Mastering Misdirection: Tips For Crafting Convincing Red Herrings

What is a red herring? Simply put, a red herring is a piece of information in a story that distracts readers from an important truth or leads them to mistakenly expect a particular outcome in any genre. And not just information but characters make excellent red herrings.

Why are red herrings important to the murder mystery, especially red herring characters? Because they build suspense and help writers construct dramatic plot twists. Let’s face it, they are the staple of mystery novels as they often provide surprise endings and serve to distract the reader from what is actually taking place.

Of the many considerations facing writers concerning red herring characters, I believe there are three that stand out as necessary for the successful murder mystery plot to ensure the effectiveness of these characters in keeping readers engaged and guessing. Here are what I believe are the top three considerations of murder mystery writers when placing characters who are red herrings into the plot, and I offer three classic murder mystery works that illustrate these principles.

1. Character Motivation: Red herring characters should have plausible motives for the crime. Their reasons for wanting to harm the victim or being involved in suspicious activities should be convincing. If their motives are weak or unclear, readers may become frustrated or disinterested.

In Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” multiple passengers on the train have potential motives for the murder, making it challenging for readers to identify the true culprit. For me, this is one of the very best examples of the classic use of red herrings.

2. Character Development: Red herring characters should be well-developed and multidimensional. They shouldn’t simply exist as one-dimensional stereotypes or caricatures solely meant to mislead. Giving them depth, backstory, and believable personalities makes them more compelling.

In Tana French’s “In the Woods,” there are several characters with complex histories and personalities, all of whom could potentially be involved in the central mystery.

3. Plot Integration: Red herring characters should be seamlessly woven into the narrative. Their presence and actions should be integrated into the story’s overall plot and themes. If they feel forced or tacked on, readers may see through the deception too easily.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Dr. John Stapleton is introduced as a possible suspect with a connection to the legend of the supernatural hound, effectively adding layers of mystery to the plot.

Keeping these three considerations in mind when writing your mystery should ensure your red herring characters contribute to the intrigue and suspense of the story while maintaining the integrity of the narrative. Successful implementation of these elements can make the eventual revelation of the true culprit more satisfying for readers.

Happy writing!




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10 thoughts on “Mastering Misdirection: Tips For Crafting Convincing Red Herrings

  1. I don’t know if it’s what I’ve been reading, or age, or what but I’m gagging on epidemic/pandemic backstory. I mean some is enough, but all these drops between dialogue, overdone pages of narrative backstory or who character X is and how if Bob’s dead wife knew Jimbo was piping septic tank “fertilizer” onto the roses she’d planted at his trailer she’d erupt… F*ck me, can we get back to the story? What does with his poo water has zilch to do with the dead body.

      • What’s happened is a raft of books with either cliche (pictures, mirrors) backstory drops or just plain superfluous narrative BS. It took 52 pages of a Victoria Houston Loon Lake mystery (from the $10 bag) to get to the effing story almost started. Now had this been book 1, okay, an over zealous program of the players, but book 9 of 19? And most of it was irrelevant. Maybe two pages for a potential sub plot instead of the 6 or seven, but some of the rest was pure author time. I mean, we don’t need to know the dead wife of a deuteragonist would have flipped out if she’d known a side character, who is obviously a regular, tapped his septic tank to “fertilize” the dead wife’s roses. Do we, when it has zero to do with the plot and a character some met and edured 8 books ago? And it’s epidemic. If all the word count the story has is X, so be it. Fluff it up with intrigue or banter but get off the character dev wagon. MacDonald, Elmore, HIllerman, Parker, Hammett, Chandler et al, you know who’s who without piling poop on a dead guy’s wife’s roses. Unless it’s relevant.

  2. I love a good red herring when a book or movie/show manages to completely skunk me, yet when you look back at it afterwards you can see that it all makes sense. (I’ve read each of your examples, and I’m currently reading a book called “In the Dark”, which explicitly invokes “And Then There Were None”, so I’m expecting there to be plenty of misdirections lying around here as well.)

    BTW, in the old “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” cartoon, which took place when, as you might guess, Scooby was a puppy and the rest of the gang were elementary school kids, one character was a local bully named “Red Herring” whom Fred accused of being the perpetrator every. Single. Episode. As an Agatha Christie-reading kid I found this hilarious. Of course the only time Red Herring actually did the crime was the one episode where Fred didn’t accuse him.

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