There is always something surprising about the protagonist dying in a thriller. But in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho took that twist to a new level. He cast a famous actress, Janet Leigh, and began the story with her fleeing the police. Hiding money in her car, she pulls over to the Bates Motel for a reprieve and to get off the road.
Then, the owner of that hotel—well, we’ll let you figure out the rest. As it turns out, Marion Crane’s disappearance is only the inciting incident. It was a “red herring,” a distraction from the real twists and turns Psycho had in store.
If you want to unveil a twist without tipping off your reader, you’ll want to treat it like a magic trick: Get them looking at one plot line, but not the other. Here’s how to do it.
What Is a Red Herring?
Let’s start with the red herring definition. Ask a dictionary, and you’ll learn about the literal fish: red herring. Red herring has a strong scent and is often smoked, making it an ideal distraction for anyone who wants to cover up the smell of something else. As it turns out, this use has even more utility in literature and entertainment than in the world of smoked fish.
The Origin of the Red Herring
The question of using a strong-smelling fish “to throw someone off the scent” dates back to William Cobbett in 1807. The politician-slash-journalist once told a story of using the strong scent of red herring to throw hounds off the scent of a rabbit.
As a persuasive storytelling technique, a red herring is essentially a distraction. You get your reader or audience to focus on one plot element while you sneak in suspenseful details from another. By the time you hit them with the real twist, they should have seen it coming—if they weren’t so preoccupied with the distraction.
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What Genres Use a Red Herring?
Red Herrings in Mysteries
When writing a mystery, you have two missions. First, construct an elaborate, but plausible, puzzle for the reader to solve. Second, make sure they don’t solve it by the end. It’s the latter that’s the trick to creating effective suspense.
Mystery writers, including writers of cozy mysteries, often turn to the red herring to pull off this feat. In the Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot spies a woman in a red kimono fleeing the scene. As it turns out, this isn’t necessarily relevant to the final mystery—but Poirot’s obsession with the red kimono fixates our attention nonetheless.
Red Herrings in Thrillers
Danger: spoilers ahead. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village employs its much-debated twist far after it leads the audience down one direction. We’re set up to think the colonial “village” is being hunted by monsters, but audiences were polarized when they find out this central mystery is just a cover-up for the true twist. As it turns out, the village elders were modern-day people using the threat of monsters to live in a commune as if it were colonial times.
This one received a mixed reaction because it gave the viewer little opportunity to see through the red herring. When building a psychological thriller, always remember not to stray so far from your central mystery that you disappoint your audience.
Red Herrings in Sci-Fi
The plot of Steven King’s The Mist spends a lot of time establishing the hopelessness of the main conflict: a town believes it’s about to be killed by monsters. But in the film adaptation, producers added an interesting twist to the ending. After a deadly suicide pact, the main characters discover they were only minutes from being rescued. This is an example of a twist on a red herring that holds out until the very end. As it turns out, their loss of hope, not the monsters, was the reason for the tragic ending.
Red Herring Examples in Literature
When writing genre fiction like The Mist, the role of the red herring is clear. It’s a misleading clue to the ending. But what if you’re not necessarily trying to hide a killer twist or cover up the clues in a cozy mystery? Let’s look at some examples of red herrings from literature:
- Miss Havisham from Great Expectations first appears to be Pip’s wealthy benefactor. But author Charles Dickens takes the less obvious route, establishing Miss Havisham’s affections as a self-serving means to an end. Someone else—an escaped criminal—ends up being the true benefactor.
- In the Sherlock Holmes story Hounds of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle uses a butler as an obvious “red herring.” We always think the butler did it, don’t we? But Doyle denies us that, using the butler to hide the deeper mystery Holmes must eventually crack.
Tips for Using a Red Herring
As you now know, a red herring is a great tool, but it must be applied with true expertise. Here are some tips for implementing this tricky literary device into your writing.
Tip #1: Never Be Too Obvious
Readers are sophisticated. They’ve read a spy novel or two before. When you start throwing clue after clue that a red herring is behind the mystery—but you’re only 15 pages into the story—they know some major twist is on its way.
Dress up your red herrings as clues, as Agatha Christie did with the red kimono. Readers know authors use tools like cliffhangers and foreshadowing to establish the credibility of a twist later, and they’ll be on the hunt for them. If you avoid getting too obvious, a reader’s imagination will do much of the work of creating a red herring for you.
Tip #2: Play To, But Ultimately Against, Reader Expectations
In jiu-jitsu, there’s a principle of using an opponent’s weight and momentum against them. Do the same with your readers. Instead of trying to throw them, try to surprise them.
Dickens did this artfully by using Miss Havisham as a red herring. We readers think we’re smart because we deduce from the clues (wealthy woman, lonely, talking to young Pip) that we know who the wealthy benefactor is. But then Dickens twists the roles around, making Miss Havisham the one with the nefarious motives and an escaped convict the one who’s the mysterious benefactor.
Tip #3: Try Telling the Reader Nothing
On one hand, you have to give the reader something to work with. They won’t feel clued in if they feel the plot was unfair, as was the case for many watching M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t spell everything out for them. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None uses the red herring of a fake murder. As the information is presented to the reader, we believe the character has been murdered, sure, but ultimately we’re just as clueless as everyone else in the story. Using a red herring as a total mystery adds to the tension and lets readers know there’s something to solve, even if they can’t put their finger on what it is.
Red Herrings: The Art of Using the Wrong Scent
If you’re going to throw readers “off the scent,” you can’t cover it up. You need a new scent entirely. That’s the art of the red herring: Creating a plausible-enough alternative theory for readers to attach themselves to.
It’s a balancing act. The red herring should be plausible enough to be one potential storyline, but not plausible enough to be the true twist. And it should be implausible enough to ultimately end up false, but not so implausible that readers immediately reject it and sense the true twist lurking behind your story.
Part of the fun of the red herring is finding out how to use one in an original way. Go back to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and pay attention to all the false tension of Marion Crane’s fleeing from the law. It feels like a real story—but it’s only until we meet Norman Bates that we discover it was just a bunch of smoked fish compared to what really stinks.
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