- Books, Literature, and Writing
Red Herring – A literary plot device full of suspense
Red Herring is a literary plot device that writers use to deliberately, yet in a very subtle manner try to manipulate the attention of the audience. Red Herring is an extremely potent literary device that can control a viewer's/reader's attention and assumptions about a movie or story. As potent and useful as it may be, this literary device can also mean doom for any storyline if it is not used properly. Let's find out what is Red Herring, its history, uses and examples.
What is the Red Herring literary plot device?
Did you think that writers chug with their pens and keys incessantly as their thoughts flow in a linear pattern? Some lucky ones may do that, but other writers make deliberate use of specific literary plot devices which help them in manipulating the reader's attention. Used explicitly in genres of mystery murders, thrillers, crime and voyeuristic ventures, Red Herring is a literary plot device which allows the writer to insert an object or a person in the story which will distract the reader or viewer from the main subject or culprit of the story. However, this is done only to deceive the audience. Red Herrings are false clues 'planted' in the story to spring an element of surprise, shock, humor or irony later on in the climax.
For example, in a thriller a gun maybe introduced towards the climax around which suspicion is created but turns out to be useless prop in the end. Or a character may be introduced who is believed to be the accomplice but may turn out to be completely innocent. This literary plot device is used to maintain the element of surprise and thrill in storytelling.
The history of Red Herring
Although, there are no confirmed sources of how, when and where the idiom and literary plot device Red Herring originated, it is believed that the seeds of this literary concept were planted way back in the 1800s. One of the many theories behind Red Herring is that is has originated from a technique of training dogs. The red herring fish would be dragged on a certain trail so that the dog could recognize its strong scent and follow it. Hence, when the dog is being trained to chase an enemy, the trainer would drag a red herring perpendicular to the animal's trail to mislead it. But as per its training, the dog would eventually learn to follow the original scent. This became a direct reference to a device which is led to deliberately misdirect the audience only to gain their trust once again in the end of the narrative.
What is the risk of using Red Herring?
Red Herrings as literary plot devices are great when used with discretion but going overboard can completely demean the intellect of an audience and kill the suspense of a movie or story. As a writer or director, if you are or are planning to use Red Herring as a literary plot device in the narrative of your story, you may want to ask yourself these questions and sync them in your storyline.
Is my character not intelligent enough to recognize this false lead?
Is an evil guy striking again at the right time while the hero of my story is busy following the planted clue?
Is my story actually moving forward with the Red Herring plot device or am I simply losing focus with it?
Examples of Red Herring
Interesting examples of the use of Red Herring
In Agatha Christie's novel Cat Among the Pigeons, a series of crimes committed by a particular character lead the readers to believe that he is the killer, but in the end they turn out to be completely unrelated.
Alfred Hitchcock is a master of using the Red Herring literary plot device. Some famous examples are the cigarette lighter in the movie Strangers on a Train, the first Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca and the coded message contained in the piece of music in 'The Lady Vanishes'.
In the horror series movie Saw two characters spend time locked in a room with a third character lying dead in the same place. Throughout the film, both characters are shown to be guilty of a few murders, only to discover later that third person in the room is the real killer and not actually dead.
All the clues planted in the movie What Lies Beneath, were completely unrelated to why the character of Michelle Pfieffer had such strong paranormal beliefs and experiences. The point was to create confusion and mystery for the viewer.
In Agatha Christie's novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the two central characters are shown to hate each other only for the reader to believe that they could never conspire together – which it exactly what the story reveals eventually.
Red Herring trivia
In the book and the film The Da Vinci Code, the misdeeds of an important character called Bishop Aringarosa misdirect the reader/viewer's attention from the real villain throughout the narrative. Did you know that they makers deliberately called him Aringarosa because it literally means Red Herring?
Edgar Allan Poe has used the Red Herring in many of his short stories. In fact, many movies make clever use of Red Herrings by deliberately using a popularly known villain actor in a movie so that all of the viewer's attention is directed towards him/her. But the real culprit turns out to be someone completely different!