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Developing Red Herrings for a Whodunit

Cygnet Brown graduated magna cum laude from Argosy University. She is an author of fourteen books and a long-time gardener.


What is a Red Herring?

A red herring is an idiom referring to a logical fallacy that misleads or distracts from the actual issue. One of the theories on where this idiom comes from is that for centuries red herrings were used for distracting hounds during fox hunts. However, that may not be the case because the first time this idiom was demonstrated in publication was in 1807 when English polemicist William Cobbett began using this as a literary device. The phrase was later borrowed as the formal name for this logical fallacy.

In whodunits, a red herring is a literary device that leads the protagonist and the reader toward false conclusions. Facts are clues that lead to the truth. On the other hand, red herrings draw attention but don't mean anything, because they don't actually exist. They are false clues that lead readers and novel detectives in directions that do not lead to catching the real villain. They heighten excitement and compliment the mystery puzzle by misleading the reader and the protagonist sleuth.

Begin with the End in Mind

Before developing red herrings, it helps to first determine exactly how the murder was committed and the murderer's motive.Once you determine what actually happened, it is much easier to develop clues that lead to the actual murder.

Now, develop the victim's character. Determine what people don't like about him or her. Determine reasons that people might want this person dead. Does the victim have a propensity for extortion? Is he or she a hot head? Add a few ideas of your own to this list.

Once you have the details of the murderer, the murder, and the victim, developing the red herrings become much easier..

Clues and Red Herrings at the Scene of the Crime

Determine clues that you will use at the scene of the crime. Determine who said what, alibis, murder weapons, bits of hair, fingerprints, etc. For example, you might have a black hair discovered at the scene of the crime, and two or three suspects who have black hair. Or perhaps a partial fingerprint from the next door neighbor on a can of Sprite found in a room of a house he claims he was never in. This are straightforward clues that are evident at the crime scene that you want to reader to see.

What people say at the scene of the crime can be both clues and red herrings.The man who says he was never in that house provides a clue. The neighbors who said they were awakened by shots at 2:30 provide a clue. The mother of the victim who refuses to go anywhere without her makeup, and keeps the police station on speed dial provides a clue or perhaps a red herring remains to be seen.

Relationships can be clues or red herrings. If two sisters tell everything to one another , or a husband and wife divorces, or rich Aunt Milly is mean to her son-in-law, these can also be clues -- especially if one of the individuals is the murder victim. You just have to mix the facts with the red herrings.

Clues and red herrings, don't have to be physical. Clues can be less tangible. Your protagonist can even have a gut reaction that something is not right. Emotions and conflicting facts can add to the mix.

Types of Red Herring Characters

1. Red Herrings can simply be false clues and may not be attached to anyone at all. It leads somewhere else and distracts the sleuth from learning the truth. One thing that is certain is that the red herring does not lead to the truth.

2. This is an innocent character who you give a motive that makes him or her suspect. Near the end of the novel, something proves this person’s innocence. I used this red herring in my novel When God Turned His Head. Drusilla was accused of the murder of her husband. As she faces being found guilty, the truth comes out about the real motives for her husband’s murder.

3.Another common red herring is to put an innocent character at the scene of the crime. In a new book which I plan to begin writing in November, Matthew Thorton one of the family members of the Locket Saga was seen at the scene of the crime of a murder. He was lured to the millpond by a mysterious note that told him to meet Lacy Mayford there. When he arrives, Lacy is not there, but the murder victim is. To make matters worse, his own knife is found in the victim’s back.

4.Create a guilty character that seems innocent because there is no evidence of motive, weapon or opportunity. This character might even have an airtight alibi. At the climax of the story, the sleuth connects several seemingly unrelated clues planted throughout the story, and then uncovers the guilty character’s motive, weapon and opportunity.

5. Have the protagonist sleuth follow a trail that leads to the wrong person. The more convinced the sleuth is that person is guilty the more she pursues , and the more exciting the story becomes. This strategy works best when the readers know the killer is, but the sleuth does not know.

6. The sleuth discovers items (red herrings) at the crime scene that can be interpreted in more than one way or that implicates an innocent person or are completely unrelated to the crime. The guilty person my be framing the innocent person by planting this clues at the scene of the crime. The sleuth and the reader have to sort them all out.

Red Herring Character Building

While you are developing the murder victim, begin thinking of motives that other characters might have for killing the victim. A murder victim could seem like a mild mannered person on the surface that no one would ever want to kill, however, as the sleuth digs deeper, the skeleton’s come out of the closet. The reader discovers the victim was not the pleasant person that everyone thought. Determine what it is that each of the suspects had against the victim and why that was a good enough reason for the suspect to want to kill the victim. The more you can muddy the relationships, the better the story. Your reader will be sure to turn the page to discover what happens next. What you want is to learn how this person benefited from the victim’s death.

Provide your characters with the ability to kill the victim. A suspect who is a quadriplegic who is unable to do anything on his own. However, perhaps he is an independently wealthy billionaire who convinced his grandson to hire a hit man to kill the victim. Now the quadriplegic independently wealthy billionaire has the means and opportunity. If a person seems capable of committing the crime, but has no motive, it creates two possibilities. Either the person has a motive that was not yet uncovered or he or she is working with someone else as is the case in this example.

Some of my favorite television shows are whodunits and most today are cop shows. I can usually guess who the murderer was by who seems to be the least likely suspect. Why else would the individual be a character if not a suspect. Some of the better shows bring in plot twists that take a suspect off the table because of an alibi or for some other reason only to discover that the alibi was bogus.

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Objects as Red Herrings

You can add to your descriptions both objects that appear and objects that don’t appear. What did the sleuth see that was supposed to be at the crime scene? What did he or she find that shouldn’t have been there. What did the sleuth not find at the crime scene that should have been there? The items that shouldn’t have been there can represent red herrings.

These same questions can be asked in any scene that the sleuth investigates. Some of the clues may be real clues, but some may be red herrings. If an item was not where it was supposed to be, why was it moved and who moved it?

An example of an item that was at a scene that should not have been there occurs in When God Turned His Head, bear oil was found to have caused a fire own by the mariner who would never use bear oil when whale oil was available.

Another effective way of tricking readers is to introduce objects with more than one explanation. Does a pile of cigarette butts indicate a long wait or did someone dump several ash trays together? Peanuts in the house of a person who was allergic to peanuts could indicate the killer or the introduction of an unknown visitor.

The more ways that an item can be interpreted, the better the chance that your reader will assume the wrong answer.

Red Herrings Found in Settings

There are several ways that setting can create red herrings. The character may refer to places in passing or as part of an alibi. What will an investigator learn from visiting this location? Make the visit significant. Provide the investigator with opportunities to explore more red herrings. Make every situation significant to either the real clues or the red herring clues.

Your description of a place can generate avenues for leading the reader down the wrong path. Why is it significant that the crime was committed in an urban, suburban, rural, wild, or waterfront? Which individuals would be most comfortable with this environment?

In addition to physical place, setting includes other settings of influence. What time of day did the event occur? Why is that significant? Why might the day of the week the murder occurred be significant? If something usually happened on that day of the week, but on that specific day, the event different happen, the question that might come up would be who had that inside information? Is it possible that the time of the year was significant. For instance, perhaps the murder occurred on a specific date because the murderer wanted to wait until the kids were in school after Christmas vacation so that the children would not need a babysitter.

Perhaps the weather has some significance. Is it possible this particular character would or would not participate in this type of crime because he or she didn’t like going out on a hot day or that on that particular day the area was blanketed with snow. Perhaps a character said that he or she was at a certain location, but was definitely in the town the person claimed he or she was unable to get to. Make every detail you include have many different facets.

Don't Make These Amateur Mistakes

  • Never put anything in the story simply to mislead anyone. If you put a scalpel under the couch to frame a surgeon, you need to explain why the scalpel was found in that location.
  • Don’t use too may red herrings, as this can frustrate the reader, especially if every clue points to a different character. Remember that your reader is reading your whodunit because he or she wants to discover who the murderer is.
  • In the end, if you send the sleuth down the wrong trail and the reader follows, remember not to belittle the investigator because you will belittle the reader as well.

© 2013 Cygnet Brown


Cygnet Brown (author) from Springfield, Missouri on May 10, 2015:

Once I get done writing a who-dun-it, I think that the actual killer seems so obvious from the beginning of the story, but I have learned that it is not that way for the reader.

Molly Layton from Alberta on May 09, 2015:

These are great suggestions! Thank you!

Cygnet Brown (author) from Springfield, Missouri on September 14, 2013:

JayeWisdom, I love watching and reading good mysteries too! Too often though, it does seem as though the least likely suspect is the one who-dun-it. I will definitely have to avoid that mistake as I work on my latest work.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on September 14, 2013:

I enjoyed your pointers about the use of red herrings when writing a mystery story. When I read a mystery novel or watch a movie in that genre, I don't want to catch on to the real murderer too quickly. Since I've been reading mysteries for about 60 years, it takes a good writer to keep me guessing.

If I try to write mystery fiction, I don't want to make the plot too easy for the reader, either. Red herrings, when handled well, can help prolong the mystery right up until the end.

Voted Up++ and shared


Cygnet Brown (author) from Springfield, Missouri on September 14, 2013:

Thanks! Billybuc, I had fun researching this topic for my own mystery! I can't wait to get started on the bit of fiction that I have planned.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 14, 2013:

Great suggestions for any mystery writer. Thank you; I'll definitely hold onto this one.

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