Definition of Red Herring
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.
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.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.
Authors frequently use red herrings to confuse and surprise readers, or to create suspense. Here are some popular examples.
Famous Examples of Red Herrings in Movies
Examples of Red Herring in Literature