Red herring


A red herring is a detail of the narration that serves to drive the reader’s attention away from an object or an event. This element is prevalent in thrillers and detectives. Authors use this literary tool intentionally when they want to add some suspense and make the reader jump to false conclusions. In literary pieces, a red herring can take numerous forms. It can be presented as a false clue, a deceiving reasoning, or even as a separate character. 

The term’s use was first noticed in the English language somewhere between the 13th and 15th centuries. Its roots are believed to be connected with hunting dog training. In order to distract the dogs and teach them to focus on only one scent they were supposed to track, huntsmen used the fish known as red herring since it has a very distinct smell. However, there’s no certain proof, so linguists still debate over the “hunting dogs” theory. 

Oftentimes, a red herring is confused with another linguistic tool that is prevalent in detective pieces as well as thrillers. It is called foreshadowing. This device implies numerous techniques the writer uses to give a hint concerning the future events in the narration. Foreshadowing is a very versatile tool that can take many forms. It can involve metaphors, intentional fallacies, and so on. Yet, it should be distinguished from the red herring, as these two linguistic devices serve for various roles. While foreshadowing is implemented to provide some additional (or background) information, red herrings serve to divert the reader and even confuse them. Still, in some cases, foreshadowing is employed in order to mislead the reader, concerning future events. In this case, the technique of foreshadowing might also be called the red herring. 

In literary pieces, the most prevalent reason to use red herrings is to draw the reader’s attention away from a certain subject and the actual truth about it. This is a very effective tool when the author intends to introduce an unexpected turn of events. A red herring can also come in handy when the writer wishes to create some sort of suspense.

Red herrings can be employed in order to stir feelings and add more tension to the plot. This comes in handy in detective pieces and allows the author to keep the reader in suspense. Meantime, the reader develops investigating skills when trying to figure out the truth.

Some authors use a red herring in an interesting form – the character’s reasoning, i.e. when the hero doesn’t have enough evidence or a proper explanation concerning his or her argument. This way, the author allows him- or herself to explore more creative possibilities: the writer might illustrate that proof and explanation later or introduce the real hero or event that was hiding behind the red herring.

The illustration of red herrings may be found in real life as well. For instance, it’s a trick that politicians oftentimes use to avoid unpleasant questions. When referring to another issue instead of directly answering a question, politicians distract the public and the media representatives and draw their attention to something else.

Literary pieces, especially those that belong to the detective genre, have numerous red herring examples. For instance, the famous story “And Then There Were None” by A. Christie features a classic example of this literary device. Here, the characters die one by one and no one can figure out who the killer is. However, when only 4 heroes are left, one of them disappears and becomes the major suspect in the eyes of the remaining people. This is a clear example of red herring use when the writer deceives the characters and the reader to reveal the unexpected truth later, when the body of the missing person washes up onshore.

In “The Da Vinci Code”, the author introduces the red herring in a very witty way. One of the characters, Bishop Aringarose, is presented as if he were the center of a conspiracy. However, the reader finds out later that the real villain wasn’t Bishop Aringarose. Moreover, the name of this character itself gives a hint concerning his role in the narrative: Aringarose is the name of the term in Italian (“rose” translates as “red”, and “aringa” is “herring”).

Charles Dickens uses a red herring in one of his works, “Great Expectations”, not to divert the reader and not to create the suspensive tension but to introduce an unexpected turn of events, which is especially shocking for the main hero, Pip. The red herring is presented in the form of Pip’s real benefactor, the escaped convict. This way, the author manages to stir Pip’s feelings and create a dramatic atmosphere.

The Summary
A red herring is a specific detail of the narrative that serves to drive the reader away from the major object or the truth of the plot. It is an intentional fallacy, which can occur in different ways, including a character’s reasoning, a hint, or a certain hero of the story.

Red herrings are most prevalently used in thrillers and detective works. They help the author add the suspense, keep the reader in tension, draw their attention away from the major idea, stir their feelings, or introduce an unexpected turn of the plot.