I. What is a Red Herring?
A red herring is a misleading clue. It’s a trick used by storytellers to keep the reader guessing about what’s really going on. You think you’ve solved the mystery? Guess again. The key evidence was just a red herring, and the questions remain unsolved.
In a broader sense, the term can be used to describe any kind of misdirection used by a storyteller.
The term originated in the 18th century, when dog trainers would use pickled herring (a very pungent fish with reddish meat) to distract their tracking hounds. In order to succeed in their task, the trainee dogs would have to ignore this powerful odor and follow the original scent.
WARNING! The examples in this article contain many spoilers!
II. Examples of Red Herring
TV Tropes gives the following example of a red herring: the murder victim, Aaron, was a philanderer who cheated on his wife. He was sleeping with Aubrey, the wife of his business partner, John. Aaron’s wife, Stacy, is the obvious suspect: she has a clear motive, and has no alibi for the night of the murder. She must have done it! But no – it turns out that she was with her lover that night (she too was being unfaithful), and did not want to reveal this embarrassing fact to the police. The actual murderer was John, the only person in the story who was not straying outside their marriage. Even though the evidence all pointed to Stacy initially, it turns out that all those clues were red herrings.
The plot of Watchmen opens with a mystery over who killed the Comedian. In the first few pages, the artist gives us a clue – a pair of arms in a brown sweater, reaching out to kill the Comedian. Later in the book, we see Hollis Mason wearing a brown sweater, and we already know that he hates the Comedian. However, this turns out to be a red herring, and Hollis Mason is not the murderer.
Over the years, video game puzzles have gotten more and more predictable as players catch on to the various tricks used by designers. In response to this trend, designers have started putting in more and more red herrings. For example, Flight of the Amazon Queen confronts players with a gorilla blocking the path. You cannot fight the gorilla or get around it. After exploring for a little while, the player discovers a banana nearby – surely that’s the way to get around the gorilla! But no. The banana does nothing; it’s just a red herring.
III. The Importance of Red Herrings
Red herrings help prolong the mystery and suspense at the heart of the story. Like any plot twist, they keep the reader’s attention by surprising them without ultimately revealing the secrets of the plot. The ideal reader response to a red herring is “Wow, I totally fell for it!” Once the reader falls for a red herring, they will be more inclined to mistrust their own instincts, and will find it harder to make up their minds about what’s truly going on in the story. This is very effective for creating and sustaining tension.
IV. Examples of Red Herring in Literature
Red herrings are all over the place in the Harry Potter In The Prisoner of Azkaban, for example, the plot initially surrounds the threat posed by Sirius Black, who has escaped from Azkaban and is coming to kill Harry. Everything about him, right down to his name, makes him appear to be a villain. It turns out, though, that Sirius Black is not coming after Harry at all – he is actually trying to get into Hogwarts so that he could protect Harry from Peter Pettigrew, who has been hiding in plain sight all along.
Red herrings are most traditionally associated with mystery novels, especially the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example, the obvious suspect is the butler – one of the key clues is that the murderer has a beard, as the butler does. In addition, this particular butler has a mysterious habit of skulking about the house late at night. It turns out, though, that his behavior is entirely innocent, and the murderer is someone else.
V. Examples of Red Herring in Pop Culture
In the first episode of Firefly, the crew accidentally take a Federal agent on board, and have to figure out which of their passengers it is. All clues point to Simon Tam, a mysterious figure who asks lots of questions and refuses to discuss his reason for being on the ship. However, all these clues are red herrings, as it turns out Simon is not the agent – rather, he is a fugitive from the law, which explains his unwillingness to talk openly about his past.
In the early episodes of Game of Thrones, Viserys Targaryen appears to be a major threat– he is the son of the Mad King, and obsessed with conquering the Westlands and reclaiming his father’s throne. However, Viserys doesn’t make it past the first season; he is immediately killed after upsetting Khal Drogo. We soon realize that his sister, Daenerys, is the real threat.
VI. Related Terms
“Foreshadowing” refers to all the various techniques that an author can use to give readers a hint about what’s coming. For example, if a character sees a raven on his way into battle, you can be pretty sure that he’s going to die. Similarly, a character who never removes his sunglasses will probably turn out to be evil. Our subconscious minds pick up on these clues and give us a sense of apprehension about what’s coming. Of course, such clues can also be used to deceive the reader about what’s coming – in these cases, the foreshadowing can be described as a red herring.