Red Herrings

Red Herrings

By Devon Forward

From one writer to another, there have been times I’ve read my own work and thought, “this needs something more. Some mystery, some misdirect. It all just feels a little too obvious, too straight-forward.” Sound familiar?

Every writer wants to bring their audience on a journey full of twists and turns that they don’t see coming. But what if you’re having trouble bringing in more intrigue and mystery?  Well, that’s the perfect situation in which to use a Red Herring.


What is a Red Herring:

A favorite literary device for writers of all kinds, a Red Herring is an element introduced into a story with the intent to mislead or distract the audience and lead their thinking in one direction, away from the truth.

As a visual medium, a Red Herring in film and television can be a single scene, or sequence of scenes, that lead viewers to think one thing, but they can also be characters or other details that lead your audience’s thinking down an intentionally irrelevant road. The Red Herring provides information in a way that the audience will believe it’s important, misdirecting them into predicting or expecting something entirely different from what’s really going to happen.

One clear example to demonstrate this is in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, one of the best examples of a Red Herring in recent years. For Harry, he’s going into his third year at Hogwarts, and suddenly he hears about a man who betrayed his parents and just broke out of Azkaban, the most secure prison in the magical world. When a multitude of omens follow predicting death and evil, all signs point to that man, Sirius Black, as the culprit, right? Of course, you’re supposed to think that, at least if the writer does their job well. Then, in the third act, the whole story is turned upside down when the real threat is revealed, and Harry learns that everything he thought about Sirius was wrong.

In this case, Sirius Black and all the reports of his evil nature and crimes are the Red Herring. Harry hears all this from good, reliable sources. Even Sirius’s old friend, Remus Lupin, doesn’t trust him after his reported involvement in Harry’s parents’ death. On top of that, Harry’s smart, overly suspicious best friend Hermione feels the same way. For Harry and the audience, all signs point to Sirius being the villain.


When to use it:

A Red Herring is used most often in crime or mystery stories, as it can easily be one of a series of clues leading to a surprising and suspenseful conclusion. It’s something that plants doubt in the audience’s mind, diverting their suspicions away from the antagonist’s real plan until the end of the story. The most obvious versions are innocent suspects in a murder case, or a witness statement giving the detectives a false lead, so you can see why it was a favorite tool for authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie in their mystery novels.

You should consider using a Red Herring when your story includes a sense of mystery, something that either needs to be solved by the characters or you want to reveal slowly to the audience. Despite that, it can also be used in any other genre, such as romance. A Red Herring is often used when someone has a secret in their past that they want to keep covered up, which is slowly revealed through the course of the story.

Another great example of a Red Herring is in the film The Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis’s character Malcolm is introduced as a psychologist, and based on how he is presented, the audience is led to believe that Cole, played by Haley Joel Osment, is his patient. This makes sense as Cole is dealing with his unique ability to see ghosts, so it’s understandable that he would be sent to a psychologist. Later on — spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen this well-known film — the movie reveals that Malcolm is actually a ghost that Cole is helping, but Malcolm doesn’t yet realize that he’s dead. As he realizes the truth, so too does the audience, and Malcolm is able to finally move on.

The director, M. Night Shyamalan, understood that since his story revolves around the audience already knowing about Cole and his ability, there had to be something more, another storyline, hidden within to shock the viewers. Before this twist happens, the audience feels like they are the ones in the know, as they know the truth about Cole’s ability, while everyone else in the film doesn’t believe him. For Shyamalan to then pull the rug out on them with the Malcolm reveal is simply great writing and the perfect use of a Red Herring.


Why it’s a great plot device:

Red Herrings are a great way to add an extra level to your story and create more surprise and unpredictability for audiences. They help create and build tension, making the later reveal that the Red Herring was only a false clue even more exciting. See, if you use a Red Herring correctly in your script, the audience will be successfully be led to believe one thing, when all along the something else was true, resulting in an amazing surprise ending that can keep audiences talking about it for years to come. Look at Saw or Psycho. These movies wouldn’t be the same without the key misdirection that allows for such big twists. A word of warning however, as a red-herring can be a double-edged sword; be careful wielding your red-herrings, as when used poorly your audience will feel played and manipulated.

A great Red Herring should be a seamless part of the plot and feel natural within the rest of the story. If it’s too obvious, the audience will figure it out and get bored. Make it feel like a piece of the puzzle that just about fits, but not quite. At the end, it’s not just the characters who are finally seeing the truth, but also the audience. Overall, if you feel like your story needs some extra drama or unexpected twists, a Red Herring is a common yet super useful plot device, and a wonderful tool for any writer. Look for it, and you’ll be amazed how often it’s used in some of your favorite movies.

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