What is a Red Herring?

The term “red herring” gets thrown around fairly often, especially when discussing mystery genre stories, or other stories with such elements. Based on the context that you’ve heard the term used, it should be pretty obvious what the term means, but what happens when the obvious answer is wrong? It would be such a shame if the author of something you were reading deliberately misled you by placing clues in the story for you and the characters to incorrectly assume are the answer to the big mystery. But, it happens, and you should really watch out for it when it does.

The Search for the Red Herring

So, what is a red herring, exactly? Let me answer that by taking you on a little adventure. Scroll down.

Keep going.

Don’t stop scrolling.

You’ll get there. I know it’s hard, but we can figure this out together.

I think we’re getting pretty close to a breakthrough.

Ah ha! I see the answer, just up ahead!

Here it is. This is the red hairing we were trying to find! It seems so obvious now, that the answer would be hidden in plain sight. But something is wrong, and I can’t quite explain it. Do you feel it, too? It seems like the answer to this mystery was given to us far too easily, and too early in the story.

Let’s review what we have here, and see if everything adds up. The big mystery here demanded we find something called a “red herring.” Well, the clue we found here seems like it fits the description of the thing we are trying to find, but something is definitely off. If we take this at face value, it sounds like the answer, but looking further at the details it becomes more clear that we are very wrong in our assumptions.

Now I see what is wrong. What we found doesn’t match up exactly to the thing we were looking to find, and now we’ve wasted time with our false assumptions. Not only that, we almost charged an innocent person with the crime! We need to continue our search!

Not here.

Not here, either.

Think, detective, think!

Time is running out, how will we find it?

What’s that up ahead?

Well, what do we have here? It’s a red pairing.

You know and I know that because of the rule of diminishing returns, that a second false lead like this will not be anywhere near as effective as the first one. This one may rhyme with what we’re looking to find, but you and the characters in the story are now more aware of the fact that there will be things that seem like the answer, but are wrong. This second occurrence of this phenomenon has not fooled you as the reader, nor the detective in the story. In fact, it is almost kind of annoying that the author has put this false positive in the story at all.

Let’s hope he doesn’t do it again. We’re really getting tired of not knowing the real answer. Let’s look one last time.

Not here.

Getting closer.

Hold on, I just realized something.


Maybe the answer was right in front of us the whole time and we didn’t realize it.

Think about it, what clues did the author leave for us from the start of the story?

Eureka! Now I understand, and not a moment too soon. And look, right there, what’s that just ahead of us at the end of the second act?

Image source: delishably.com

There it is. How could we have thought it had been anything else? Let’s confirm with the bad guy here about the things we know they did, and book them on it.

“You’re under arrest for being a part of a story that intentionally misleads the audience and the main characters from the right answer! The definition of your crime dates back to 1807 when English polemicist William Cobbett told a story about using strong-smelling smoked fish as a way to divert and distract hounds from catching a rabbit. Mystery novels love using you all the time, and that helps build suspense when used correctly. You have the right to remain silent in cases where the author wants us to believe a real clue is a red herring.”

Look at that. We finally found the answers. This criminal will now go away for a long time, and it’s all thanks to you, for sticking with it until the very end. Now that the mystery is solved, you can even re-read the story to find all the clues the author included in the story to secretly put you on the right track while deliberately misleading you.

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