Wordy Wednesday: Red Herring 101

How is it already Wednesday?

My family met up in Washington D.C. for the Fourth of July this weekend, which was really cool. We got to see all the big monuments, watch the parade (from in front of the IRS building, but whatevs), and ogle the fireworks as they lit up Lincoln. We saw the flag Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” about, ate lots of unhealthy (and delicious) food truck food, and ultimately had a really good time.

I’m not going to see my mom again until Ch1Con–and my dad or sister until the very end of August–so it was nice to get one last hurrah with them this summer.

Since then, I’ve been on my own in NYC, mainly just working and trying to get my life in order. Things should maybe settle down a little bit soon, though? (I’m so looking forward to the weekend to finally get this insane list of tasks done.)

Anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

So, I have a fascination with the red herring. It’s one of my favorite plot devices, because it’s so CONNIVING. The author purposely leads the reader astray.

Also, it appears in basically every genre (because every story is a mystery, remember?).

ALSO, it’s become weirdly difficult to execute.

There are a lot of bad red herrings in the world, these days. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book and immediately been able to predict the ending based on the fact that the red herring/actual culprit-love interest-etc. combo was too formulaic. (This isn’t a bad thing, per say. It just makes me sad because now the book is less interesting.)

The problem with the red herring is that the usual, simple approach of executing it (X seems like bad guy, but it’s actually Y) HAS become formulaic. You can only read one formula so many times before you catch onto it.

So now, to avoid this issue, authors are getting craftier. Creating layers of red herrings. Making you question EVERYONE.

I love this. It’s impossible to tell how many layers the author has intended, so you don’t know if you’re being paranoid, suspecting Random Character C, or if you actually aren’t looking far enough and the true culprit is Character E.

When I was revising a YA thriller over the winter, I ran into the “this is too formulaic” issue myself. So I thought through some of the plots of my favorite, unpredictable books and tried to decipher what those authors did that made their red herrings so wonderful.

This is what I came up with.

Paint in More than Just Red

Your red herring can’t just be there to be a red herring. While you can use a character as a plot device, you can’t use a plot device as a character. So develop your red herring. Make them a real, breathing person the reader will come to love or hate. Paint that red herring in a thousand colors.

Utilize Multiple Red Herrings

As mentioned, this is a really nice trick. Don’t just provide your reader with a single red herring, but multiple. One red herring is easy to figure out; three or four or five is not.

And make some of these red herrings subtle. Don’t make it obvious that you’re trying to lead the reader to believe that person’s evil or whatever. Make the reader believe they’re being clever by suspecting one of these people, when the true culprit is still lurking in the shadows.

Inspire Doubt

You don’t want any of your red herrings to be too obvious, because that feels cheap. So, inspire doubt. Give your character reason to believe so-and-so might actually be the bad guy, only for the evidence eventually to lead back to the original red herring (only your character doesn’t realize).

The reader knows to look past the characters your protagonist suspects. If the protag no longer suspects someone (but that person still seems suspicious), there’s a good chance your reader will start believing that character’s the real deal bad guy.

This is also a way you can go about introducing the REAL real bad guy. Have your protagonist suspect them at the beginning, but have credible reason not to as the plot progresses–then BAM at the end when everything shakes loose and they truly were the antagonist.

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Subtle

Readers are smarter than authors often give them credit for. If they’re invested in a mystery, they will pick up the subtlest of clues in order to unravel it. Which means that anything at all NOT subtle becomes glaringly obvious.

So, to Recap

Don’t be afraid to be subtle. Trust your reader. Make your red herrings real characters. Inspire doubt and use layers.

And, more than anything: paint your pages red.


Thanks for reading!