A red herring is a term used in storytelling to describe a diversionary tactic used to distract the audience from the real story. It is often introduced to throw the reader or viewer off track and make them question what they are seeing.
In this article, we will discuss what red herrings are and some common examples from literature and film. We will also explore why writers and filmmakers use them and how they can be effective tools for storytelling.
Red herring definition
A red herring refers to “something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue.” It's essentially a false clue placed in a story, often referred to as a subversion of Chekhov's gun.
A red herring is a technique that is often used in detective stories, thrillers, and mystery novels to keep the reader guessing and engaged.
It can be introduced in many different ways. It can be an event, character, clue, dialogue, or anything else that seems to point the story in one direction but ultimately leads nowhere. The key is that it must be something that appears to be significant but is actually irrelevant to the story.
Red herring fallacy in debates
Red herrings in literature are different from red herrings in debates or arguments. This type of red herring is known as the red herring fallacy.
The red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone introduces irrelevant information in order to distract from the real issue or mislead the other person.
This type of fallacious reasoning is often used in political debates and arguments.
For example, imagine two people arguing about whether or not the government should raise taxes:
One person may bring up the fact that the government spends too much money on unnecessary things, such as new furniture for the office of the president.
While this may be a valid point, it is completely unrelated to the issue at hand and is only being brought up to distract from the real issue.
Why do we call it a red herring?
The term “red herring” is thought to have originated in the 18th century.
It is said that English fishermen used to drag red herrings across their trails to throw off the scent of hounds following them. This would distract the dogs and allow the fishermen to escape.
This tactic of using a red herring to divert attention away from the real issue has been used in many different ways throughout history. In war, for example, soldiers have used red herrings to create false targets and mislead the enemy.
In politics, red herrings are often used as diversionary tactics to deflect criticism or divert attention from a controversial issue.
What is the purpose of a red herring?
In literature and film, red herrings are often used to keep the reader or viewer guessing. They can be used to create suspense, build tension, and add twists to a story.
Red herrings can also be used to foreshadow future events or hint at something that is not yet known to the audience.
When used effectively, red herrings can make a story more enjoyable and unpredictable.
However, red herrings can also be overused and become frustrating for the reader if they are not done well.
Why red herrings are effective
Red herrings are effective because they play on our natural curiosity and tendency to want to figure things out.
We are wired to look for patterns and find meaning in the information we are given. This is why we often see things that are not really there.
Our brains try to make sense of the world by filling in the gaps with what we think should be there.
This is why red herrings can be so effective. They exploit our natural tendency to look for patterns and try to make sense of the information we are given.
When used properly, red herrings can add an element of surprise and unpredictability to a story. They can keep us guessing and engaged until the very end.
The disadvantages of using a red herring in a story
While a red herring can be an effective tool for storytelling, there are also some disadvantages to using it.
If red herrings are used too often or in a way that is not believable, they can make the story feel contrived and uninteresting.
Additionally, red herrings can sometimes be so distracting that they take away from the overall story.
When used poorly, a red herring can cause confusion and frustration instead of suspense and intrigue.
How to use a red herring in a story
If you want to use a red herring in your story, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Make sure that the red herring is believable and relevant to the story
It should make sense in the context of the story and should not feel like it was just thrown in for the sake of being a red herring.
The red herring should also be used sparingly
Too many red herrings can make the story feel contrived and confusing.
Use the red herring to add suspense or tension
The red herring should be used as a way to add suspense or tension to the story, not as a way to distract from the main plot.
Red herring examples
Now that we know what a red herring is, let’s take a look at some famous examples:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
The first book of the series makes use of the red herring of Severus Snape being the one who is after the Sorcerer's Stone:
- Snape receives a wound on Halloween night, which makes the audience think that he tried to get past Fluffy to get to the Sorcerer's Stone.
- Snape is seen muttering and not blinking when Harry's broom is bewitched during the Quidditch match, which makes the audience think he was trying to throw Harry off of his broom.
- Snape is seen intimidating Quirrell in the middle of the night and asking him with whom his loyalties lie.
However, in the end, we find out that Quirrell is actually the one trying to steal the stone and that Snape was actually helping to guard it from him.
A few more examples of red herrings:
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Sirius Black is a murderer
- The Sixth Sense: Malcolm helping Cole with his "dead people" problem
- Blade Runner 2049: K being the "Chosen One"
- Coco: Coco's Father is Ernesto de la Cruz
- Knives Out: Marta being Harlan's murderer
- Iron Man 3: The Mandarin
Red herrings are a common literary device that can be used to add suspense, tension, and surprise to a story. They are great in stories of the mystery genre and can keep the reader guessing until the very end.
However, red herrings can also be overused and become distracting or confusing if they are not done well. When used effectively, red herrings can make a story more enjoyable and engaging.