The Lure of the Red Herring

October 19, 2018



Red herrings may smell fishy, but writers, specifically those who write mysteries, can't seem to resist them. Without red herrings, reading mysteries wouldn't be quite so fun. Admit it. 


So what are they? Red herrings are distractions. They lead the main character, detective, and reader off the scent of the real perpetrator of a crime. They keep us guessing and give us, as readers, a wild ride that is full of intrigue and surprises. 


Red herrings have been around for a long time, but before the 1680s, they were just fish. But after one writer described tying a red herring to a fox to lead hound dogs off the scent of a trail, the name of this common fish took on a whole new meaning and has given writers more reasons for twists and turns in their novels. 


While writing any novel, not just a mystery, we rarely take a character directly from point A to point B, from beginning to end without incident. There are always twists and turns, ups and downs, and unexpected surprises that the character shouldn't expect. Nor should the reader. A novel would lack the thrill if these items were missing. As writers, we should strive to give the reader the best experience possible through our words. 


How do we do this? Well, for starters, red herrings should not seem "fishy." Make your red herrings as believable and a real as possible. Your readers should actually begin to believe that they could possibly be "the one" before you send them on another twist by proving that they aren't. 


These twists and turns create a wild ride for the reader and make them beg for more. And remember, you don't have to be writing a mystery to use these techniques. 

WRITING PROMPT: Make an outline of your novel. Does your main character diverge from his or her main course before reaching their final destination? Or do they proceed from point A to point B in a straight line? Look at the other characters. In what ways can they be used to distract your main character from his goal? What circumstances can be introduced to take her off track? Then, revise your outline and incorporate these twists and turns. Your novel will be much stronger. 




Photo Source: Aaron Mello on




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CAROLYN BENNET FRAISER is a published writer and creative writing instructor in Brevard, North Carolina, where she enjoys helping youth find their passion for writing. 

Carolyn is available to speak to children and youth about creative writing at your school or special event. 

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