Red Herring


A Red Herring is a literary device used to mislead or distract readers from a relevant issue or the truth. This technique involves introducing an irrelevant clue, idea, or topic that leads the reader or audience down a false path. The term originates from the practice of using the strong-smelling smoked fish to throw hunting dogs off the scent of their quarry. In literature, a Red Herring serves to build suspense, create complexity in the plot, or offer a surprising and often more satisfying resolution. It’s a common tool in mystery and thriller genres but can be found across all types of storytelling where a twist or surprise is beneficial.

Red Herring: /ˌred ˈher.ɪŋ/

When do writers use Red Herring literary device?

Writers employ the Red Herring device primarily to engage their audience in a deeper way by embedding layers of intrigue and suspense. This tactic is most effective in mystery and detective stories, where misleading the reader is a fundamental part of the narrative structure. By diverting the reader’s attention to unrelated or false clues, writers can magnify the impact of the actual revelation when it occurs. It’s also used to develop a narrative arc that keeps the audience guessing, thus maintaining interest and engagement throughout the story. This technique ensures that the conclusion is more impactful, often enhancing the emotional payoff of the narrative.

How should I use Red Herring literary device?

To effectively use the Red Herring literary device in your writing, consider the following guidelines:

  1. Integrate Seamlessly: The Red Herring should be plausible and seamlessly woven into the storyline. It should not feel forced or overly obvious but should seem just as likely as the true clues or leads.
  2. Maintain Balance: While it’s essential to mislead, it’s equally crucial not to frustrate your readers. There should be a fine balance between misleading and maintaining a fair chance for the readers to solve the mystery on their own.
  3. Timing is Key: Introduce the Red Herring at a strategic point in your story. Ideally, it should be placed before a major plot development to maximize the element of surprise and misdirection.
  4. Resolution: Ensure that the Red Herring is addressed or debunked in a way that satisfies the reader’s curiosity. It should tie into the overall plot in some way by the end of the story, providing a clear resolution or explanation for the diversion.
  5. Character Development: Use Red Herrings to develop character traits, such as showing how a protagonist or antagonist might deal with false leads or distractions. This can add depth to characters and give readers insights into their decision-making processes.

By adhering to these rules, you can master the use of Red Herrings to create compelling, suspenseful, and engaging narratives that captivate your readers.

Types of Red Herring

Red Herrings can manifest in various forms in storytelling, each designed to mislead the audience in slightly different ways. Here are some common types:

  1. False Protagonist: This occurs when a story sets up a character as the main figure, only to reveal later that another character is central to the plot. This switch can distract from the actual plot developments.
  2. Misleading Dialogue: Characters might engage in conversations that suggest certain outcomes or tensions that are irrelevant to the main plot. This misdirects the reader’s expectations.
  3. Irrelevant Clues: In mysteries, clues that lead nowhere are classic Red Herrings. They are meant to confuse the reader or make it harder to piece together the actual puzzle.
  4. Divergent Subplots: Sometimes, a subplot can seem to tie into the main plot but ultimately serves no purpose in the resolution of the central conflict, misleading readers about its importance.
  5. Atmospheric Misleads: The setting or mood may imply a different tone or genre, misleading readers about the eventual narrative direction or outcomes.

These variations allow writers to play with reader expectations and keep their narratives unpredictable and engaging.

Red Herring in Literature

Red Herrings are a staple in literary works, particularly in the mystery and thriller genres. Here are some famous examples:

  1. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle: Various incidents in the story, such as the sighting of a mysterious figure, are designed to lead readers away from the true culprit.
  2. “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn: The narrative leads readers to suspect Nick Dunne of his wife’s disappearance, with several misleading clues pointing to his guilt, only for a twist to reveal a different reality.
  3. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson: Several misleading clues and false leads are presented to confuse the reader about the identity of the antagonist.
  4. “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie: Christie uses multiple Red Herrings to mislead the reader about the murderer’s identity in this classic whodunit.

These examples show how effectively Red Herrings can be used to create suspense and surprise in literature.

Red Herring in Children’s Books

Red Herrings can also be found in children’s literature, where they serve to engage young readers and teach problem-solving skills. Some notable examples include:

  1. “The Secret of the Old Clock” by Carolyn Keene: Early in the Nancy Drew series, misleading clues are often presented that lead readers away from the true solution.
  2. “Where’s Waldo?” by Martin Handford: While not a traditional narrative, the series uses visual Red Herrings, with characters and objects designed to distract from finding Waldo.
  3. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” by Trenton Lee Stewart: The story contains numerous puzzles and misleading clues that challenge both the characters and the reader.

These books utilize Red Herrings to make the stories more interactive and enjoyable for children.

Red Herring in Poetry

In poetry, Red Herrings may be less about plot and more about leading the reader to misinterpret the theme, tone, or subject before revealing the actual message. Here are some examples:

  1. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe: The poem initially guides readers to think it might be about lost love and mournful reminiscence, but later verses suggest more profound themes of despair and madness.
  2. “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning: The speaker’s casual tone and digressions initially seem to mislead the listener about the seriousness of the poem’s subject, only gradually revealing the darker narrative beneath.

These poetic uses of Red Herrings enhance the depth and interpretive complexity of the works, engaging readers on multiple levels.

Red Herring in Songs

Songs often use lyrical misdirection to surprise or provoke deeper thought in listeners. Here are ten famous examples where Red Herrings are used in songs:

  1. “Hotel California” by The Eagles: The song’s setting seems like a luxurious retreat but is a metaphor for excess and the loss of innocence.
  2. “American Pie” by Don McLean: Various verses lead listeners to speculate on specific historical events and figures, though McLean famously never confirmed these interpretations.
  3. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen: The lyrics mislead about the song’s meaning, with Freddie Mercury hinting at a confessional piece layered with abstract and fantastical elements.
  4. “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan: Dylan uses cryptic lyrics that seem to tell a story of downfall and redemption, but the true message remains elusive and widely debated.
  5. “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin: The song features abstract lyrics that lead listeners on different interpretive paths, none definitively leading to a clear understanding.
  6. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler: The dramatic shifts in tone and content seem to mislead about the nature of the relationship being sung about.
  7. “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People: The upbeat sound misleads from the dark themes of the lyrics, which discuss troubling issues beneath its catchy tune.
  8. “Stan” by Eminem: The narrative structure leads listeners to believe in a simple fan-artist relationship, which dramatically shifts as the song progresses.
  9. “Somebody Told Me” by The Killers: The lyrics play with identity and rumors, leading listeners to question the truth about the relationships described.
  10. “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel: The title itself is a Red Herring, as the song discusses themes of communication breakdown and isolation, contrary to what one might expect from silence.

Red Herring in Movies

Red Herrings are a common plot device in films, used to divert audience expectations. Here are some famous examples:

  1. “Psycho” by Alfred Hitchcock: The early focus on Marion Crane’s theft misleads viewers from the real horror surrounding Norman Bates.
  2. “The Sixth Sense” by M. Night Shyamalan: The movie leads viewers to see Dr. Malcolm Crowe trying to help a young boy, misleading them from the true nature of Crowe’s existence.
  3. “Fight Club” by David Fincher: The plot misleads viewers about the narrator’s mental state and his relationship with Tyler Durden.
  4. “Gone Girl” by David Fincher: The narrative initially leads the audience to suspect Nick in the disappearance of his wife Amy, which is a diversion from the actual plot twist.
  5. “The Prestige” by Christopher Nolan: The film uses multiple Red Herrings to distract from the true secrets of the magicians’ illusions.

Famous Movie Line Highlighting Red Herring

One of the most iconic lines that serve as a Red Herring comes from “The Sixth Sense”:

“I see dead people.”

This line misleads viewers as to the true nature of the boy’s abilities and the plot’s ultimate revelation.

YouTube Link of Any Relevant Movie Clip Demonstrating Red Herring

For a classic demonstration of a Red Herring, consider the scene from “Psycho” where Marion Crane is escaping with stolen money, which is misleading about the main plot twist. Here’s a link to a clip from the movie: Watch on YouTube

Red Herring in Advertising

In advertising, Red Herrings are used to attract consumer attention or distract from less favorable product aspects. Some examples include:

  1. Misleading Headlines: Advertisements sometimes use sensational headlines that don’t accurately reflect the content of the article or product features.
  2. Bait-and-Switch: Promotions that lure customers with an attractive but unavailable offer only to promote a less appealing alternative.
  3. Election Campaigns: Political ads often use Red Herrings to divert attention from critical issues by focusing on trivial or unrelated topics.

Red Herring Related Literary Devices

Other literary devices related to Red Herrings include:

  1. MacGuffin: An object or goal that seems to drive the plot but is ultimately irrelevant to the overarching narrative.
  2. Chekhov’s Gun: The principle that every element in a story should be necessary; the opposite of a Red Herring, yet both manipulate audience expectations.
  3. False Protagonist: A character introduced to seem central to the plot who is later revealed to be secondary.
  4. Plot Twist: A sudden change in the expected direction of the narrative, often interlinked with Red Herrings to enhance the surprise element.
  5. Foreshadowing: The use of hints or clues to suggest future plot developments, which can sometimes be Red Herrings if they mislead about actual outcomes.

These devices share the common theme of manipulating the audience’s expectations and attention to enrich the storytelling experience.