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Red Herring – A literary plot device full of suspense

Red Herring literary plot device, not the fish

Red Herring literary plot device, not the fish

Red Herring is a literary plot device that writers use to deliberately, yet in a very subtle manner try to manipulate the attention of the audience. Red Herring is an extremely potent literary device that can control a viewer's/reader's attention and assumptions about a movie or story. As potent and useful as it may be, this literary device can also mean doom for any storyline if it is not used properly. Let's find out what is Red Herring, its history, uses and examples.

What is the Red Herring literary plot device?

Did you think that writers chug with their pens and keys incessantly as their thoughts flow in a linear pattern? Some lucky ones may do that, but other writers make deliberate use of specific literary plot devices which help them in manipulating the reader's attention. Used explicitly in genres of mystery murders, thrillers, crime and voyeuristic ventures, Red Herring is a literary plot device which allows the writer to insert an object or a person in the story which will distract the reader or viewer from the main subject or culprit of the story. However, this is done only to deceive the audience. Red Herrings are false clues 'planted' in the story to spring an element of surprise, shock, humor or irony later on in the climax.

For example, in a thriller a gun maybe introduced towards the climax around which suspicion is created but turns out to be useless prop in the end. Or a character may be introduced who is believed to be the accomplice but may turn out to be completely innocent. This literary plot device is used to maintain the element of surprise and thrill in storytelling.

The history of Red Herring

Although, there are no confirmed sources of how, when and where the idiom and literary plot device Red Herring originated, it is believed that the seeds of this literary concept were planted way back in the 1800s. One of the many theories behind Red Herring is that is has originated from a technique of training dogs. The red herring fish would be dragged on a certain trail so that the dog could recognize its strong scent and follow it. Hence, when the dog is being trained to chase an enemy, the trainer would drag a red herring perpendicular to the animal's trail to mislead it. But as per its training, the dog would eventually learn to follow the original scent. This became a direct reference to a device which is led to deliberately misdirect the audience only to gain their trust once again in the end of the narrative.

What is the risk of using Red Herring?

Red Herrings as literary plot devices are great when used with discretion but going overboard can completely demean the intellect of an audience and kill the suspense of a movie or story. As a writer or director, if you are or are planning to use Red Herring as a literary plot device in the narrative of your story, you may want to ask yourself these questions and sync them in your storyline.

Is my character not intelligent enough to recognize this false lead?

Is an evil guy striking again at the right time while the hero of my story is busy following the planted clue?

Is my story actually moving forward with the Red Herring plot device or am I simply losing focus with it?

Examples of Red Herring

Interesting examples of the use of Red Herring

In Agatha Christie's novel Cat Among the Pigeons, a series of crimes committed by a particular character lead the readers to believe that he is the killer, but in the end they turn out to be completely unrelated.

Alfred Hitchcock is a master of using the Red Herring literary plot device. Some famous examples are the cigarette lighter in the movie Strangers on a Train, the first Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca and the coded message contained in the piece of music in 'The Lady Vanishes'.

In the horror series movie Saw two characters spend time locked in a room with a third character lying dead in the same place. Throughout the film, both characters are shown to be guilty of a few murders, only to discover later that third person in the room is the real killer and not actually dead.

All the clues planted in the movie What Lies Beneath, were completely unrelated to why the character of Michelle Pfieffer had such strong paranormal beliefs and experiences. The point was to create confusion and mystery for the viewer.

In Agatha Christie's novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the two central characters are shown to hate each other only for the reader to believe that they could never conspire together – which it exactly what the story reveals eventually.

Red Herring trivia

In the book and the film The Da Vinci Code, the misdeeds of an important character called Bishop Aringarosa misdirect the reader/viewer's attention from the real villain throughout the narrative. Did you know that they makers deliberately called him Aringarosa because it literally means Red Herring?

Edgar Allan Poe has used the Red Herring in many of his short stories. In fact, many movies make clever use of Red Herrings by deliberately using a popularly known villain actor in a movie so that all of the viewer's attention is directed towards him/her. But the real culprit turns out to be someone completely different!


Anomylous on February 13, 2012:

Methinks, in the Shakespeare play "McBeth", "There's something fishy in the state of Denmark" refers to an "Red Herring." True or False?

Lester the English Professor on January 24, 2012:

Rambo -- If a Red Herring still has it's bones, it will be noticed, choked on (shall we say), and quickly expelled. Thus, de-boned is always better in order to keep the story flowing.

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Rambo Goldstein on November 12, 2011:

Speaking metaphorically, which would you say goes over better: a de-boned Red Herring or one with the bones left in?

William Wallette III on November 11, 2011:

Another risk of using a Red Herring is that it may intrduce a story line that's more interesting than the main story itself, making the primary story dull when compared to it.

Morgana O'Reilly von Stueben on November 09, 2011:

That holds water as well as a geriatric patient with a bladder condition.

Doug on November 07, 2011:

Thank you for the explanation. It fits and was very well presented, as are all of your views. I would like to add another possible explanation for why Green Platypi and Bewildered Blind Blue Buffalo were not used: When the term was needed, those incharge of making up such terms simply did not know platypi and B-B-B-Buffalo existed. So "Red Herring" it was. Coincidentially, and unknown at the time, red herrings are high in Fatty Oils needed for proper cardiac health, so with constantly hearing the term, more and more people consumed more and more of them, with the term "That was a really good red herring!" becoming popular in literary as well as dining circles, not only improving peoples' health but adding years to their book-buying lives.

princesswithapen (author) on November 07, 2011:

You are funny, Frank!

It is difficult to put a finger on the exact origination of the term Red Herring, especially in a literary concept. It is thought to have originated from dog training grounds. Red Herring, the fish, was used to distract dogs while training them to pick up scent. Hence leading to its idiomatic use in literature as a plot device to distract the audience. This is considered to be one of the more widely accepted explanation or should we say, story of the origination of Red Herring.

So unless someone comes up with a better version of how a Green Platypus or a Bewildered Blind Blue Buffalo was used in a metaphorical or idiomatic context related to this literary term, Red Herring is here to stay.

Thanks for reading and commenting!


Frank N. Sentz on November 06, 2011:

Why is it called a Red Herring? Why not a Green Platypus or a Bewildered Blind Blue Buffalo?

Walter de Circa on November 01, 2011:

Thank YOU, Ms. Wallpaper. I'll be waiting for more of your posts.

princesswithapen (author) on October 30, 2011:

Hi Walter de Circa

One of the best forms of motivation for any online writer is to know that his/her writings are being read, followed by, and appreciated by others. Thanks for your reading and your warm comment!


princesswithapen (author) on October 30, 2011:

Hi nemanjaboskov

You're welcome. I'm glad you liked this hub.


Walter de Circa on October 29, 2011:

Thanks, princesswallpaper. I always enjoy your stuff.

Nemanja Boškov from Serbia on October 11, 2011:

Another great hub :) Thanks, princesswithapen!

princesswithapen (author) on October 06, 2011:


Some literary terms are very unique and we keep using them even without knowing that we do so. I'm glad you found this interesting. Thanks for stopping by!


princesswithapen (author) on October 06, 2011:


Yes, it's great to read a book and try and figure out which clues are useful and which ones are not. It's like consciously look for a red herring and not knowing you've just missed one! Whoever said that reading books all over again and again was boring?


Husky1970 on September 29, 2011:

I never knew where the term Red Herring originated so thanks for the clarification. You cite some interesting examples of how good writers have used this clever literary device. Interesting hub and voted accordingly.

FloraBreenRobison on September 29, 2011:

John DicksonCarr/Carter Dickson was an author who was a master at red herrings in his books where they always worked. If you reread the book after a short period of time so that you still remember the clues the detective states in his explanation of the crime are all there to read. You just don't know clues are essential and what clue are not. Hence, the reader rarely solves the crime, but the clues are all there. Agatha Christie loved his books and never did solve any of them.

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