Narrative Techniques Series: #20 Red herring

Narrative Techniques Series: #20 Red herring

We have come to the end of the journey in our Narrative Technique Series. We conclude with a very special technique, the Red herring, which has nothing to do with herring.

However, you may have frequently come across this red herring in books or films. What is it? We explain it below.

What is the Narrative Technique of Red herring?

Red herring occurs when a clue or information is inserted into the narrative deliberately to distract attention from other elements. For example, in a mystery book, an innocent person is presented as guilty, using wrong clues and ambiguous words.

The term was popularised in 1807 by the English polemicist William Cobbett. It seems that the expression “Red herring” derives from the custom of English hunters. Cobbett told a story about using a strong-smelling smoked fish to divert and distract dogs from chasing a rabbit.

Red herring: purpose and uses

The purpose of red herring is to mislead the reader or viewer to what is really going on. In this way, it allows the culprit to pass as innocent. At least for a few moments until they are unmasked.

It is hard to use this technique. The author has to be able to play it cleverly with the perception of the plot and the characters.

They have to lead the reader to believe that the truth is another. This inevitably leads to a final twist, when the reader realizes what really happened and that the author has only diverted his attention during the narrative.

It is, therefore, a challenging technique to use but very useful. It manages to complicate the plot of the story and at the same time create that climax that turns into the final twist.

Examples of the Red herring Narrative Technique

Agatha Christie‘s books often use a red herring to distract the reader from the real culprit.
In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the reader is led to believe that the two main characters hate each other, but this turns out to be a way of hiding the fact that they have conspired to kill someone.

In cinema, we can find this element in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, where characters and things turn out to be anything but what the viewer expects them to be.

One of the most modern examples of red herring found in books and, consequently, in films is Harry Potter. Particularly about the character of Snape. It is only at the end of the Harry Potter saga that we learn that all along, Snape has been doing nothing but trying to watch over Harry, protecting him on more than one occasion.

From the tip of his wand emerged the silver doe: it landed on the office floor, made a leap and dived out of the window. Dumbledore watched it fly away and when its silver glow faded he turned to Snape, his eyes filled with tears. “After all this time?” “Always,” Snape replied.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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The Red herring is that element that misleads the reader, making them believe that things are different from how they are presented. This technique is as difficult to use as it is useful. It distracts the reader and creates the perfect environment for the final twist. Only there, you discover that you have only been misled all along.

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