I’ll have the red herring, please


Helga’s post #15 — We’ve all been there before, right? Reading that murder mystery or thriller or watching a movie in that genre: Smartass detective thinks he’s got bulletproof proof that the guy he suspected from the beginning is the one who is guilty of all the blood spilled and evil deeds galore. But, there’s still half of the book or movie left. What’s the author or filmmaker gonna do for the next 200 pages or 55 minutes to the end? Give themselves taps on the shoulder? Did they really think it’s that easy to fool their readers / audience? That said, would readers / audience sit back halfway through and congratulate themselves, saying, yup, yup, I know how it will end.

Of course not.

You see, what the writer really intended was a red herring. Not just that. Our famous writer wants it to be a red herring buried inside another red herring. Like a double cross within a double cross or a triple cross in a spy novel or movie. Even a quadruple, quintuple… you get the drift.

And what if you are the author, writing that murder mystery or producing that movie?

Writers beware! Do not make the mistake of assuming your readers are imbeciles. They might quite possibly have a higher IQ than yourself. They can read between the lines. They can figure out what you, the writer intended before you crafted that scene.

Avoid the obvious solutions. Your readers can smell a rat from far away. Avoid setting them up to swallow your equally obvious red herrings hook, line and sinker.

Because in the end, it’s you, the creator of that red herring who has been fooled. They figured it out long before you thought you’ve hidden your golden egg. False foreshadowing, or any other deliberate deception, will do a lot of harm. Like to the sales numbers of your next novel. Because it’s betraying your readers. Breaking that invisible trust.

Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy

Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy

But if red herrings are put to legitimate use, they are a great tool for the writer. By definition, a red herring is a false clue that leads readers or characters towards a false conclusion. An example can be found in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in which the character Draco Malfoy is planning an attack against someone in the Hogwarts,  presumably Harry, which turns out to be a red herring.

May you hook the perfect specimen of that sneaky creature. And I herewith proclaim, with sincerity: Even with the clock ticking ever louder towards the finish line, I am still looking for that perfect little fish in my novel.


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