The title of this blog is actually a red herring. By that I imply, it is meant to mislead you, or cause you to follow a false path.
A red herring is an important and often necessary component of a good mystery. An example is Bishop Aringarosa in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The reader is led to believe the cardinal is the center of the church’s conspiracies. Actually, he is a victim. Note, Aringarosa is a loose translation of red herring (aringa translates to herring and rosa can be pink or red). Brown offered a clue by the clever naming of a character.
The red herring can be deliberately introduced by the author, or by the antagonist. Some red herrings are accidental. They are not placed by any character, and perhaps not even the author. But circumstances occur that lead the reader in the wrong direction.
Red herrings are not limited to fiction. One has simply to watch a political debate to see examples. A candidate is asked a question. He (or she) makes a show of giving a detailed answer, but to a different question. The candidate is attempting to mislead the listener. By giving a detailed explanation (of something else) he distracts the listener from the fact that he is not answering the question asked.
Some say the term red herring goes back as far as the thirteenth century. But the first clear definition of red herring came from Englishman William Cobbert in 1807, indicating the press was laying a false trail, similar to his use of a red herring to distract the hounds from the real scent of the fox.
All writers should use a red herring here or there. Whether a mystery or a romance, an urban fantasy or a western, some misdirection is necessary to keep the reader interested. If we know the answers at the beginning, there is less incentive to plow through the rest of the book.
Note, the red herring is different from the straw man, where something is posited so that it can be disproved. In other words, the red herring is used to mislead while the straw man is used to prove a point.
You will be in good company using red herrings. Not only Dan Brown, but Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle employed many. The Hound of the Baskervilles is an example of a classic red herring. The escaped convict or Barrymore appears to be the culprit.
Okay, since I want to play fair with my readers, I’ll get back to the title of this blog. Write a number one, New York Times bestseller which is made into an Academy Award winning movie. If it has a red herring in it, I’m sure it will make $1,000,000 for you.
And yes, my Father Frank mysteries all contain red herrings.
We’d all love to hear your comments on
red herrings, straw men, and other fiction
elements – and not limited to mystery.