What is a Red Herring in Literature?

A red herring in literature is false information designed to mislead the reader. It is a literary device often used in mystery stories to distract the reader from important information, send them down the wrong path, or lead them to a false conclusion, making the ending a surprise.

Red herrings, or false clues, are frequently used in mysteries and detective stories to keep the reader guessing. Often one character will seem to be behaving in a way that makes them a key suspect, while it turns out another character committed the crime all along. For example, the suspicious behavior of the first character, in this case, would be a red herring.

Why do we use red herrings in literature?

Red herrings make mystery stories more interesting and engaging because they prevent the reader from guessing the ending too early. This keeps the reader invested in the story and makes them want to keep reading to find out whether their instincts are right or whether they’ve been thrown off the trail. A clever author will use a red herring to provide enough false clues to mislead the reader completely.

Sometimes a story may contain more than one red herring. This gives the reader several different conclusions when trying to guess how the story ends. It presents even more of a challenge to the reader because they want to solve the mystery correctly. For example, multiple red herrings are sometimes used in murder mystery stories where a group of characters is all suspects, and each has their motive for committing the crime. The reader then has to figure out which character’s motive is strongest and who could have been in the right place at the right time.

Red herrings in literature add depth to a story, building suspense by creating twists and turns in the plot. They’re part of the enjoyment of reading a mystery or crime novel, as they keep us guessing. If we think correctly, this gives us a sense of satisfaction and makes the ending a surprise if we don’t.

Red herrings aren’t only used in mystery and crime stories. However – they can be used in other types of literature, too. The term refers to false information, which can confuse readers and lead them to draw the wrong conclusion about a character or plot.

Why do we call it a red herring?

The term “red herring” is first thought to have been used in an 1807 news story by the English journalist William Cobbett. In his story, he accused the press of reporting prematurely that Napoleon had been defeated. Cobbett said they were using false information to mislead the public, and he compared this to the practice of using strong-smelling smoked fish to lure dogs away from following a scent. There is no evidence that this practice was used in training dogs. However, since Cobbett’s article was published, the term “red herring” has been used to describe any deliberate use of false or misleading information.

Interestingly, there is no such fish as a red herring. Instead, the term refers to a type of kipper cured in brine before being smoked. These kippers are often made from herrings and have a particularly strong smell. However, if enough brine is used, the fish also turns red.

How do red herrings compare to other literary devices?

Some people consider a red herring in literature to be a logical fallacy. A logical fallacy is an error in logic or reasoning which creates a faulty or unsound argument. Writers sometimes use deliberate logical fallacies to prevent readers from guessing the truth.

However, a red herring isn’t an example of faulty logic. On the contrary, a red herring is logically sound – it convincingly presents false or misleading information, leading people to the wrong conclusions. This makes a red herring an informal fallacy rather than a logical fallacy.

Some other examples of informal fallacies in the literature include:

  • Straw man – this type of argument is often used in debates, whether in real life or fiction. A straw man argument distorts the other person’s point of view, deliberately misrepresenting them to create a stronger statement for yourself. However, unlike a red herring, a straw man argument doesn’t present false information; it just twists the information already there.
  • A non sequitur is when a person jumps into an argument, so the point they’re making has no relevance to the previous issues. Like a red herring, a non sequitur is a way of using irrelevant information to distract the audience from what’s going on.
  • Ad hominem is when someone uses someone’s characteristics to attack them instead of simply attacking the argument they’re making. Ad hominems are regularly used in literature to throw readers off the scent. For example, a character might be described as having a suspicious appearance or behaving unusually, instantly making the reader suspect them.

Another literary device similar to the red herring is foreshadowing. This is a technique in which an author clues what might happen later in the story. These clues can be symbolic, such as storm clouds gathering or a certain type of bird being seen as an omen. They can even be as simple as a character saying they feel uncomfortable about something.

Like red herrings, foreshadowing can be misleading – the author can deliberately give false clues to prevent the reader from guessing what will happen.

What are some red herring examples?

There are a huge number of examples of the red herring in literature. Some of the most famous examples include:

  • A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle. This is the first Sherlock Holmes story, and Conan Doyle uses a red herring by having the murderer write the word “rache” at the crime scene. This means “revenge” in German, leading the reader to believe that the murderer must be German.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. The main suspect throughout the novel is Bishop Manuel Aringarosa. However, the red herring is literally in his name – in Italian, the word “aringa” means “herring,” and “rosa” is “red.”
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. We learn in the novel that the main character, Pip, has a wealthy benefactor. Because of the prominence given to Miss Havisham and her unusual behavior, we assume she must be the benefactor. This prevents us from thinking about who else it could be.
  • The Harry Potter books by JK Rowling. The character of Professor Snape is presented as looking creepy, acting intimidating, and having connections with Voldemort. Throughout the series, this leads us to believe that he must be working on the side of evil against Harry and his friends.

How to write a red herring

If you’re creating your red herring in literature, there are several elements it has to have to work properly:

  1. It has to be believable. For example, if you’re setting up a character as a suspect in a murder case, that character must have a plausible motive for being the killer. They must also have been able to be at the crime scene at the right time.
  2. It has to be subtle – but it can’t be too modest! If you make a clue so obvious that it shouts out at the reader too much, they’re likely to recognize it as a red herring and dismiss it. However, if your clue is too subtle, the reader might not notice it. So a red herring has to be noticeable but not recognizable as a red herring.
  3. It has to relate to the plot. If you introduce a red herring that has no relevance to the rest of the story, you’re setting your readers up for disappointment, as the story won’t have a satisfying ending.

Another important thing to remember is that red herrings should only be used in fictional writing! They’re ideal for making your plots more interesting when writing fiction, particularly mystery stories. However, red herrings should never be used in factual or persuasive writing, as they seem unreliable, achieving the opposite effect of what you should strive for.

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