Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Red Herring

Okay, so continuing in my series on plot devices that are also known as tropes, today we will be covering the Red Herring. Hopefully this post won't be quite as long as yesterday's.

A Red Herring is pretty simple. It's a term for a clue that leads entirely in the wrong direction, and is almost always placed there intentionally by the writer. Not to mislead the reader, necessarily, but certainly to misdirect them from the truth a little, in order to keep the suspense alive. A Red Herring is a common plot device in mysteries and crime thrillers, but is not necessarily exclusive to those genres.

The term Red Herring comes from a metaphor about hunting: the originator of the metaphor wrote about how hounds chasing after a hare might be distracted from the hunt by the smell of a red herring that had been dragged across the trail.

Mother Goose also has an unrelated, but fun rhyme which uses the term:

A man in the wilderness asked this of me,
"How many strawberries grow in the sea?"
I answered him, as I thought good,
"As many red herrings as swim in the wood."

Two of the most common examples of Red Herrings are when an innocent character is purposely cast into a guilty light by the author, in order to distract from the real perpetrator, or when a false protagonist is used. A false, or decoy, protagonist is usually carried out by clever point of view usage and or narrative distance.

Probably the best example of an innocent character cast into a guilty light is The Butler from Hound of the Baskervilles. Creeping about the mansion at night, and a beard that matches the suspect's perfectly, force the reader to wonder about him very early on.

Two well known examples of false protagonists are Lord Eddard Stark in George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, and Bernard Marx, from Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World.

Just like Deus Ex Machina, it should be pointed out that a Red Herring is not necessarily a bad thing. If handled properly, it can be quite a thrilling element to storytelling. J.K. Rowling was an absolute master with this device, creating probably the most well crafted Red Herring ever written in Severus Snape.

60 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

Red herrings are hard to plant well. You don't want to make it too obvious or too discreet that no one notices. But it helps with that big reveal when done right!

Sarah said...

I agree with Laura. These are so common that I look for them and expect them to be part of the plot. But when done cleverly, it really pays off. Matt, these are very interesting posts!

Emily White said...

Yeah, I have to agree with Laura, too. I've read a few books where authors attempted to plant a red herring in order to mislead the reader, but all he/she really did was write the POV character as being mislead while making it pretty obvious that the red herring was not actually the guilty party to the reader. The POV character then came across as stupid and rather annoying to read.

maine character said...

Great examples. I don't know if I'd dare to create one, since, like Emily said, I'd make it so obvious, right down to his black hat and subscription to Bad Guys Digest.

Hounds chasing after a hare might be distracted from the hunt by the smell of a red herring that had been dragged across the trail.

Dang, those hares are smart.

Em-Musing said...

Red herrings I don't do well, but I do do pickled herring. (What can I say? I'm a Swede). Always great info, Matt.

Renae said...

Great post Matt and yes, Severus Snape is hands down my favorite. That was one character that kept me guessing until the end.

Ted Cross said...

Yeah, I think this trope can be great if done subtly enough!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I agree about Severus Snape.

I'm reading a book in which the author used the red herring, and it seemed obvious at first that this is what she did. But then she wrote things in such as way that I'm now questioning if it is indeed a red herring. Maybe she's just genius because for a while I was debating if the person was the guilty one or not, and something tells that she won't be in the end because they author is going to send the reader in a different direction for the climax.

Great post!

Jess said...

One of my favorite Red Herrings is in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (also titled Ten Little Indians). One of the suspects is shot, putting him out of the list of potential bad guys, but you later discover that it was staged so he could kill off a few more peeps. I'm really enjoying this series of tropes!

Anne Gallagher said...

I used one in my first book and I thought I was pretty clever about it. None of my beta's found out until right at the very end. Although one got it half right.

Great job Matt.

Katie Mills said...

there could seriousnly be an entire writing class soley based on HP. Incredible. GP!

Shannon said...

Ooo...I like this series, Matt.

Agreed, when handled properly, a red herring is great plot devise. Trick is to be smarter than the reader (some days I suck at this).

I'm off to read about Deus ex Machina - one of my least favorite plot devices.

<3

Laura Campbell said...

Severus Snape! The last two novels in the HP series left me in many a pile of tissues. I surprised myself when I found out Snape wasn't a true villain by not wanting him and Harry to be separated.

While I wrote the first draft of my mystery novel, red herrings were constantly on my mind. Those characters as well as the entire novel need some serious revisions, but I think I'm on the right track after reading your post. Thanks.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

"Look! Over there! A flying fish!"

"What? Where? Hey, stop bumping into me."

"Sorry. I was just so excited about that flying fish. Hey, look, I found twenty dollars. I'll buy you a coffee."

Bish Denham said...

Excellent post Matt. Love Serverus Snape! (Even his name sounds ominus.)

DEZMOND said...

does this red herring have anything to do with the colour of your hair in the right sidebar? :)

Donna Weaver said...

Rowling is talented at both the red herring and hiding things in plain site.

Great post.

Simon C. Larter said...

And then, sometimes, when you run into the Knights of Ni, they ask you to cut down the mightiest tree in the forest with a red herring....

T C Mckee said...

Nice to meetcha right back and thanks for the follow back. As an avid reader, I can usually spot the red herring right away, however, I was thrown with two books recently: Evernight by Claudia Gray and Hush Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. I won't spoil them for you in case you haven't read them, but I definitely had that GASP moment. I think when it comes to our own writing its fun when we plant a red herring without even knowing it. My editing bud pointed a few out to me when he read my WIP. Awesome feeling. I didn't mean to do it, the story just worked out that way.

Shari said...

I so enjoy your posts. I don't write red herrings well. I keep it simple. And I love Simon's Knights of Ni comment. It made me laugh.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Awww! i LOVE Eddard Stark. He'll always be the true protagonist.
Of my HEART! ;)
Damn i can't wait for that show to start.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Snape was definitely the best, most well-rounded red herring ever.

mshatch said...

so true about severus, I was never entirely sure about him.

Raquel Byrnes said...

Gosford Park is my favorite in terms of the use of Red Herrings.

BUT...I always had faith Snape was friend and not foe.

Turns out he was a begrudging friend...still good enough for me. =)

David Powers King said...

Oh the elusive red herring! If applied well, it works. If not, it makes your story . . . well, fishy! That's awesome that you're highlighting these tropes for us :)

Paul Joseph said...

I'm impressed by any author who can use this technique correctly. I love the concept; I can't imagine the stress of trying to implement it effectively.

Tere Kirkland said...

Love to use misdirection in my novels, but it can be hard, because I feel like all my readers are already looking for red herrings. ;)

Thought-provoking post!

Janet Johnson said...

I hoped you'd mention Snape. Best. Red. Herring. Ever!

Oh to be half as skilled as her.

And interesting about the background of the term. Didn't know that.

Carolyn Abiad said...

Love this series you've come up with...you should put a link to them in your sidebar (next week). :)

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Great post! I have never attempted to write in a Red Herring character, but will try it one day...when my skills are sharper, LOL

Kathryn said...

I LOVE red herrings, and I agree with you there on Snape. Interestingly enough, my literature students and I were discussing whether Red Herrings could coexist in the same text that maintains the theory of Chekov's Gun; it proved to be a very interesting discussion!

LTM said...

I always get my fallacies confused... so I'm never confident labeling these things. You are helping me appear very smart. ;p

Lenny Lee* said...

hi mr matthew! i didnt ever hear of a red herring before and now i could know what it is for writing. youre a really good teacher and i been learning sooooo much from off your blog. did you ever think maybe you could do a class on the computer for writers. i bet lots of people could wanna be in it. you say stuff so even a kid like me could get it. wow! how cool is that!
...hugs from lenny

Elana Johnson said...

Okay, first, you in PINK IS FABULOUS!!!

Second, I love how you cited Snape as a red herring. I've never thought of him that way, and it's perfection.

Old Kitty said...

Agatha Christie too was a dab hand at red herrings galore with her fiendish plotting and many shifty characters!!! Gawd bless her!!

Take care
x

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Some people do red herrings quite well!

M Pax said...

Interesting to learn where the term comes from. Can be a good plot device if done well.

Carol Riggs said...

Good points, Matthew! Red herrings are especially important in mystery novels where you want everyone to think mean Mr. Mustard did it when really it was the butler all along. ;o) I don't write mysteries per se, but I do have my herring moments, especially in the novel I just finished. Happy Wednesday!

Austin James said...

I think it's amazing how some authors can pull this off EVERY SINGLE TIME... even if I'm expecting them to try to trick me.

And then on the other hand... sometimes I can tell you who is the secret bad guy in the first chapter.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Severus was the best red herring ever. But no one would've suspected Scabbers either!

Lydia K said...

I agree--if done well, they can be a thrilling part of a novel. Great post!

Copyboy said...

Love your RH explanation, but I gotta be honest – I still think about that hilarious scene in Clue with Martin Mull. That's how I learned about the term.

Arlee Bird said...

That reminds me. I wanted to pick up some pickled herring at Costco when I go there tomorrow--if they're cheap enough. They're so darn expensive at Ralphs.

Also I heard that Costco is a good place to get lox. I love lox on bagels, but again at Ralphs they cost way too much.

What were we talking about?

Lee
Tossing It Out

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Good post, Matthew! I think I'll have to reread it when it's not 3 a.m.

Joanne Brothwell said...

I don't have any red herrings in my ms, but I'm thinking about sticking on in!

Thanks :)

Rachele Alpine said...

Dang those red herrings! I often fall for them! Duh!

Eric W. Trant said...

Handle your herrings with care!

Donna Hole said it best when she called me out for planting a bad herring in a blogfest:

"Lie to the characters, but not the reader!" Donna said.

That's the fine line you walk with herrings. I did this with bullets in the gun out of convenience... (see your Dayoos post). Guilty as charged.

- Eric

Erin Kane Spock said...

There's an Irish song -- how many strawberries grow in the sea, how many ships sail through the forest.

And when I think of a red herring, I think of the 1987(ish) movie Clue. :)

Like I did with Harry Potter, I am about to re-read Fever series by Karen Moning to see what clues I missed throughout the first 4 books. (Although I was no completely wrong in HP as I was in Shadowfever).

I tried to throw in a red herring in my first ms, but it was obvious from the first. I guess this is why I don't write suspense.

Colene Murphy said...

I love when an author can make the reader question something they believe about a characters...character. Just like JK did with Snape, exactly. I knew in my heart he wasn't all bad but then that thing happened and I lost my faith in him! She was is a master for sure. Great examples and explanation Matthew!!

Jeffrey Beesler said...

Hmm. I ought to consider some more red herrings in my own writing. Thanks for giving me something to think about, Matthew!

Robert Guthrie said...

I love red herring as an action. Why is swimming that way?

Robert Guthrie said...

PS - I was in Freemont on Sunday and saw a rockety-thing that reminded me of Bellingham's Rocket Donuts.

Tabitha said...

The Series of Unfortunate Events had a great Red Herring in it in one of the books (I can't remember which one). Literally, it was a red herring, both the fish and the literary device. Quite amusing. :)

Shalet Jimmy said...

Great post...I am hearing about Red herrings for the first time. Thanks a lot.

Angela Ackerman said...

I love red herrings, but I guess it's because I write mystery elements into my books. I think it's an art form to lead a reader on but not have them catch on to the ruse.

Nice series!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Stephen Tremp said...

I have a red herring or three in my book with more to come. Its fun to leave clues yet misdirect the reader at the same time. Nice post, I really enjoyed it!

Donna Hole said...

I've debated this topic with my writers group. Whether its a red herrings if the reader is given false info by a trusted character, but the character later admits they lied.

A complicated situation to state without casting aspersions.

Well, red herrings are a difficult to pull off well I guess.

LOL; perhaps that why I don't write mystery . .

A super topic.

......dhole

Patti said...

I agree that Severus is a great example of a Red Herring. Also Scooby Doo cartoons are the masters of red herrings.

Zoe C. Courtman said...

Great post, Matt! This has been kind of a confusing element for me to incorporate, so it was nice to see a post about it. Thanks!

Deniz Bevan said...

Oh yes. I love Snape. Sorry, I don't have anything more intelligent to say at the moment [g]