While reading a book or watching a movie, you’ve probably come across some detail of the story that made you so sure what the outcome would be. But when you reached the end, your theory turned out to be wrong. The guy you thought guilty is actually innocent, and the real culprit is the last character you expected.
That is an example of a red herring. Most common in mysteries and thrillers, these details are used to purposely distract you from what’s really going on until the very last minute.
What Is a Red Herring?
A favorite trope in detective fiction, red herrings are false clues that lead readers to an incorrect conclusion. Remember how, in Harry Potter, Severus Snape is portrayed as a villain throughout the series? And then, at the very last part, we learn the true nature of his character.
The red herring is a writer’s equivalent of a magic trick. Just as magicians bedazzle their audiences with fancy hand waves while setting up their deception, writers use red herrings to distract the reader while preparing the real conclusion of their story.
Writers often use this literary device to create surprising twists in their stories. To create more unique and less predictable mysteries, they throw in a few deceptive details to confuse readers.
It’s a powerful way to engage a reader and make them believe they’re onto something. When authors use red herrings effectively, readers are rewarded with the realization that they’ve been tricked all along, and the ending comes as a total surprise.
Aside from thickening the plot, red herrings are also opportunities to flesh out characters, scenes, and other narrative details. By providing alternate (albeit false) trails, writers are able to pack in more details that ultimately create a more interesting story.
Origin of the Idiom
First off, there’s actually no such fish as a “red herring.” Rather, it’s a name given to a type of dried fish (typically herring) that is either smoked or brined. The process turns the fish’s flesh dark red and gives it a powerfully pungent smell.
Originally, scholars thought that this idiom originated from a 1697 reference that talked about how to organize a hunt. It mentions training hounds by dragging red herrings across the ground, leaving an easy scent for them to follow. It turns out that this reference was misunderstood, though.
The actual animals being trained were horses, and what was being dragged across the ground were dead foxes or cats. While the term “red herring” was mentioned, it was only as a possible replacement when foxes or cats weren’t available. It wasn’t used in the context that it’s known by today.
Researchers finally linked this idiom to a radical journalist named William Cobbet who first used it in 1807. In his Weekly Political Register, he wrote a presumably fictional story about how, as a boy, he once used a red herring to draw hounds away from hunting a hare.
The story was meant to illustrate how foolish the English press was for being led astray by false information about Napoleon’s supposed defeat, leading them to focus on an inaccurate story rather than more important domestic topics.
This story, and his frequent repetition of it, was enough to leave a strong impression of red herring’s figurative use on the public.
Examples of Red Herrings in Literature
Red herrings are popular across all genres of literature, especially in mystery and thriller fiction. Some of them are obvious (sometimes to the point of being tongue-in-cheek), while others are subtle and hard to detect. Below are some of the best examples that literature has to offer.
Spoiler Alert! Because red herrings are tied to big narrative reveals, the following examples will include important details about their respective stories.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
A group of ten strangers, each with their own dark pasts, are invited to a remote island. But their mysterious host never appears, and strange things begin to happen all around the island.
As the guests begin dying one by one, the survivors band together to search for clues about what’s happening and who’s behind the murders. When one of them disappears, the others assume him to be the killer, only to be proved wrong when his body washes up ashore later on.
Buy the book here.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A family is being haunted by a supernatural hound. To solve the mystery and prevent another death, a local doctor enlists the aid of Sherlock Holmes.
Throughout the story, the butler is presented as the obvious suspect, since one of the key clues is that the culprit has a beard. Not only does the butler have a beard, but he also had a strange habit of skulking around at night. In the end, it’s revealed that the butler is innocent and his behavior is unconnected to the mystery.
Buy the book here.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
An orphan boy named Pip discovers he has a mysterious benefactor. All signs lead to Miss Havisham, an eccentric and wealthy old woman who has recently taken him in.
Later on in the story, it’s revealed that his benefactor is actually an escaped convict that he treated well when he was a boy. It turns out Miss Havisham only took him in as part of a twisted plot to take revenge against the man who left her waiting at the altar.
Buy the book here.
The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
In the sixth book of the series, Demandred, an antagonistic character with the ability to disguise themselves, is introduced. At the start of the book, the main antagonist gives Demandred a secret mission.
Coincidentally, a new character named Mazrim Taim makes himself known to the protagonist, offering his services to the hero. This timing of introduction led many to believe that Taim is Demandred in disguise. It’s later confirmed in the last book of the series that while he was recruited by Demandred, Taim is a completely separate person.
Buy the series here.
Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
The paralyzed director of CERN, Maximillian Kohler is shown to hate the Church because his parents, for religious reasons, refused the treatment that would have prevented his condition.
This hate for the church and accessibility to the anti-matter bomb currently threatening the Vatican makes him the most likely suspect—until it’s proven he’s innocent, but by then it’s too late and he’s already dead.
Buy the book here.
Red Herrings as an Informal Fallacy
It’s important to know that apart from being a literary device, a red herring can also be an informal fallacy—a type of fallacy that has flaws in reasoning rather than in logic.
As an informal fallacy, a red herring attempts to redirect an argument to a subject that only has surface relevance to the main subject. It’s mostly used to divert the argument to something that the person doing the diversion can better respond to.
It may or may not be intentional and may happen even without a conscious decision to mislead. Here is an example of this particular fallacy:
Journalist: What do you have to say about the recent accusations of corruption against you? Politician: All I have to say is that my team and I are hard at work. Just look at the new program we've launched for the homeless.
In the conversation above, the reporter raises a concern about a politician’s alleged corruption and specifically asks the politician to comment on it. Instead, the politician attempts to shift the discussion toward a subject that’s safer for them to answer.
The red herring fallacy is considered a fallacy of relevance, as it involves information that is irrelevant to the main subject. It’s also sometimes called a diversion or digression fallacy due to its intent to divert a topic to another topic instead.