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What Are Red Herrings in Creative Writing?

Red herrings are misleading clues that tend to distract or intrigue the reader. These false leads will sometimes lead detectives, magicians, and raccoons to track down a cheating husband, discover a conspiracy, or catch a crook.

You might use red herrings in your creative writing to craft an engaging narrative. For instance, in one of my creative writing courses, I gave my students a set of exercises called “The Art of the Red Herring.” Using fictional characters and situations, they were asked to incorporate red herrings into their stories in order to create a more realistic and immersive experience for their readers.

The exercise was a creative challenge, and after completing it, the students had a new appreciation for how effective red herrings can be in a story. A red herring might not always be a pleasant thought, but it’s always an interesting one!

Why Are Red Herrings Effective

Let’s look at the example of a traditional detective story, where the main character is trying to solve a crime. As the story progresses, the detective will interview witnesses, collect forensic evidence, and go to court to try and prove their client’s innocence. Along the way, the detective may interrogate suspects, some of whom might actually be guilty.

While all of this is going on, the reader is led to believe that the investigation is leading to a certain conclusion – that the client is actually innocent. However, the entire time, the reader knows that the detective is really pursuing a different path, which eventually leads to a different solution. In other words, the entire time the reader knows that the truth is on the opposite side of what they’re being led to believe – that the client is guilty. This makes them wonder “Did I miss something?” Even though they know that the client is guilty, their mind keeps playing tricks on them, because they’re invested in the story and want to see what happens next.

In another example, if a magician is trying to trick you into thinking one of their cards is genuine, when in reality it’s a fake, you’d be inclined to think “Hmm…what is going on here?” and wouldn’t immediately see the trick. You’d be inclined to believe that the magician had somehow tricked you into thinking that the card was genuine, when in reality it was a fake, and you’d have a chance to catch them out if they were cheating you.

A red herring works in both fiction and nonfiction, and it can be used to good effect. You might plant a small clue at the end of a sentence, a word in the text, or even a graphic that will draw attention and keep the reader intrigued enough to want to continue reading. By the time they realize what has happened, it will likely be too late to do anything about it – they’ll either be pulled in by the enticing little tidbit of evidence you’ve left them, or they’ll dismiss it as a trick and continue on their way. Either way, you’ve successfully lured them in with a red herring.

You might also use red herrings in your creative writing to subvert a reader’s expectations. For instance, if a detective is on the trail of a murderer and they come across a note that says “Help me,” they might assume that the writer is asking for help, and not that they’re the culprit. Later on in the story, when the detective shows the note to the potential witness, the witness might realize that it was written by the murderer and confirm that this was indeed the case. In this way, you can keep the reader on their toes, wondering if what they’re seeing is actually real or if it’s being manipulated by an intelligent author.

How Do You Use Red Herrings In Your Writing?

In your writing, how you use red herrings is going to depend on your story. Some authors might decide to use them as a sort of “trick” – surprise the reader with a piece of information that seemingly has no bearing on the story, but at the same time, it’s going to raise more questions than it answers. Others might decide to use them more blatantly – if you’ve ever read one of Agatha Christie’s books, you probably know how she used them, as she was a master at putting them in her stories and leaving them there as red herrings.

Like many things in creative writing, it’s going to depend on you and what you want from your story. One of the things that makes a good mystery or thriller is that it leaves the reader feeling they’ve missed something, even though they followed all of the logical clues and suspects. Did the detective miss something too? One of the main goals of a good mystery or thriller is to keep the reader guessing – even if they know who the culprit is, they’ll still want to read on, desperate to find out what happens next.