Red Herring

What is a Red Herring?

Red Herring Definition

A red herring refers to a misleading or false clue. Red herrings are used to intentionally create a false trail and/or mislead audiences to prevent them from correctly predicting a story’s outcome before the actual reveal. This phrase comes from an early practice of distracting scent hounds with herring to keep them from pursuit.

Use of Red Herring in Literature

Red herring is a common device found in many literary genres, such as:

Writers utilize red herrings as a way to lead readers to false conclusions or distract them from what is truly happening in the plot. This can create suspense, surprise, and plot twists for the reader, allowing them to engage further with the story.

History of Red Herring

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


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