Red Herrings

And how to pickle them

I’ve always had a rather foggy idea of what a red herring was, but I felt that, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I’d know one if I saw one. I’ve read tons of novels brimful of these stinky little plot obfuscators, but in a book done well enough, I’d forget to note them, and in books where this wasn’t done well enough, I’d get annoyed and sneak a peek ahead.

What is a literary Red Herring

A red herring in a mystery or thriller is a subplot or character that is thrown in to confuse the direct line of reasoning that would lead to the story’s solution. In theory, it’s named after a practice of intentionally adding pungent scents, such as those of smoked fish, to the scent of a target when training hounds.

Examples of Red Herrings

Plot Misdirection

What is it: As an author, you can give as much emphasis to plot points that have no bearing on the central mystery as to those that do. In fact, doing this can be a very effective way of leading your readers down the wrong deductive path.

How it can go wrong: Don’t devote so much time to the wrong path that the right one will be missed by a reader. It’s very easy to make a reader feel cheated when you mention something faintly relevant to the final clue in chapter one, and then don’t talk about it at all until the end. Red Herrings are like any other seasoning, best in moderation.

Example from a novel: Nick Dunne’s admission of having an affair in Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”. It seems to be a motivation for murder, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. He never wanted to kill his wife, not even at the end when I wanted to! (JK, I don’t want to kill anyone. But I definitely would have done my best to leave Amy if she were my wife… yikes.)

Character Confusion

What is it: This is a really common one. Add enough characters who could have done the murder, give them all opportunity and motive, and then let the reader tear through the pages trying to figure out which one did it.

How it can go wrong: Too many characters! I don’t know what the magic number is, but if you have to have a spreadsheet telling you which one had which motive, it’s too many. Agatha Christie could juggle a dozen suspects, but my sweet spot is under five. More than that, and it becomes difficult to keep anything straight. The novels that do this best, go deep enough into their characters so that the reader can understand the motivations and keep the characters separate in their minds.

Example from a novel: I just finished reading “A Flicker in the Dark” by Stacy Willingham, which I enjoyed. I guessed the real culprit in the first few chapters, but despite that, I couldn’t tell I was right until the last two chapters. In fact, there were a few chapters where I was convinced I was wrong. So, kudos to Stacy Willingham for keeping me on my toes the entire length of the novel.

Character Motivation

What is it: Leading the reader to believe a character is doing something for one reason, only to reveal that the real reason is something else entirely.

How it can go wrong: This is the unreliable narrator trope, and those can be challenging. You can make your character too unlikable, too drunk, too out of control, and not in a fun way. There’s been some backlash lately against unreliable narrators, but personally I love them. For the moment, though I would caution against unreliable female narrators who drink too much because that has become a bit overused.

Example from a novel. “The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides is a perfect instance of blurred character motivation. Throughout the novel, Theo’s intense focus on Alicia’s case and his determination to get her to speak again lead readers to believe he is simply a dedicated therapist. His investigation into Alicia’s past and the people around her creates multiple suspects and motives, diverting attention from his true connection to the crime.

Time Manipulation

What is it: Using multiple timelines or misleading ones can be an effective way to hide the true solution to your mystery.

How it can go wrong: Drawing it out too much can become frustrating.

Example from a novel: Ruth Ware’s “It Girl” does a great job of hiding the solution to the mystery within an intricately planned timeline, both in the sense of how the reader experiences the novel (via a Before and After dual timeline) and in how the characters experience the timeline during which a death occurred.

What is your favorite example of a Red Herring? Leave a note below!

Emilya Naymark

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


    1. Thanks Catherine. For some reason it was always a tough thing for me to get my head around.

  1. LOVED this post! Red herrings are something I have problems with, because as a friend says to me,”You are a terrible liar.” As in I can’t pull it off! Lol! My favorite kind of red herring though is the story that makes you think the reason for the murder was surely one thing and it turns out to be something completely different. Arianna Franklin who wrote Mistress of the Art of Death books seemed to be really good at that.

    1. You and me both, Sharon. I don’t have trouble with lying, but I have trouble with misdirection. Writing this post actually helped me get my head around it

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