One of the critical but perhaps the most entertaining part of any mystery is the continual misdirection of the reader. That ploy ensures a satisfying surprise at the end. To prevent premature exposure to who done it, writers often use a literary tool called a red herring, which leads the reader astray in two ways. One way presents false, distorted, or ambiguous information. The other distracts from the subject at hand either by changing to a new topic or allowing a new event to disrupt the current scene.
After teasing readers with clues of the mystery's true ending, a skilled writer often throws in a red herring to pull his audience away temporarily. This planned postponement adds deeper layers to the the plot and weaves in more doubts about previous suspects. However, the writer intends to reintroduce the same subject matter during the climax. At that point, the reader will likely remember many, if not all earlier hints, clues, diversions, and distractions, which can help him say, “Of course, I should’ve known that!”
Admittedly, in my first book I had almost too many red herrings and too many innocent characters for the reader to suspect. I started to remove one of the planted questionable characters, but decided in the end to keep them all because I did have logical reasons to to explain their innocence that would eliminate each as a suspect. Yet in revising my second book, A Promotion to Die For, I have found a shortage of innocent characters that look guilty. I have also found too few diversions and distractions. So, with book one, the red herrings came easily, but book two will take some work.
I’ve always wondered why this literary technique of trickery appropriated the name of a fish, a herring no less. More research revealed a long history of red herrings being dragged over ground to create scent trails to train dogs, and possibly horses. Apparently, red herring, a very smelly fish when dead, proved useful for distracting ardent searchers. One theory going all the way back to the 1600s included fugitives using red herrings to cover their own scent, thus, throwing off bloodhounds that were chasing them.
The turning point that popularized the name as an extended metaphor came to fruition in the early 1800s. An English journalist named William Cobbett wrote a story that told how he, as a boy, had used a red herring to mislead hounds that were following a rabbit. Though a fictional story, Cobbett used it to criticize what he believed was a naive press that fell for false information about a defeat of Napoleon. Supposedly, Corbett’s criticism caused the repeated republishing of versions of this tale for many years.
I think as writers, we may all appreciate how red herrings serve in the mystery genre. But, if you didn’t know the back story on how this term evolved, you now know as much as I do.
Learn something new every day! Thanks for sharing it’s origin. We recently had a complaint from a reader that they were upset their weren’t more clues to the outcome. I think we may have planted too many red herrings for her taste. ~Minette Lauren
Very cool. I love learning about the etymology of words and phrases. Thanks for teaching us this one. Sherry
Thank you for doing the research on this! I've often wondered where the term "red herring" originated and now I have my answer. Great post!
Thanks for your comments. I too had no idea why this former of trickery was named after a fish. I didn't even know it was a dead fish: A herring being a live fish but a red herring being a dead fish that's been smoked or treated with salt, etc. I remember one Jack Reacher book, where Lee Child put in too many red herrings for me because I guessed the killer early on.
Thanks for that bit of history. Interesting.
I love red herrings...not to eat, but to read, and even to write! Thanks for the research on this clever topic, Linda.
Thank you Gloria and Saralyn.
Very interesting explanation of how the term red herring came about. We all love to try and figure out when clues are real or misleading. It's one of the delights of reading mystery fiction. Thanks for an enjoyable blog.
What a fascinating post! Thank you for this!
I loved this post. I often wondered where the term originated. Just goes to show one is never too old to learn something new as long as we're willing to learn. Thanks so much for sharing! Cheers! SJ Francis
Thanks, Jacqueline, Marilyn, and SJ. I had no idea either of how the name came about. I initiated the research looking for a post topic. I needed to get resourceful to find something different and possibly interesting. This topic popped into my mind since I was currently struggling with getting the needed red herrings into my work in progress. I was surprised to also find the history quite interesting.
Thanks for sharing the origination of the term, red herring.
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