This article, written by Elizabeth MS Flynn, is from the July 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
In fiction, the term “red herring” is a technique designed to distract the reader by introducing misleading information. It’s a false clue, meant to deceive, before the truth is revealed.
Take a look at your latest story. Have all your plot twists been resolved? Do you have any red herring plot threads that you overlooked? There’s nothing more frustrating than finishing your book, tweaking every subplot, only to have your readers ask about a plot thread you’d forgotten about. Oops!
How can you avoid that bit of embarrassment? You can write and never show your work to anybody else, but rather than go to that extreme, here are some ways to keep track of those pesky plot threads.
Origins and examples
William Cobbett, a journalist, is credited with originating the term “red herring” in 1807. He criticized the press for prematurely reporting Napoleon’s defeat, and compared that act to using strong-smelling, smoked red herrings to distract hunting dogs. He accused the press of intentionally distracting the public from other events that were occurring.
Some examples? First of all, there’s Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s red herrings range from simplistic to complex. In “The Final Problem,” Holmes receives a note that claims a doctor is required elsewhere, and Dr. Watson runs off to help, leaving Holmes to face off with his archenemy, James Moriarty, alone.
Then there’s a language red herring. In the novel A Study in Scarlet, Inspector Lestrade discovers the word “Rache” written on a wall at the scene of a murder. Lestrade assumes the victim must have started to write the name “Rachel” but couldn’t finish, but Holmes knows that “rache” means “revenge” in German. Later, Holmes realizes that it’s a ruse. “Rache” is a double red herring, because it initially misleads Sherlock the way it was meant to, but it also misleads Lestrade because he doesn’t speak German. This red herring allows for many wrong trails. Of course, it’s harder to get away with this kind of thing these days because it’s too easy to bring up a translation app—but it has to occur to your characters to do so.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, there’s another good example of a linguistic red herring in the form of a monogram on a handkerchief—you and I know it as an “H,” but in the story it was actually a Cyrillic “N.”
Elizabeth Peters did something similar with a double red herring in The Seventh Sinner, wherein the victim traced out a Roman numeral seven (VII) as he lay dying, only for Jacqueline Kirby, who is the detective of the story, to realize later that it didn’t refer to a number, but something else. The story takes place in Rome, so the clue makes perfect sense—in context.
Something a little more modern are the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling peppered red herrings throughout the series, starting with the claims that Harry is the Chosen One and Severus Snape is a bad guy. My husband and I discussed the use of red herrings in both the movie versions and the books. My husband was of the opinion that the hints to Snape’s true character weren’t as well salted or red-herringed, so to speak, as Harry’s non–Chosen One status, but Snape wasn’t the main character, either, although he was a major one throughout the series. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, on the other hand, Sirius Black’s true character was hinted at in a classic red herring technique before he was revealed to be a good guy.
And then there’s Charles Dickens. He peppered red herrings plenty through his tales, and there’s no better place you can see that than in Great Expectations. Our poor but honest hero, Pip, runs into an escaped convict and is coerced into helping him get free from his shackles. In a red herring, Pip is later invited to visit the wealthy Miss Haversham, and later still learns that he’s going to be educated and brought up in the world but isn’t told who’s paying for it. He concludes that it’s the rich lady—but it’s only years later that he finds out that, nope, it’s the convict he helped, who’s been helping him all along.
Sometimes the red herrings aren’t subtle, nor are they meant to be, and again use another language for a clue. In The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown establishes a villain named Manuel Aringarosa. This is a big, fat hint if you know Italian, because aringa means “herring” and rosa means … you can guess. This is another example of a linguistic red herring, so what this tells me is that it’s useful to know bits of other languages.
Even Agatha Christie could be gleefully unsubtle. In what may be the best-known murder mystery, her story “And Then There Were None” literally mentions “red herring” in the nursery rhyme that echoes how the victims are killed off. It’s practically a big arrow that points to something being fishy (if you’ll pardon the saying).
Tracking your red herrings
There are various techniques of keeping track of your plot threads, among which are:
Outline or synopsis. Writing with a synopsis is rarely popular, but it helps to see your story and recognize where your red herrings belong. The downside is your eyes can glaze over because you have so many details to keep track of.
Spreadsheets. This is a popular method, but it depends on how well your brain uses the likes of Microsoft Excel. I was amazed when I saw it being used, which pretty much explains how my brain works. Whether you’re a fan of spreadsheets or not, using one to break down your story lets you literally slot in your red herrings.
Timeline. But you might be more visual. I know authors who use a timeline, which, if you’re an editor like me, looks remarkably like diagramming a sentence (don’t be alarmed), and they state the plot premise as the main line, then make plot threads and red herrings coming out from the main timeline. This is pretty simple, but you do have to get used to the technique. You can make the timeline a complex one or a simple one; this allows you to break down your story and finesse where you would like to slip in a misleading plot thread or two.
Whiteboard. This is old school. A whiteboard or a big board in general is pretty basic. Using this technique depends on whether you have the space to set one up. It allows you to write down plot elements and red herrings and literally check things off. The downside is that it allows the eye to get used to a reminder on the board and skip over it, so you may need to use different-colored markers.
Scrivener. This is a popular method, so if you want to break down your story into blocks, this may be for you. If you’re curious, check out Gwen Hayes’s Romancing the Beat; she uses Scrivener to block out her stories. If you’re familiar with writing TV or movie scripts, Scrivener can also be used in a storyboard fashion. And speaking of which …
Storyboards. If you’re not familiar with these, it’s a technique used for TV and movie scripts, and your story is plotted out in sequence like a comic book for visualizing a movie or animation. The process as it’s known today, according to Wikipedia, was developed at Walt Disney Productions during the early 1930s. If you think visually, this might be good way to plot and slip in red herrings.
Note-gathering programs. A note-gathering app like Microsoft OneNote gathers notes, drawings, screen grabs, and even audio commentaries. In addition, a file created in OneNote can be shared with other OneNote users. This software is terrific for a lot of detail; I have a client who uses this, but I’ve found that it may be too powerful, because I have gotten lost in the many pages and sections looking for details I needed. OneNote allows you to have an entire section specifically for red herrings.
Index cards. This is for authors who go real old school. You can literally have an index card and label it “Red Herrings” and keep it handy as you’re building your story, using different-colored cards for plot, theme, characters, and most important, red herrings. But don’t lose that card!
There are any number of ways of tracking red herrings or plot threads. I used sticky notes and random scribblings to come up with the details for my work, and that, I can tell you, is inefficient. Check out if any of these do it for you; if not, there’s going to be the one for you that does.
- Frisella, Emily. “Red Herring,” LitCharts.com, May 5, 2017
- Gilbo, Savannah. “Red Herring,” storygrid.com
- Hayes, Gwen. Romancingthebeat.com
- Isaacson, Dana. “How to Bury Clues in Your Mystery Novel,” January 24, 2022, Careerauthors.com
- Khan, Vaseem. “Red Herrings,” SinC-UK/EU presentation, January 27, 2022
Elizabeth MS Flynn is a professional editor and has been for more than 40 years, working with topics as diverse as academia, technology, finance, genre fiction, and comic books. Her work for this article comes from her presentation on the topic for the Columbia River Sisters in Crime chapter.