A great writer is like a magician: they can create diversions to get attention off reality and the truth of a situation. In literature, red herrings are often the devices that writers use as a sleight of hand. A red herring tricks the reader, but in a good way, and creates a surprise at the end which delights and resonates with the reader.
How do you create a red herring?
In the development of the plot, regardless of the genre, a writer can look for parallel or false trajectories of the plot or subplot that can, potentially, lead to nowhere. Often mysteries do this well. Check out any Agatha Christie novels to see examples of this.
Additionally, secrets can be withheld from the reader. These secrets can be dependent on the plot, or they can be even more benign. Writers who keep plausible secrets from the readers are in good positions to add in red herrings.
The most effective way to succeed is to plan!
These 10 steps can help you plan red herrings
1. Plot all characters’ backstory as much as you can.
2. Add in crimes, misdemeanors, scandals, indiscretions, and inappropriate actions through their past.
3. Intersect your characters in the past. Some are related, some worked together, some were employed by others, and some, don’t forget, had romantic relationships. In mysteries, crimes are committed because of jealousy, vengeance, greed, lust, or to cover something up. All vices are based in relationships, so your characters must have relational connections long before your first scenes open.
4. Create relationship-stopping events that could cause anger, bitterness, and reason for vengeance, and possibly a motive for a crime. For example: Mary was jilted by Jack once he found out she was pregnant. Victor fired Ed because he knew too much about the money laundering. Winston blackmailed Isa because of her past life as a stripper.
5. Plausibly place these characters in the vicinity of where the crime was committed. This is what is tricky: why are all these people here? Often mysteries take place in an isolated area, such as the quintessential old mansion, or a passenger ship on the Nile, or the Orient Express. But every character has to have a reason why they are there, and why they could be a suspect.
6. Leave evidence behind that implicates them. You can get as creative as you want with this! Try hair fibers, footprints, fingerprints, lost earring, dropped scarf, or other misplaced possessions.
7. Have your investigator collect the red herring evidence out of chronological order in which the events occurred. When the first bit of evidence is found, the investigator (or likely, their hapless sidekick) will be very intriqued and possibly come to a conclusion right away. This will leave a strong impression on the reader. All subsequent discoveries might diminish in importance, which could lead the reader to believe they aren’t necessary. I think, though, it would depend on how the discoveries were written.
8. Have all the character fixate on red herring evidence, even to the point that the reader is convinced. If your investigator has a bumbling sidekick, they’ll have an opinion about the puzzle’s solution. If they are loud about it, this could also distract the reader. Or, if your reader is clever, they may see that as a ruse too.
9. Allow correct evidence to be stumbled upon, almost neglected. One trope suggests that a child find the murder weapon and is caught playing with it. If you’re going to do this, write it in an unexpected way.
10. Have characters come to a false conclusion. Without revealing anything to the reader, allow characters to figure out the puzzle and then react to this knowledge, either by covering their guilt, confronting the guilty, blackmailing, or seeking some kind of gain. Somebody knows exactly what’s going on. Make their behavior consistent with this.
Know as much as you can about each scene, on and off the stage.
You need to know what everyone is doing being the scenes when the main action is taking place. You have a seen where half of your characters are at a party. Even though you know what is happening at the party, you need to have an idea what the other half of your cast is doing. What are they up to? How are they accomplishing their goals when the “camera” is off them? How are their past vices, connections, relationships, and secrets coming to play?
Diverse characters make scenes richer
You need to have rich, diverse characters who have different goals and ambitions. Everyone should have a dark side with a selfish agenda. Your red herring comes from little hints that your characters have secrets, are hiding something, or are working to get out of the spotlight.
Subtext is an important part of having a red herring. How do your characters reveal their intentions in the every day things that they do? How do they stand, speak, carry themselves if they are trying to hide something.
Think Chekov’s gun
This is the principle that everything is useful (research this better). The playwright Anton Chekov said, “If there’s a gun in the first act, it needs to go off in the third act.” Write more about why.
Think about some of the surprise endings you’ve read. You saw it coming, but this twist changed everything. The best red herrings are those that are quite plausible and have the reader convinced.
Finally, respect your reader!
Red herrings are all a part of the game of the puzzle, but non sequiturs are not! Don’t pull something improbable, implausible, or impossible out of the air and expect your reader to believe you. This is a game of “connect the dots” for your reader and if you omit too many dots, they will not trust you as an author, and they may not read you again.
Red herrings are literary magic tricks. Getting them right is delightful.