In this post, we ask: ‘What is a red herring?’ and give you examples of red herrings and how they work in stories.
What Is A Red Herring?
Is there something fishy going on here?
According to Literary Devices, it is ‘an irrelevant topic introduced in an argument to divert the attention of listeners or readers from the original issue. In literature, this fallacy is often used…to mislead readers or characters, or to induce them to make false conclusions.’
It is a plot thread that misleads or distracts from the main story events. It is a clue that leads in the wrong direction, usually down a literary blind alley or dead-end.
Two Examples Of A Red Herring
- In Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Bishop Aringarosa is a classic red herring. For most of the novel, we suspect him as the evil mastermind behind the conspiracy. It is a false conclusion on our part. In fact, he is innocent—but this plotline shrewdly distracts readers from the true antagonist of the novel.
- In the movie, Saw we find another example. In the story, two terrified characters are locked in a room, in which a third character lies dead. We suspect the two living characters as the killers—until the end. The third character is actually alive and is exposed as the killer.
A clever way to use a red herring is to closely intertwine it with the events of the main plot.
A movie producer with a drug habit ends up stabbed to death. His low-life drug dealer has no alibi and is branded the main suspect. Because the dealer can’t account for his time, he can be just the distraction you need in the story. In fact, the dealer was with a major A-list Hollywood star at the time—but couldn’t reveal the star as his alibi. However, in a plot inversion, the producer did die in a drug-related incident. He wanted to try experimental drugs with an aspiring actress and she stabbed him in a psychotic moment. The drugs are introduced as a compelling basis for the main plot, not just to make the drug dealer stand out as the main suspect.
You can use the red herring when plotting your novel, or you may spot an opportunity to introduce it in a second or third draft.