Red Herrings in Writing

Red Herring talks

A red herring is a diversionary tactic. In a mystery, a red herring can be a character, an object, a significant time, day, week, year, weather, or place. It appears to be a clue, but it’s a logical implication that leads readers on a false trail. The key is logical. Writers don’t use them only to mislead the reader. The red herring has to have importance in the story but not for the reason the reader suspects.

In my multidimensional novel, Norman in the Painting, I use a tray in an antique store as an object that the protagonist and reader think is the object that draws Norman out of the painting. A few chapters later, a minor character proves the tray is not significant in Norman’s appearances. It was a logical object because it has a Norman Rockwell scene on it and Norman is a typical Rockwell figure.

As I progress to the eleventh chapter, and being a pantser, I have to plan for at least one, maybe two red herring characters. I don’t like to plot, but in a mystery, I have to do some pre-planning. I’ve set up some possibilities. Arctarius, Jack, or a criminal that committed a recent murder are feasible. Each of those characters has importance in the plot. I didn’t put any of them in the story merely to mislead the reader. However, my problem now is to find their possible reasons for committing the past and the future murders. At this point, the protagonist suspects Arctarius or the criminal. To her, Jack is annoying, so he’d be the least one to suspect. He’d be a good red herring.  Trouble is, I don’t have a clue what motive to assign to him. Since he wants to be more than a minor character, maybe he’ll come up with one and then I’ll be surprised too.


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For over twenty-five years, I've taught elementary grades, high school, and county special education classes. Now I am a field supervisor for teachers working toward their teaching credentials. I also teach writing classes in Dublin and Pleasanton, California. I have won 5 awards in short story contests, My stories are published in The California Writers Club Literary Review, and several anthologies including four times in Las Positas College collections. I have several book projects, but the two that have my immediate attention are HADA'S FOG, which is women's fiction, LILLI, a YA novel, and NORMAN IN THE PICTURE, a paranormal mystery. I have published an anthology WRITTEN ACROSS THE GENRES that includes writings from members of my writing classes and other writers. It's available on Amazon and Kindle.

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