Red Herring: Definition, Examples & Avoidance Tips
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. What is a Red Herring?
  2. Origin of the term "Red Herring"
  3. How Red Herring works in literature
  4. Examples of Red Herring in literature
  5. How to identify Red Herring
  6. How to avoid Red Herring in your writing

Diving into the world of language and literature could be akin to a thrilling treasure hunt. One minute you're exploring fascinating metaphors, the next, you stumble upon the enigmatic phenomenon known as a "red herring." If you're curious about the definition of red herring, you've come to right place.

What is a Red Herring?

The term 'red herring' sounds a bit fishy, doesn't it? Well, you're not entirely wrong. It's a fascinating concept that's been swimming around in literature for quite some time. Let's break it down.

Definition of Red Herring

Our first stop on this journey is to understand what exactly is a red herring. Simply put, a red herring is a literary device used by authors to mislead their readers. It's a false clue that’s used to divert readers' attention from the real plot or mystery. Think of it as a clever distraction, like a magician's trick, where you think you know where the story is going, but then—poof—you're led astray.

Why is it called a Red Herring?

You might be wondering why such a device is named after a fish. Well, the term "red herring" actually originates from a technique used in fox hunting. Hunters would use the strong-smelling smoke of a dried, red herring to throw hunting dogs off the fox's scent. In the same way, a literary red herring is used to throw readers off the scent of the true plot.

Red Herring in a Nutshell

Imagine you're reading an exciting detective novel. There's a character acting suspiciously throughout the book. You're convinced they're the culprit. But in a stunning twist, it turns out the character was just a red herring, cleverly placed to distract you from the real villain. That's the beauty of a well-placed red herring—it keeps you guessing, keeps the story interesting.

So, there you have it—the definition of red herring in all its intriguing glory. Now that you know what it is and why it's called so, we can explore how it works in literature, and how to identify and avoid it in your writing.

Origin of the term "Red Herring"

Just like any good story, the term "red herring" has its own tale to tell. It's a tale that starts not in the world of literature, but rather in the countryside, with hunters and hounds. It's quite a fascinating journey, so let's embark on it.

The Hunting Practice

Once upon a time in the 17th century, English hunters used a particular method to train their hunting dogs. They would drag a dried, smoked herring fish—which had a strong, pungent smell and a reddish color—along the hunting trail to create a false trail. This was done to improve the dogs' ability to stick to the scent of the fox or hare, even when there were tempting distractions.

From Hunting to Politics

Fast forward to the 19th century, and the term "red herring" started appearing in political commentary. It was used to describe how politicians would often use a distracting issue to divert public attention from more important matters. And that's how the term made its transition from being a hunting technique to becoming a metaphor for distraction.

Entering the Literary Realm

Eventually, authors started using this concept in their works, introducing misleading clues or characters to distract readers from the actual plot. It added an extra layer of intrigue and suspense to their stories, keeping readers on their toes. And thus, "red herring" found its place in the literary world and has been a popular technique ever since.

Now that we know the history behind the term "red herring," let's dig a little deeper and see how it works in literature, shall we?

How Red Herring works in literature

Now that we're all up to speed with the origin of the term "red herring," let's jump into its application in literature, shall we? It's an important part of the storytelling toolkit, used to keep readers guessing and the plot twisting.

Creating Misdirection

Writing a story is a bit like being a magician. Authors often use "red herrings" as a way to misdirect the reader's attention, much like a magician might use a sleight of hand. This can be done by introducing a character, event, or piece of information that seems important—yet ultimately isn't relevant to the main mystery or problem. It's a trick as old as time, but still works every time!

Building Suspense

Another key use of "red herring" in literature is to build suspense. By throwing in unexpected twists and turns, authors can keep readers on the edge of their seats. It's like adding hot spices to a dish—you never know when the next kick is going to come, but it sure makes the meal more exciting!

Developing Character Depth

Did you know that "red herrings" can also be a great tool for character development? That's right! By having a character follow a false lead, authors can reveal more about their personality, beliefs, and values. It's a bit like going on a detour on a road trip—you might not get to your destination as quickly, but you'll see some interesting sights along the way!

So there you have it—the definition of "red herring" in literature and how it works. But how do you spot one? And how can you avoid using them in your own writing? Stay tuned to find out!

Examples of Red Herring in literature

Now that we've understood how "red herrings" work in literature, let's dive into some classic examples. You'd be surprised how often this technique has been used by some of our favorite authors!

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

Remember Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series? For the longest time, he was presented as the villain, with each book adding more fuel to our suspicions. But as it turned out, this was a classic case of "red herring." Snape was not the villain but a hero, and the real villain was hiding in plain sight—talk about a plot twist!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

In Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel "Gone Girl", the husband, Nick Dunne, is painted as the prime suspect in his wife's disappearance. The evidence against him seems overwhelming, leading the reader down a path that points directly to him. However, this is an expertly crafted "red herring" that keeps the reader off balance until the shocking truth is revealed.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, the queen of mystery, also made good use of "red herrings" in her work. In "And Then There Were None", every character appears guilty at some point, spinning a web of suspicion and misdirection. The real culprit is only revealed at the very end, proving once again the power of a well-placed "red herring."

These examples show that "red herrings" can be a powerful tool for creating suspense and surprise in literature. But how do you spot them? And more importantly, how can you prevent them from muddling your own writing? Keep reading to find out!

How to identify Red Herring

Having seen the role of "red herrings" in literature and their impact on the plot, you might be wondering: how can I spot these sneaky "red herrings"? Don't worry, I've got you covered. Here's a handy guide to help you understand and identify "red herrings" in literature.

Look for Suspiciously Specific Details

A "red herring" often comes with a lot of specific, yet irrelevant, details to make it seem more believable. If a character, an object, or an event is described with an unusual amount of detail, it might be a "red herring". So, next time you come across a suspiciously specific detail, remember, it might be trying to mislead you!

Watch out for Misdirection

Another key sign of a "red herring" is misdirection. An author might steer you towards an easy answer or an obvious suspect, only to reveal later that it was a diversion. If it seems like the author is trying too hard to convince you of something, it might be a "red herring".

Be Aware of Timing

A "red herring" often appears just when you think you're about to solve the mystery. It's like a sudden plot twist that throws you off track. If a new piece of information or a new character suddenly pops up and changes everything, it might be a "red herring".

Now, these are just a few tips to help you spot a "red herring" in literature, but remember, part of the fun of reading is trying to outsmart the author! Now let's move on to how to avoid using "red herrings" in your own writing.

How to avoid Red Herring in your writing

Now that you've got the definition of red herring down and can spot them in literature, you might be wondering how to avoid using them in your own writing. After all, while they can add an exciting twist, they can also confuse or frustrate readers if overused. So, here are some tips to help you steer clear of "red herrings" when crafting your own stories.

Stay Focused on the Main Plot

First things first: keep your eye on the main plot. It's easy to get carried away and start adding all kinds of twists and turns. But remember: every detail, character, and event in your story should serve the main plot. If it doesn’t, it might just be a "red herring".

Create Well-rounded Characters

Characters are not just plot devices—they're the heart and soul of your story. By creating well-rounded characters with their own goals and motivations, you can avoid using them as "red herrings". Instead of misleading the reader, let your characters guide the plot in a meaningful way.

Use Foreshadowing Wisely

Foreshadowing can be a great tool for building suspense, but it can also lead to "red herrings". To avoid this, make sure your hints are relevant to the main plot. If a hint leads the reader down the wrong path, it might be a "red herring".

Remember, "red herrings" can be a fun way to add suspense and surprise to your story. But like any other literary device, they should be used with care. Happy writing!

If you found this blog post on red herrings insightful and want to learn more about navigating life's complexities, check out Rabih Salloum's workshop, 'Navigating Life - Part V.' This workshop will provide you with valuable guidance on how to recognize and avoid red herrings in your daily life, making your decision-making process more efficient and effective.