The Lure of the Red Herring

16 Aug

This is the first post of a rolling blog tour on the topic of Red Herrings.  To read previous blog tours, check out Please Don’t Ask Me, Plots That Refuse to Thicken, 10 Must-Have Books for Every Writer, and The Case of the Stolen Idea.  At the bottom of this post you’ll find the remaining participants in today’s tour, and a link to the next article in the series.

You can do two things with a red herring.

Cure the herring by salting it, then smoke it slowly to a dark brown color. Serve with a nice wine sauce. Bon appetit!

Or:

Use the herring to ‘bait’ mystery readers and ‘lure’ them into a false conclusion.

Okay, enough with the fish references. What the heck does a fish have to do with plotting a novel, anyway?

The term ‘red herring’ stems from the practice of drawing a red herring across the trail to confuse hunting dogs –  hence, something that detracts attention from the real issue.

Mystery novels are probably the most ‘structured’ type of novel, since authors must deliberately plant real clues and false clues to keep the reader guessing. Using a red herring can add suspense to your novel and give your reader a more complex reading experience. Mystery readers love to be kept wondering until the very end.

A red herring can be a character, an event, an item–virtually anything that keeps the reader from figuring out the truth too soon. Lead them in the wrong direction, so that when they finally realize whodunnit, they’ll get a little thrill. In other words, yank their chain, rock their world–you get the picture.

If your red herring is a character, he or she should have reasonable motive and opportunity to have committed the crime, in order to be a legitimate suspect. Any false lead must have a ring of truth.

In other words, you must have more than one suspect in your novel. These suspects can’t be evil personified, either, or your savvy reader will catch on. They’ll know the least obvious suspect is the killer, so don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence.

How many red herrings do you need? It’s a subtle balancing act. It’s important to make your red herrings a seamless part of the plot. You need enough to add complexity and layering to the plot, enough to twist the plot and add tension. But too many will frustrate and bore the reader, especially if it feels like the story is going nowhere.

Properly used, red herrings can be an effective tool in the mystery writer’s arsenal.

To learn about red herrings from other mystery authors, check out the next stop on the blog tour:

Ryder Islington – http://ryderislington.wordpress.com/

6 Responses to “The Lure of the Red Herring”

  1. Ryder Islington August 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    I love how clearly you expressed this plot device. You have a way with words. It’s as if you’re a professional or something! lol

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. My Favourite Mystery Movie « The Chick Dick Mysteries - August 18, 2011

    […] rolling blog tour on the topic of Favorite Mystery Movies.  To read previous blog tours, check out Red Herrings, Please Don’t Ask Me, Plots That Refuse to Thicken, 10 Must-Have Books for Every Writer, […]

  2. Janet Evanovich and a Few Sour Plums « The Chick Dick Mysteries - August 21, 2011

    […] Mystery Authors Who Inspire Us. To read previous blog tours, check out My Favorite Mystery Movie, The Lure of the Red Herring and Please Don’t Ask Me, among others.  At the bottom of this post you’ll find the […]

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    […] To read previous blog tours, check out Bad Boys Bad Boys, Janet Evanovich and a Few Sour Plums, and Red Herrings, among others.  At the bottom of this post you’ll find the remaining participants in today’s […]

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