Self-Editing Tip #20–The Red Herring

26 Aug

Ok, guys. I promised on Friday that today’s discussion would continue the composition-related tips. Let’s talk about the good ol’ Red Herring principle. Like Chekhov’s Gun, this topic deals with the motivation behind including details in a piece of text. However, while Chekhov’s Gun is inherently good in its intentions—advising writers how to follow up on details—a Red Herring is more mischievous. It might be something you want to avoid for genres outside of mystery/detective or action/suspense/drama.

The label is used to describe two instances. The first is a more general situation not limited to literature: the logical fallacy. The logical fallacy is something you’ll want to avoid no matter what you’re writing. Check your text. You’ve got one if, whether intentionally or accidentally, the premise stated never truly supports the proposed conclusion. As a literary device, non sequiturs do this to the extreme as a comedic tool. Non sequiturs in logic are similar in that the conclusion does not logically follow the support given beforehand, but in logic, the goal is not humor.

Ex. You’ve got so many books in your office! I bet the trashcan gets full quickly.

As a literary device, a red herring is a purposefully misleading detail that distracts from the true plot point or conclusion and, therefore, leads readers to believe x,y, or z is different than it is.

Ex. You tell your readers that Joe is dead. They stop wondering if he was the killer. All the while, the killings continue. The readers don’t realize yet that Joe isn’t dead, he is the killer, and he has continued killing under the cover of his “death.”

This would be a great use of the Red Herring concept. When written in a way that improves suspense, shock, or mystery there’s nothing wrong with misleading readers a little. It just needs to be done within a genre that can support that type of trickery, and done in a way that enhances, not irritates. And remember, confusion is not the same as mystery!

There are so many real-life variations of the red herring, wild goose chase, and other similar plot distractions named after wildlife. Check out the Chewbacca Case and Cherry Picking if you’d like to know more. I can’t list them all.


Happy deceiving!


–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast


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