When was the last time you were happily reading a good mystery, thinking you knew who the culprit was, only to find out you were wrong, because you were led to believe something that wasn’t true? Probably, the last time you read a good mystery. What I just described is called a “red herring”, and they’re almost a requirement in mystery plots. What is a red herring? It’s a plot device. The author introduces a false clue to throw you off the track. It can be a real piece of information − a fact − it just doesn’t mean anything to the solution of the mystery.
Authors do this to make it more difficult for you, the reader, to figure out “whodunnit”. After all, they don’t want you to solve the mystery too early. You might stop reading. Red herrings are meant to pace the investigation by muddying the waters, leading you in the wrong direction, making you re-evaluate what you think you know, or distracting you from the real clues. The goal is to draw the mystery out until the very moment when the author is ready to reveal the answer, and not before.
In real life, a red herring is a smelly, red fish. The term “red herring” may have come from when they used to use the strong-smelling fish to train scent hounds. But in “mystery-land”, a red herring is a piece of information introduced as being relevant to the puzzle, when in fact it is not relevant at all. And, we love them.
How do red herrings play out? Authors have to plot their mysteries very carefully. Personally, I create the crime first and then work backwards, laying out the clues, and then inserting red herrings. Sometimes the red herring is a secondary character introduced as a possible suspect. Sometimes it’s a piece of information the investigator feels is important, but doesn’t know why. Sometimes it’s a visual clue, like a tattoo or pack of cigarettes that may or may not be relevant. It could even be a false motive for murder that’s introduced to lead the investigator on a wild goose chase.
When using red herrings, it’s important to use them wisely and sparingly. In other words, don’t throw one in just to throw it in. It should be a plausible piece of information. Otherwise, you can frustrate your reader, or even make them mad. Red herrings should contribute to the story, move it forward, and make solving the mystery more fun.