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What Is a Red Herring in Writing?
In literature, the definition of red herring refers to a misleading, or false, clue. It is a common literary device used in mysteries and thrillers that can lead readers down a false path or otherwise distract them from what’s really going on in the plot.
The red herring device is especially common in mysteries, thrillers, and detective stories, where writers want to keep their reader guessing until the very end. In creating a red herring, a writer often includes details added to purposefully mislead readers and lay a false trail. This prevents them from predicting an outcome. Red herrings are the tricks that lead readers astray and thereby surprise them even more when something is revealed.
A red herring can also be a powerful way to engage a reader’s interest, by hinting at explanations that may not be true. This technique involves getting the reader to believe a false conclusion about the plot. Done well, the reader will feel surprised by the truth and will enjoy the misdirection, having learned something useful about the setting or the characters along the way.
Is A Red Herring a Logical Fallacy?
Red herrings are introduced to divert and deceive readers. Red herrings are examples of informal fallacies, rather than formal fallacies. An informal fallacy means that an argument has a flaw in reasoning rather than logic. All red herrings are examples of irrelevant distractions—not examples of flawed logic.
What Is the Difference Between Red Herring and Other Fallacies?
There are other types of common informal fallacies. Here are two that are most like a red herring fallacy.
- Straw man. A straw man argument is one in which you distort, exaggerate, or mischaracterize your opponent’s stance so that you can create a stronger position for yourself in a debate. Unlike the straw man, a red herring does not distort reality, only misinterprets it. Red herrings are seemingly plausible, but ultimately irrelevant.
- Non sequitur. Making a jump in your argument, so that what you are saying has no connection to what came before it, and is irrelevant. This has most in common with the red herring fallacy—a non sequitur is irrelevant information that can create a distraction, but isn’t pertinent to the issue at hand.
What are the Origins of the Red Herring in Literature?
The journalist William Cobbett is credited with originating the term “red herring” in an 1807 story. Cobbett criticized the press for prematurely reporting Napoleon’s defeat, and compared that act to using strong-smelling, smoked red herrings to distract dogs from another scent. Cobbett was accusing the press of intentionally using a fallacy to distract the public.
Examples of Red Herring in Literature
Authors frequently use red herrings to confuse and surprise readers, or to create suspense. Here are some popular examples.
- Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code. Bishop Manuel Aringarosa is the story’s “red herring.” He is the head of Opus Dei, a controversial Catholic sect. Brown sets up the story to so that it looks like Aringarosa is the mastermind behind all the evil goingson; of course, it turns out someone else was pulling the strings all along. Learn more about the anatomy of thrillers here.
- J.K. Rowling, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry Potter believes Sirius Black is a dangerous criminal and murderer. Slowly, Harry learns that this man killed his parents, and that he is chasing Harry to finish the job. When Harry finally confronts Black, he learns that Sirius isn’t a killer at all. This red herring works because Harry’s perspective is naturally limited by misinformation and the fact that he’s a child—adults don’t trust him enough to tell him the truth. His relief and amazement at discovering that the supposed killer is actually his godfather is shared by the reader.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Final Problem. In this installment of the Sherlock Holmes series, Holmes and Watson are led astray by a note that says that there is a woman in need of a doctor back at their hotel. When Dr. Watson rushes off to help the woman, both heroes discover that the note was sent by their nemesis, James Moriarty. Moriarty sent the note as a red herring, with the intention of getting Holmes alone so that he could face him alone.
- Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None. Christie’s mystery centers on a group of ten people on a remote island, who die one by one in mysterious circumstances. More curiously, their deaths mirror the lines of the poem “Ten Little Indians.” One line of the poem reads: “Four little Indian boys going out to sea; a red herring swallowed one and then there were three.” When someone disappears, the others think that he must be the killer. However, when his body washes up on a beach, they realize that his disappearance was, in fact, a red herring.