Welcome to another edition of The Editor’s Corner. Let’s fish around and see what kind of devices we can reel in here: red herrings.
Okay—enough with the puns. I know you didn’t come here to laugh and/or roll your eyes at my punderful style.
What is a red herring?
A red herring, in literature, is a distraction technique that you will see mostly in thrillers, mysteries, and suspense. They catch the reader’s attention and lead them away from what’s actually going on in the novel.
Some red herrings are obvious and can be spotted by seasoned mystery readers. For example, in The Da Vinci Code, the Bishop Aringarosa is a red herring designed to lead the reader to believe that he is the criminal mastermind when he is innocent. A reader of mysteries with loads of experience might raise their eyebrow at that name. The direct translation of aringa rosa in Italian is “red herring.”
For many mystery readers, this was an eye-rolling moment. For beginners, it likely got them hooked on mysteries for a lifetime.
It’s important to have your red herrings be a little more subtle in order to have the reader stay engaged.
There are a couple ways to accomplish this:
- Make your culprit seem like a red herring. You can do this by exposing the culprit at the beginning, but the culprit has a good distraction of his/her own that throws your protagonist off the main trail, and into a bunch of other red herrings, only to be brought back to the culprit in the end.
- Put in more than one red herring and make sure your culprit is obfuscated somewhat in the beginning, only to reveal he/she has been there all along.
This is not a copy editor’s pro-tip. This is from a developmental editor’s perspective. If your editor can spot your red herrings too quickly, they’ll mark up the manuscript and typically advise you to change it around.
And here you thought I was a copy editor all along.
See what I did there?
But in all seriousness, if you are tackling a mystery or thriller, a few red herrings can delight your readers as they try to unravel the mystery in front of them.
We’ll go back to copy editing and then hop back to other devices in the next installments.
Until then, happy writing!
Horror fans who know Cthulhu devours red herrings as an appetizer and enjoy Lovecraftian horror with a twist can find their way to Silver Hollow.