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Have a Red Herring for Supper


Advice Blog 1 Jan 22 by Lorenzo Samuel, author of speculative fiction writings. HAPPY NEW YEAR!! In the 1 Dec 21 issue Advice Blog, I discussed other ways to inform a plot. In this issue of our advice blog, we’ll take up the construction and use of red herrings to legitimately throw your reader off the track in your story, and I will throw in a biscuit or two at the end to start the new year out with a goal for you to achieve, if you wish.


Let’s get started with the definition of red herring. My Websters defines the term as “something used to divert attention from the basic issue.” That’s the second definition. The first is “smoked herring.” Okay, you may throw up your hands and shout, “what do the two have to do with each other?”

An old tale dating from the early 1800s (some call a myth), which persists to this day concerns hunting dogs being thrown off the scent of game by dragging a red herring (herring, having been treated with brine and smoked; smells strongly) across the trail of game. Supposedly, escaped convicts used this device to throw off tracking hounds. Trouble is that a trusted source of the explanation has not been found, and no credible historical record of the practice exists.

The practice of diversion is well established in mystery fiction although it can be used in any writing no matter the genre (also its use is extensive in life). Let’s say the conclusion of the main plot line goes a definite way. In other words, it is too predictable, violating the rule that the ending of the story must be unpredictable and inevitable. The writer may throw in a diversion implying that the conclusion should be such and such, thereby throwing the reader off the trail.

Example from politics: Politician proposes a handling. Opponents of the handling attack the credibility of the politician by accusing him of having an undisclosed affair. The idea is to discredit the handling by discrediting the politician. This is one type off fallacy. The handling may be a correct one but using a red herring (the fallacy) it is discredited.

Example pertinent to writing: The protagonist of the story, before going into a singles bar, slips off a ring from her wedding-band finger and puts it in her purse. This simple action seemingly tells the reader that the protagonist is married, but deceptive, untrustworthy and a liar. Later, it turns out that she is a policewoman. Oh no, do we need such a person in a position of trust? We have going the red herring called a logical fallacy. Turns out she is honest to the core. She is married; however, she is on an undercover assignment where she must appear as a single woman.

Throw your reader off the track by inducing her or him to infer one thing when it’s really another. That is the use of red herrings whether in life or writing. Red herrings, use of, are tricks to make one or more believe something that is not true however plausible it may seem. Most of us live in a red herring world. Try developing a few and you will become a better writer and a more perceptive person.

Okay, here is a biscuit: Write every day if only for 10 minutes. Another: read every day if only for 10 minutes. Sound simple, too easily forgotten? Actually, they are magical, and I give them to you. Trust me. They are not red herrings.


In the next issue of our Advice Blog, we’ll take up outlining and revising your story using a checklist of to-do actions.


Note: The book of short speculative fiction "Eve of Valor: 25 Tales" is available on Amazon. Click here.

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