Red herring

In the past, hunters used a small fish called herring and smoked it, turning it red and releasing a pungent smell. This strong-smelling red herring was used to train and test scent-tracking dogs. The powerful odor would lead the dogs off track from the target scent they were supposed to follow.

In short, the red herring was a clever trick to distract hunting dogs from following a scent. Over time, this practice became a metaphor for diversion and distraction.

In storytelling, the red herring technique is used to divert attention from the main topic or a plot twist by introducing false or misleading information to the audience.

The red herring device is especially common in mysteries, thrillers, and detective stories, where writers want to keep their readers guessing until the very end.

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 prevents them from predicting an outcome or they will reach a false conclusion about the plot. If done well, the reader will feel surprised by the truth and will enjoy the riddle you have set out for him.

For example:

  • In the psychological thriller “Fight Club” – David Fincher employs red herrings to misdirect the audience regarding the true nature of the relationship between the film’s two main characters. The film plays with our minds, making it tough to guess what’s really going on until the big reveal!
  • In “Shutter Island”- Martin Scorsese skillfully employs red herrings, misdirections, and psychological twists that keep the audience on edge. The main character’s grip on reality is challenged, and the line between truth and illusion blurs, leaving viewers guessing until the final revelation.
  • And in Alfred Hitchcock’s: “Psycho”, the character of Norman Bates is initially presented as a shy and mild-mannered motel owner. As the plot progresses, the film introduces several red herrings that lead the audience to suspect other characters as potential killer. These false leads keep the audience guessing until the shocking revelation of Norman Bates’ true identity as the psychotic murderer.

It is important to use the red-herring technique wisely to enhance the storytelling experience and keep viewers guessing and engaged in the plot. Because, if not executed well, it can result in confusion causing disinterest in the audience. The key is to strike a balance between providing misleading information and not overdoing it.