Red Herrings

The topic of red herrings is a big one.  There are a million ways to distract or mislead a reader.

But…

There’s really only one strategy to building a red herring: figure out the reader’s expectations and feed them information relating to that expectation, then sent the plot careening off in another direction.

Reader Expectations

The story you didn't write has to be as interesting as the one you actually wrote.

The real trick is discovering what readers expect.  Part of the reason that it’s so important to keep up with your reading (and watching TV/film, and playing video games…) is that expectations change.  The expectations of someone who watches forensics shows on TV are going to be different than those of a longtime Agatha Christie reader.

But once you’re in front of a blank page, how can you work red herrings into your story? (And do you have to plot it all out ahead of time in order to pull it off?)

Your main weapon, whether you plot as you go or plot ahead of time, is going to be something called Wilhelm’s Law, after science fiction and mystery author Kate Wilhelm:

Throw away your first three ideas.

Now, using Wilhelm’s Law while writing fiction is a good idea in most cases anyway; instead of writing predictable stories, you’ll usually end up with a story that reflects you personally as a writer.  But a side effect of taking in a lot of stories is that those first three ideas will pop out as being what most readers would expect.

Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery and we want to test Wilhelm’s Law.  Who done it?

  • The butler.
  • The significant other.
  • Whoever profits by the crime.

Those first three ideas are something that anyone could come up with, right?

Those first three ideas might make really good red herrings.

Let’s say that the real killer was someone recently humiliated by the victim and “accidentally” didn’t save the victim when the victim fell into a lake while tangled in a rope.  Oops, can’t swim! 

Your job, as a writer, might be to make sure that your story has a butler character who might have done it, a significant other who might have done it, and a scuzzy niece who just happened to have been seen near the scene of the crime (and who is now blackmailing the real “killer” and will get murdered in the last 50 pages of the novel).

You can do this on the fly, editing to make sure that your red herrings actually fit the bill, or you can plan it out ahead of time: whatever suits.

However, you must keep up with your intake of stories!  Otherwise, you may not know that the red herrings and plot twist that you just planned out have already been discovered by other writers and done to death! 

Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice…

There are two ways to deceive the reader using Wilhelm’s Law.  One depends on deceiving the characters within the story, which means the reader will also be deceived (as in our example above). 

The other depends on deceiving the reader without necessarily deceiving the characters.

In the first type of red herring, the POV character might think the killer is one person, but it’s really another.  Characters might lie, leave out details, or shade the truth. The bad guy might not be the real bad guy, but someone else’s puppet.  You can set up red herrings within the plot in lots of ways. 

In the second type of red herring, the way the book itself is written is what deceives the readers.  One example is the misleading title.  One of my favorite books is called John Dies at the End.  Hint:  John does not die at the end!

You might also:

  • Start a story with a prologue featuring events that happen toward the end of the book, but do not happen in the way the reader might expect.
  • Start a story with a POV character who gets killed off right away, or in the middle of the book (George R.R. Martin does both in A Game of Thrones).
  • Set up a cliché, then overturn it (the bumbling housewife in The Long Kiss Goodnight is set up to be rescued by the world-savvy spy Samuel L. Jackson, which is not the case).
  • End a scene by hinting at some event, and starting the next scene with something that seems like that event but isn’t (The Princess Bride, when Buttercup has her nightmare of having already married Humperdink).

Each instance of deception is crafted in the same way: identify what the reader expects, give them a hint to confirm their expectations, and let them deceive themselves.  (Letting readers do most of the work to fool themselves is usually a pretty good strategy.)  But instead of using Wilhelm’s Law on the plot itself, you’re using it on the story structure and other elements.

As an example, let’s say you’re writing a domestic suspense novel.  Readers expect the titles of that kind of novel (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Wife Between Us, Lie to Me,etc.) should:

  • Have a pronoun in the title.
  • Have “girl,” “woman,” or “wife” in the title.
  • Have a one-syllable negative word, like “Lie” “Die” “Sharp” or “Last.”

Those are reader expectations.  If you wanted to play on those expectations, you might name your book “My Daughter’s Last Lie” and imply that she’s dead and the mom is searching for her killer, but instead have the daughter on the run because she told the truth about her (KGB sleeper agent) mother.

Often, what works best is using both techniques at the same time.  There’s a lie within the plot, and you use elements of the story itself to reinforce the expectations related to that lie.              

Warning:  Beginning writers often write stories where the narrator withholds information from readers in a disappointing, cheesy, ill-considered manner.  This is not a proper red herring technique! 

Oh, so the evil invaders from outer space were really humans all along, were they?  Yawn.

Oh, so the first-person narrator dies at the end?  Never seen that before!  Yawn.

But being forewarned is forearmed, because now you know that plot twists and red herrings don’t come from completely reversing reader expectations, but knowing them so well that you can one-up them.

A good rule of thumb for red herring success: 

The story that you didn’t write has to be as interesting as the one you actually wrote.

I know, it sounds weird.  But think of any story with a letdown plot twist.  Personally, I hate the movie Bridge to Terabithia.*  It starts out as a pair of kids imagining a cool fantasy world.  Then (spoiler alert) it turns into a book about death.  The red herring story is much more interesting than the story about coping with death.  The red herring needs to be as interesting as the actual story, too.  You’re not fooling anyone with a stereotyped butler character! 

The thing about red herrings is that they play with reader expectations—but you can’t just overturn reader expectations with a sneer.  Readers need to know that you respect the stories that they love and not just being mean.  What readers love is when you surprise them—not when you show them contempt.

*It feels like the story punishes people who like fantasy over realism in their fiction.  Pooh, I say. 


DeAnna KnipplingDeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com.