The Gift of Red Herrings

Every birthday as I’m handed gifts and cards from my loved ones, I get excited! My favorite part is the element of surprise of what’s in the bag. I’m not one that usually dives right into the gift. I examine everything. The bag, the color of tissue paper, if the bag rattles, or holds a distinct smell. I love the experience of watching people’s reactions as I open the presents, and let the gift linger in my hand for a minute so I can process the thought behind it. I love the whole thing.

When you’re writing suspense or mystery, your job as the writer is to give the reader this beautiful gift—your story. You provide little snippets or clues as to what’s in the present that you’re protagonist is about to open and dive in to. We call these beauties red herrings.

What is a Red Herring?  It’s a narrative element put in place to misguide readers, leading them to false conclusions. Its purpose is to divert attention away from the object or person of interest. This makes the element of surprise that much more exciting as the book comes to a conclusion.

One of my favorite games is Clue. Each character has red herrings by giving them all a motive. They’re given an object or weapon, and they have completely different character traits that stand out from one another. Some characters visibly don’t get along, while others pretend to play nice and they’re all placed together for a lovely party at Mr. Boddy’s mansion. And that’s when things get tricky. The lights go out and everyone is a suspect. Who’s actually using the weapon of choice for protection, or to kill everyone out of the game?

Let’s take this one step at a time. First, we have our characters. They all have something to possibly gain from the crime, leading the reader to question all of them. Which side are they on? Who are they playing against and who are they collaborating with? A lot of times the reader thinks they know what’s going on behind the story, only to be thrown the ultimate reveal far from what they expected.

Next, we have setting. If a character is being questioned, they need a place as an alibi. What might the investigator learn as he goes to check out the location?  Who would be most comfortable in that setting or environment? Is the time of day, the weather, or the time of year important to the case? Is it a coincidence that three females, living one block from each other, all were abducted at exactly 11:00 a.m.? Make the reader question the significance of where the crime took place also.

Now, we need objects. You can play with objects that appear in the scene or ones that don’t. What does the investigator see at the crime scene? What doesn’t he see? Who accidentally, or on purpose, left a gold ring next to the victim’s favorite book? Is it symbolic that the gold ring was placed by something the victim held so dear? Maybe upon close investigation, page thirty five was torn from the book. How does that tie into the case and who removed the page? Who would have motivation to do so?

Example: A glass of 2% milk is half full at the victim’s apartment. Doesn’t seem like a big clue, but what if the investigator searches her kitchen further and sees cartons of soy and coconut milk in the fridge and pantry. Maybe she’s lactose intolerant. Who was the person who visited her house drinking the 2% milk and were they the killer? If not, why did they flee?

Example: Sally is opening a lovely gift only to have a balloon pop. She diverts her attention to the balloon and before she knows it, her package goes off. It’s a bomb.

Word of caution is if you bring in an object or a character as a red herring, you must come back to it shortly after you introduce it or them into your story.

Pretend you’re Mrs. Scarlet or Mr. Green, and it’s your birthday. What gifts might you open to help direct you to solve the crime? Or what little treats may be your ticket to hiding your true identity?
Have fun bringing in those red herrings to make your reader question every part of the mystery you’re unfolding on the pages for them!


Lauri Schoenfeld’s first love is her little clan of three silly kidlets and her wonderful hubby, Andy. Writing is a close second. She began writing poems at the age of nine, and her love for literature and music developed into composing thirty songs.  In 2014 her short story, Christmas Treasure, was featured in an anthology called, Angels from their Realms of Story.  Her favorite genre to write is anything dark, psychological, and suspenseful, but she enjoys expanding her horizons and dipping her feet in other genres as well.  Lauri teaches summer writing classes for kids and mentors teens throughout the year. She’s a Child Abuse and Scoliosis Survivor. Lauri runs a group for teen girls with Scoliosis called, The S Squad. Their motto is Strength, Support and Self Confidence.  She’s been known to dance around the house with a spoon as her microphone and sneak toppings from the ice cream bar. Lauri’s taken online classes at the Institute of Children’s Literature and was the President of the League of Utah Writers, Oquirrh Chapter for two years.  She’s a member of Crime Writers and International Thriller Writers.