Red Herring and the Art of Distraction

What’s a Red Herring? Sounds like a fish, right? But what would that have to do with a blog about creative writing? Keep reading to find out!


A Red Herring is a distraction in a piece of writing. The name is based on a tale about hunting dogs getting distracted by the smell of smoked herring. The fish shows a distinctive red colouring after being smoked. This story by William Cobbett made the term popular in 1807.

This idiom’s purpose is to set the reader on the wrong track. It distracts from important information and leads the readers to a wrong conclusion or answer to a question. A given information is too prominent compared to other bits of information which makes is seem more important. Why would the author explain something over more than one line and make it unimportant? The answer is easy: To distract the reader. This can lead to more suspense towards the end and a more dramatic moment of surprise for the reader. Although the readers have the right information to not get surprised at the end, they are most likely to come to a wrong conclusion because of the Red Herring. This makes the ending of a story seem like a plot twist. Red Herrings can also be used in political debates to divert from unwanted questions.


As already said, a Red Herring can be used to avoid questions that people don’t want to answer. This happened in a debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. They were asked how they will limit the availability of assault weapons. Both used Red Herrings in order to not answer the question. Obama talked about detecting violence before it gets uncontrolled and Romney focused on the importance of good schools. Both are good topics but neither of them answered the question posed.

An example of a Red Herring in literature is the Bishop Aringarosa in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vince Code. He was the center of a conspiracy theory at the core of the plot. However, the bishop himself had been fooled by the real villain. For some people, this is a very obvious Red Herring as the bishops name is the Italian translation of Red Herring.

There are many other examples of Red Herrings in stories. Almost all detective stories use it to keep up the suspense. In many cases, not only the readers get distracted but also some of the characters. This makes the Red Herring more believable and easier to add into a story. Even in movies this trick is used to fool the audience.

How to use it in your story

Now that you know what a Red Herring is, you can easily add it to your story. In order to do this successfully, you need to plan when you want to introduce the Red Herring and when you want to expose it as a trap. Some writers don’t like planning their story but you should at least know what your Red Herring will be and how it fits into your plot. You can make the Red Herring a very important part of your story or just add a Red Herring in a side story. You can even have more than just one in your story!

However, you have to be careful to not make it too obvious. Yes, sometimes an obvious Red Herring can be fun for the readers but many think it is annoying if the author tries to fool them over several pages. It makes it a bit uninteresting to read because they already know it will turn out as a distraction. A way to have an obvious Red Herring but still make it interesting is by making an important character of your story fall for the trick. Depending on how you write the story, this character could look naive, stupid or even very innocent for being fooled by an obvious Red Herring.

Writers often use Red Herrings without even knowing they do. It is very likely that you already have one in your story but you just added it as part of your plot. Try to find the Red Herrings in your story and check if they aren’t too obvious. There are some common Red Herrings that appear in many stories and the readers already know them. An example of a common Red Herring would be an openly evil character that should distract from the friendliest character who ends up being the real villain. This can still be a nice story but if you want an unique plot, try avoiding Red Herrings that you’ve seen in many other stories already.

Adding a Red Herring to your story is easier as it sounds and you’ve probably already done it without knowing. However, you need to make sure that you’ve also added the important information. The Red Herring should just distract from it, but not replace the truth. That means you have to write about both but make the Red Herring seem more important!

That’s it! Now you know what a Red Herring is and how to use it in your story. Have fun with that knowledge and use it wisely.

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