In a mystery, a red herring is a false clue that leads the sleuth away from the villain. The red herring distracts the reader from knowing the true culprit.
The origin of the term is vague and entomology scholars debate the source. Some people believe it originated in a news story by English journalist William Cobbett. He claimed that he used a red herring, cured and salted, not fresh, to mislead hounds following a trail. At the time of publication the term served as a metaphor for false news accounts.
How to Use Red Herrings in a Mystery
Use red herrings as a device in the middle section of your story to build tension. When you’ve built a strong protagonist, the reader will believe, as the protagonist does, that a true clue is at the root of the discovery path.
Here are some examples of using red herrings and build suspense for your reader.
- An innocent character has a strong motive to kill the victim. As you introduce a suspect, give them strong reasons to hate and kill the victim – jealousy, envy, a debt unpaid, a stolen wife or girlfriend.
- A character appears to have committed the murder. They were nearby, have no alibi, were scheduled
to meet the victim, a witness saw them leave the scene of the murder.
- An object or finding (clue) appears to point to an innocent suspect. A letter written to someone with the same first name as a suspect. An earring on the floor that matches a suspect’s earrings but turns out to be a common earring worn by several people or the suspect wears an earring in only one ear. A loan document that creates a suspicion about a character only later, the sleuth discovers the loan has been paid.
- A clue that presents conflicting evidence. A clue appears early in your story that seems to have little bearing. As your sleuth follows a conflicting red herring, he discovers the first clue is valid.
The essence of the red herrings you use is diverting attention from the real clues and the right suspect.
Limit Red Herrings in Your Story
Readers love a puzzle but they don’t want to be tricked. Make sure the red herrings you create integrate with the overall theme and mystery, otherwise they will feel “added” to pad the story. The same holds true for too many false starts. Your reader will feel they are being cheated from solving the crime. You need to balance frustrating your sleuth and losing your reader.
Readers Expect Red Herrings