Should Your Mystery Include Red Herrings? Let’s Solve This.

Abi Wurdeman
November 22, 2023

For mystery readers, the scariest part of the story is the confrontation between the detective and a cold-blooded killer. For a mystery writer, however, the red herrings are the terrifying part.

What if your red herring leaves the reader feeling betrayed? What if your misdirections drag the story way off-course? What if it’s eye-rollingly obvious that you’re trying to mislead your audience?

Isn’t it safer to just skip the red herrings and let the reader piece together real clues?

Not if your definition of “safe” includes writing a successful mystery novel. Sure, red herrings come with plenty of potential pitfalls. But this story element is absolutely crucial in mystery writing. It’s the secret to keeping your readers engaged, curious, and surprised.

It’s also not as hard as you might think. Once you master a few tricks and rules, you’ll know how to craft red herrings that draw your audience in without making them feel like they’ve been hoodwinked. In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why your mystery story needs red herrings
  • Different forms of misdirection
  • Where to place misleading clues within your narrative
  • Common pitfalls to avoid
  • How to balance red herrings with true clues

But first…

A Disclaimer

This article contains examples that massively spoil popular mystery books and movies. You’ll know when one is coming because you’ll see “SPOILER” followed by the title in bold. Go ahead and skip to the next section if you’d prefer.

What’s a Red Herring?

Two long-haired dogs sniff the grass.

A red herring is any piece of information that distracts readers from true clues by leading them down an incorrect path.

A red herring is not a lie. It’s not the author withholding information that the detective knows, deliberately leaving the reader in the dark. It’s simply artful misdirection.

It might help to think of the supposed (but possibly not accurate?) origin of the term. The story goes that folks used to train hunting dogs by dragging pungent red herring across a fox’s trail perpendicularly to teach the pups to stay with the more subtle scent they were supposed to be tracking.

It’s the same idea with your mystery. The trail is still there. You’re not hiding or eliminating it. You’re just giving readers something smellier to follow.

What’s the Purpose of a Red Herring in a Mystery Novel?

A red herring makes the crime harder to solve… for both your readers and your detective. And because mystery readers assume you’re going to use this misdirection device, they get to enjoy it as another layer to the puzzle, approaching each clue with a critical eye. 

A Quick Trick for Misdirection in Mystery Novels

We’re about to discuss all the fun ways you can toy with your readers’ sense of truth in your mystery story. But everything we’re about to discuss boils down to this:

Whoever committed the crime needs to have had the means, motive, and opportunity to pull it off.

Means - They had access to the type of weapon and/or resources used and were physically capable of following through with the wrongdoing.

Motive - They had a compelling reason to commit the crime.

Opportunity - They had a chance to pull off the dastardly deed.

Every red herring either suggests that an innocent character had the means, motive, or opportunity or gives the reader reason to doubt that the guilty character had all three.

Pretty simple, right? Let’s explore how this might manifest in your mystery story. 

Types of Red Herrings

What follows is not an exhaustive list of all possible red herrings, so don’t feel limited to these strategies. These are just some of the most common (and utterly delightful) red herrings out there.

Incriminating Evidence

Most people think of this first when they try to devise a red herring. The detective uncovers a clue that makes an innocent character appear undeniably guilty. For example…

SPOILER – Knives Out: Harlan’s nurse, Marta, accidentally kills him by mixing up his medications. Then, at the will reading, it’s revealed that Marta inherited his entire fortune, raising suspicion among his family. 

What’s brilliant about this is that we in the audience believe we’re in the know. We know the family is right to eyeball her, but the supposed motive is a red herring. But wait! It’s later revealed that someone else tampered with the medications to frame Marta.

We saw her inject Harlan with our own eyes, and even that evidence turned out to be a misdirection.    


The Motive Reveal

This is when your detective learns something about a character that suggests they might have a darn good reason to go after the victim. Maybe the sleuth learns that the victim owed someone a ton of money or was having an affair and their lover’s spouse found out.

The Airtight Alibi

In this scenario, the guilty character is quickly dismissed as a suspect because they clearly didn’t have the opportunity. They were otherwise occupied at the time of the crime, and they’ve got witnesses to prove it.

In mysteries that use this red herring, it often turns out that the perpetrator either collaborated with someone else or managed to plant a misleading clue at the crime scene. That brings us to:

Crime Scene Assumptions

Your detective and readers will often take the crime scene at face value. But what if the person died in a different location and were brought to this one? What if that gunshot wound wasn’t the real cause of death? What if this person wasn’t even the intended victim?

SPOILER – Chinatown: Hollis is found drowned in the reservoir, which leads both the detective and audience to suspect officials at LA Water and Power, who would have access to the crime scene and a believable motive.

Turns out, the location of the body is a red herring. Saltwater found in the victim’s lungs proves that, while he was maliciously drowned, it didn’t happen at the reservoir.


The Inkling

Your detective might have a bad feeling about someone, even as the clues seem to exonerate this character. And readers trust your protagonist, so they’ll keep a watchful eye on that suspect, too.

Just know that if you plan on writing this particular red herring, you have to pay it off with a reason for the inkling. If that character is innocent of the crime, they should at least be connected to it or guilty of something else.

The Likeable Perp

Mystery readers learn to suspect just about everyone in a story, but you can still throw them off the scent with a character whose guilt would be too disappointing to imagine. Your villain might have a reputation for kindness or—worse—be someone your detective feels a connection to.

SPOILER – Poker Face, “Time of the Monkey”: In this episode, Charlie befriends two rebellious women in a retirement home. They tell her about their youth of social protest with a spirited defiance that reflects Charlie’s own powerful sense of justice and love for the underdog.

It’s no wonder it takes her longer than usual to see the murderers right under her own nose.


Where Should These Red Herrings Go?

An investigation board with photos, maps, and clues.

There’s no rule on the correct way to distribute red herrings throughout your story. It all depends on your strategy.

Do you want to plant clues at the crime scene that send your sleuth down the wrong path? Maybe you want to drop a misleading bombshell in close proximity to true evidence to throw your reader off the scent.

Also consider how red herrings can increase tension and suspense. Can you stress out your detective with a clue that casts suspicion onto someone they trusted or sends them searching for answers in a dangerous place?

When most writers ask where they should place red herrings in their novel, what they really mean is, “How can I do this without making my readers feel manipulated?”

To answer that, let’s talk about how not to handle this mystery device.

Common Pitfalls

Here are the rookie mistakes you should try to avoid as you write your story:

Back-to-Back Red Herrings

To be clear, it’s fine for your detective to have two or more incorrect theories in a row. You won’t meet your word count if they get it right on the second try.

The trouble happens when you plant an entire series of clues that all immediately lead nowhere. That makes the reader feel like there’s no point in trying to solve this case because the evidence is all meaningless.

Make sure there are a few true clues among your red herrings. And let some of the information your sleuth collects linger for several scenes as unanswered questions. 

Only Planting False Clues

Red herrings allow you to play fair while still duping your readers. By mixing the meaningful with the incidental, you allow them to at least attempt to identify the important clues and put the puzzle together themselves.

Barely Mentioning the Perp in the Story

It’s totally chill to throw your readers off the scent with a solid alibi. But they will revolt if your strategy for getting them to dismiss a suspect is to make the murderous mastermind a distant cousin who’s referenced once or twice in passing.

Case Studies

Now let’s take a look at some killer red herrings from some of my favorite mysteries. All of these contain SPOILERS, by the way. Proceed with caution.

Only Murders in the Building, Season Three 

Soon after famous actor Blen Glenroy is murdered, Oliver finds a seemingly incriminating scrapbook in the apartment of his lover, Loretta. It appears she has some sort of obsession with Ben, hoarding media images of him in this one little book. The spiteful way she talks about him only raises more suspicion, until Oliver and the rest of the Only Murders crew discover the shocking truth:

Loretta is the biological mother of Ben’s adopted brother, who’s in the background of all the photos in her scrapbook. The book isn’t evidence of murder, but of a mother’s love—a theme that ultimately points the way to the true killer. 

The Man Who Died Twice

This is a great example of directing the reader’s suspicion away from the killer. Poppy doesn’t come off as someone who’d be capable of murder. She’s a sweet, fumbling, would-be poet who seems to have just stumbled into spy work. (This might be suspicious in other books, but this author places quirky characters in weapon-wielding professions all the time.)

She also “dies” early in the book, which would be a nasty trick if the viability of faking one’s own death hadn’t already been established earlier in the story.

The lesson here is to go ahead and raise an eyebrow any time a character perishes in a way that disfigures their face.

A Haunting in Venice

Everybody says Alicia was murdered by angry ghost children. Hercule Poirot doesn’t buy that story and sets out to find the true killer. But as he begins to experience ghostly visions and voices only he can hear—and as more seemingly impossible deaths occur—the audience can’t help but wonder if some supernatural elements might be at play.

Nope. The killer was just slipping him hallucinogenic honey to mess with his sense of reality. It happens.


Perfecting Your Balancing Act

I’m hoping that by now, you feel a little more confident about working red herrings into your own novel. But I’d like to leave you with just a few final tips for striking the perfect balance between true clues and clever misdirects.

Keep Moving the Story Forward

Just like in every other genre, mystery novels should keep steadily chugging towards the climax. It’s okay for your detective to chase the wrong clue, hit a wall, and get frustrated.

But are you still building tension and raising the stakes? Does your protagonist have other, meatier clues to keep puzzling over?

Never Leave the Reader Behind

Your readers should always know what the sleuth knows. Don’t let them ruminate on a red herring only to learn that the detective silently ruled it out twenty pages ago.

Let Dabble Help

Dabble has a ton of features that make the mystery writing process way easier… or at least more organized. We even have an entire guide and template showing you how to make the most of this tool as you write your whodunit.

But one feature that’s amazing for keeping track of both real clues and red herrings is the Plot Grid

A Dabble Plot Grid for a mystery novel.

In one quick glance, you can check your balance of real clues and misdirection to make sure all those surprise plot twists are well and fairly earned.

Not a Dabbler? No problem! You can try it for free right this very minute by clicking this link—no credit card required.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.