other words, they’re purposeful lies the author employs to mislead the folks who read their stories.
Red herrings are actually dried fish that are kippered, or salted and smoked, which turns their meat a reddish color. In 1807, a writer named William Corbett wrote about using red herrings dragged along the ground to train hunting dogs. This wasn’t actually true, but the readers didn’t know and the concept of red herrings was born.
Typical Fish Stories
Red herrings are used extensively in mysteries and thrillers, and are a staple for noir detective stories. By employing these misdirections, the author can attempt to get the readers to believe something is the correct answer when it is not. The concept is to include little tidbits of irrelevant yet related information that helps to push the reader into thinking a particular way.
Agatha Christie was a genius at employing red herrings. In Murder on the Orient Express, almost everything is a red herring pushing one away from focusing on the killer until you realize everyone was the killer. In her novel And Then There Were None, there’s a list of how people are going to get bumped off. Victim number four doesn’t seem to be a red herring until you realize that she told you flat out they were in the poem.
Fish in Power Armor
Some authors in the audience might be mumbling to themselves about “boring mysteries” and how they write action, adventure, and aliens. Yes, red herrings are quite useful for other genres.
Employing red herrings should always be logical in some ways, but the information that incriminates or directs attention should be irrelevant to the final solution to a question. Always give your readers the information that can dismiss the new clue somewhere in the text without making it obvious. For example, discovering the killer must have used their left hand to kill the victim might seem to clear a woman who always uses her right hand. But what if she was actually ambidextrous? Half the readers will wander off on the path that clears the woman, while the others might not be fooled by the accurate but not complete information. That’s the fun behind reading a mystery!
For science fiction, is that new Lieutenant a spy for the Chameleon Empire? You can have a blast (pardon the pun) figuring out if he/she/xe/they are a Chameleon in disguise. Half of the squad can be on the side of innocence and point out how effective the Lieutenant is at killing the enemy (and saving several injured members can pipe in how they were pulled to safety during heavy fire.) The other half of the squad can be equally as convinced they should “friendly fire” the L.T. next time they’re in a fight.
What you’re setting up is building tension. It could be a couple in love (romance) to the entire membership of the Assassin’s Guild (fantasy). Your characters have to step through the land mines not only amongst themselves but others, especially those who would normally be counted as “friendlies”.
So how do you incorporate red herrings into your work? They should be blended into the overall information you give to your readers. If it’s too straight-forward, the readers are distracted by the fumbling attempt to mislead them. Think of adding a pinch of salt to a stew instead of a salt lick from the cow pasture. Similar to avoiding doing info-dumps and laundry lists of dull information, mix a bit of disinformation in and then drop hints as your characters progress through their story arc.
One of my favorite red herrings was Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. He’s constantly shown as a bad person throughout seven books until the last few chapters, where we finally learn that he has been trying to help Harry survive. All the red herrings are cleared up as we learn the truth, and the readers discover that the person they despised the most was the bravest person of all. That’s why Snape and, by extension, actor Alan Rickman went from evil villain to beloved savior.