Red Herrings: How To Keep Your Readers Guessing [Mystery Month]

What’s your favorite part about reading a mystery novel?

You want to try to solve the case, right? You want to help the detective, telepathically communicate with the characters and figure things out, yes?

Yeah, me too. That’s why red herrings are so important because it allows the reader to not figure things out.

Or… You know, get them stuck for a little while.

Red Herrings: How To Keep Your Readers Guessing [Mystery Month]

What are Red Herrings?

Red herrings is a something that appears to be a clue, but it’s not. It’s fake and it’s just there to throw the characters off the hot trail. It allows the characters and readers alike to go in different directions as they frustratingly try to solve the mystery.

Red herrings can be in the form of anything:

1. An innocent character – An innocent bystander can have motive and reason to go about the crime allowing your detective to suspect him of being the culprit. Maybe this character is completely innocent or maybe he’s an accomplice, but no one knows he has a boss behind the scenes controlling everything. Or, maybe this character just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

2. A guilty character – Some characters are good at playing innocent or even playing the victim. Maybe the guilty party happened to get “caught,” but they already have a cover story made up and it’s believable. Maybe the detective overlooks the guilty character for a while because he believes the character is innocent.

3. Evidence – Evidence, or clues, can be found anywhere at anytime. If your culprit is smart, he’ll hide them well or not leave anything behind at all (or try not to). Not everything is straightforward so there will be clues that seem to have something to do with the case, but they actually don’t have anything to do with it at all.

Why do you need Red Herrings?

Red herrings perform two tasks for your novel:

  • They add tension and suspense
  • They make the mystery harder, keeping your readers guessing and wanting more

Your readers want to follow along with the case and help the protagonist solve the problem. Giving them red herrings allows the readers to really get invested.

They may feel frustrated that they still haven’t figured it out, maybe they’ll feel disappointed or confused. However, with each “failure” they’ll want more. They’ll say, “I can figure it out this time!”

How do you incorporate Red Herrings?

You add them in like you would with any other clues or characters. You, as the writer, have to pretend that they’re real evidence up until the big epiphany made by your detective.

But remember…

Each red herring must advance the plot somehow. They must have some sort of meaning.

For example, if the victim was stabbed with a knife, don’t throw a sharp object that resembles a knife just for the sake of the detective assuming that was the murder weapon. Instead, throw it in there and explain later that the victim was fighting in self-defense before they died. Later, when the culprit is found, he may have some slight injuries that were made recently tying the weapons together.

Red herrings are fun, but like the actual case itself, they do take some required thinking and careful placement.

How do you use red herrings in your mystery novels? What’s your favorite part about them? Let me know in the comments below!

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