What Is a Red Herring? Definition & 20+ Examples

Ever found yourself thrown off track in the midst of a gripping whodunit, suspecting one character, only to have your assumptions turned upside down? Welcome to the intriguing world of “red herrings.”

As a literary device, a red herring masterfully leads you on a captivating journey of misdirection, keeping you guessing until the very end. Its job is to distract, to tease, to make the plot more enthralling.

So, buckle up, dear reader, as we dive into the labyrinth of red herrings, and unravel the art of the perfect misdirection!

Defining Red Herring

A red herring is a term used to describe an argument or piece of information that distracts or misleads you from the main issue or topic. It derails your train of thought, making you question or focus on other things rather than concentrating on the core subject matter.

This tactic is frequently used in debates, discussions, and even storytelling, intentionally or unintentionally, to divert attention away from the crux of the matter. The term “red herring” comes from the old practice of dragging a smoked herring fish across a trail to throw hunting dogs off the scent.

When you encounter a red herring, it’s crucial to recognize it and bring the conversation back to the point at hand. Understanding the red herring concept will help improve your ability to analyze arguments, discern relevant information, and strengthen your critical thinking skills.

Origin of Red Herring

Our modern lexicon is peppered with phrases that, when examined closely, reveal fascinating journeys from literal to metaphorical. One such phrase is “red herring.”

Today, it’s commonly used to denote a misleading clue or a clever distraction, particularly in literature and debates. But did it always have this meaning? Let’s journey through time to trace the origins of this intriguing term.

Our story begins in 17th-century England, but not with mystery or misdirection. Instead, it begins with fish. Not just any fish, but a herring cured and smoked until it acquired a reddish hue and a particularly pungent aroma.

This “red herring” was popular in English meals. Its strong scent and distinctive taste are hard to ignore. Yet, at this point in history, the term had no ties to the concepts of deception or misdirection.

As we move into the 18th century, the humble red herring took on an unusual role. It was used to train hunting dogs, particularly those hunting foxes. The cured fish was dragged across a trail to create a diverging path, and dogs were taught to stick to the original scent rather than being distracted by the enticing smell of the herring.

This was the red herring’s first step into the world of misdirection, albeit in a canine context.

The next critical shift in the use of “red herring” came in the early 19th century, thanks to the sharp pen of English journalist William Cobbett. In his critique of the press, Cobbett described how journalists were often drawn away from important political issues by sensational yet unimportant stories.

He compared this distraction to the use of a red herring to divert hunting dogs from their trail, solidifying the phrase’s metaphorical usage in public discourse.

From then on, “red herring” became a commonly used metaphor for any form of misdirection or distraction, particularly in literature and debates. It’s a testament to how language evolves and adapts over time, taking on new meanings shaped by society’s changing needs.

Functions of Red Herring

Red Herring Distorts Reality

In mystery and suspense genres, a red herring functions to distort reality, confusing both the characters within the story and the audience engaging with it. By presenting false clues or misleading information, it causes you to question your assumptions and reevaluate the situation.

This confusion adds depth to the storytelling process, as well as increasing the intrigue for the audience.

Red Herring Serves as A Plot Device

As a literary device, a red herring can serve as a useful plot device in storytelling. By incorporating red herrings into the narrative, drives the story forward and keeps the reader invested in the outcome.

You, as a writer, can use a red herring to distract from the main plot or create unexpected twists that keep the audience on their toes and eager to discover the true resolution.

Red Herring Builds Suspense

Incorporating a red herring into a story enhances the overall suspense by creating a sense of uncertainty. As a reader or viewer, you are constantly anticipating the next revelation and trying to piece together the clues, but the presence of a red herring keeps you guessing.

This intentional misdirection pushes the suspense to a higher level, making the eventual reveal all the more satisfying.

Red Herring Enhances Characters

Red herrings can add layers to characters by revealing hidden motives or unexpected character traits. By presenting characters as possible suspects or accomplices, it helps to flesh out their backstories and create a more complex dynamic between them.

Furthermore, the presence of a red herring may also challenge your perception of the protagonist, making them reconsider their stance and ultimately leading to character growth.

Red Herring Stimulates Critical Thinking

The use of red herrings can encourage critical thinking and active engagement with the story. As you navigate through the twists and turns of the narrative, you learn to question what may appear to be true and avoid taking things at face value.

This not only enhances your analytical skills but also allows for a deeper appreciation of the complexity of the story being presented.

Characteristics of Red Herring

Red Herring Incorporates Misdirection

A key feature of the red herring is its use of misdirection. As you encounter a red herring in a story or argument, you’ll find that it diverts your attention away from the core issue or intended path.

This misdirection can lead your thoughts or focus to irrelevant information, which in turn, can make the task of finding the truth or reaching a conclusion more challenging.

Red Herring Presents Plausible Alternatives

Another characteristic of a red herring is that it presents plausible, yet ultimately irrelevant, alternatives. These alternatives can appear quite convincing, making it even more difficult for you to discern their irrelevance. This manipulation tactic is often employed in debates and storytelling to confuse or mislead.

Red Herring Is Unexpected

Red herrings typically appear unexpectedly, catching you off guard and increasing their effectiveness as a distraction. You may not even realize you’ve been sidetracked until later after you’ve spent significant time and effort on the false lead.

This unexpected nature of red herrings makes them a powerful tool for creating plot twists or misdirection in various situations.

Red Herring Is Not Immediately Recognizable

One of the reasons red herrings might be so pervasive is that they’re not immediately recognizable. The subtlety involved in employing a red herring allows it to blend seamlessly into the flow of conversation or narrative.

In many cases, you may not even be aware that a red herring has been introduced into a situation, making it even more difficult to recognize and avoid misdirection.

Red Herring Is Pervasive

Red herrings are found in various fields and contexts, including literature, politics, and media. In each of these domains, red herrings serve as a means to either intentionally obscure the truth or deliberately create confusion.

By understanding the pervasiveness of red herrings, you can become more vigilant in detecting and overcoming them in your daily encounters.

Elements of Red Herring


Misdirection is a key aspect of red herrings. As a writer, you need to divert your audience’s attention away from the main issue. To do this effectively, introduce a seemingly relevant but ultimately unrelated piece of information.

By focusing on this new matter, your readers become distracted, allowing you to conceal the true solution or explanation.


A successful red herring should be plausible, making it more likely for your audience to accept its validity. By creating a believable scenario or argument, your readers become more easily distracted.

To do this, ensure that the red herring you introduce has a reasonable connection to the topic at hand, even if it is not directly relevant.


Concealment is essential when incorporating a red herring into your work. To effectively use this technique, you must hide the real solution or explanation from your audience so that their focus remains on the red herring.

This requires you to remain discreet and subtle, planting clues throughout your story or argument that will only become clear once the red herring has been revealed.


When using a red herring, it is crucial to catch your audience off guard. Choose a moment when they least expect it to introduce the false lead. By catching them by surprise, you make it more difficult for your readers to notice that they have been misled.

This increases the chances that they will follow the red herring rather than attempt to uncover the truth.


Ensure the red herring is well integrated into your work. As a writer, it is important that the red herring feels like a natural part of the story or argument without sticking out. By seamlessly incorporating the red herring, your audience is less likely to suspect that they have been misled.

Keep these elements in mind while using red herrings in your writing to effectively misdirect and engage your audience.

Types of Red Herring

Character-Based Red Herring

In a character-based red herring, a story presents a person or group as the likely suspect, drawing your attention away from the true perpetrator. Deceptive behaviors, personality traits, or connections can be used to create suspicion and distract you from the main plotline.

Clue-Based Red Herring

A clue-based red herring uses seemingly crucial evidence to mislead you. This evidence might link a character to the crime, suggest an incorrect sequence of events, or establish false motives. By placing emphasis on these misleading clues, you can be led astray from the actual resolution.

Plot-Based Red Herring

In a plot-based red herring, an entire subplot may be designed to divert your attention from the primary plotline. This subplot often appears essential to the main story but ultimately leads to a dead end or resolves in an unexpected manner, revealing itself as a distraction.

Dialogue-Based Red Herring

Dialogue-based red herrings rely on conversations, statements, or exchanges between characters to create misdirection. These may include misinterpretations, fabrications, or exaggerations that mislead you into forming erroneous conclusions about the narrative.

Thematic Red Herring

A thematic red herring uses the story’s themes, motifs, or symbols to deceive you. By emphasizing certain elements, the narrative can subtly direct your focus away from important pieces of information, encouraging you to make assumptions that conflict with the true resolution.

Examples of Red Herring in Literature


"The Hound of the Baskervilles" by Arthur Conan Doyle 

In this Sherlock Holmes mystery novel, you are led to believe that the mysterious hound is a supernatural creature, only to discover it is a red herring meant to divert your attention from the true villain.
"The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown 

Throughout the novel, you are led to believe the character Sir Leigh Teabing is a trustworthy ally when he is actually the mastermind behind the plot - a red herring to mislead both characters and readers alike.
"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn 

This best-seller introduces multiple red herrings as you try to uncover the truth behind Amy's disappearance. You are led to suspect her husband Nick when, in reality, Amy staged her own disappearance.
"Murder on the Orient Express" by Agatha Christie 

As you follow detective Hercule Poirot’s investigation, various red herrings are presented throughout the novel, causing suspicion to shift from one passenger to another on the train.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson 

As you delve into the mystery of Harriet Vanger's disappearance, the novel presents false leads and red herrings that lead you to suspect one family member after another, obscuring the real perpetrator.

Short Story

"The Adventure of Silver Blaze" by Arthur Conan Doyle 

Here, a critical clue—the dog not barking—is deemed insignificant, but it ultimately reveals the true culprit, showing that the initial red herring misled both readers and characters.
"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs 

You’re led to believe that a magical monkey's paw can grant wishes, while it ultimately serves as a red herring obscuring the story's true message about the consequences of tampering with fate.
"Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl 

You're made to believe that the police will uncover the murder weapon during their investigation, when, in reality, the red herring distracts them from discovering it is the leg of lamb Mary had served them for dinner.
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson 

You are led to believe that the tradition of the lottery is a positive event, but as the story unfolds, you realize that it has been a red herring masking the town's brutality.
"The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell 

You’re introduced to General Zaroff as a civilized man, a red herring that distracts you from the truth: that he is a sadistic hunter seeking human prey.


"Othello" by William Shakespeare 

In this tragedy, the character Iago plants multiple red herrings to manipulate Othello's actions, successfully leading him to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful.
"Deathtrap" by Ira Levin 

Throughout the play, you’re presented with a series of red herrings that keep you guessing who will survive and who is the killer, creating tension and suspense.
"An Inspector Calls" by J.B. Priestley 

Inspector Goole is a red herring, diverting your attention from the family's moral shortcomings and allowing you to focus on the apparent reason for his visit: investigating a young woman's suicide.
"Twelve Angry Men" by Reginald Rose 

During the trial, many red herrings are introduced to sway the jurors' opinions on the defendant’s guilt, leading to contentious debates as they struggle to separate fact from fiction.
"The Mousetrap" by Agatha Christie 

In this classic murder mystery play, you’re given various red herrings that lead you to suspect different characters. Christie masterfully manipulates your perception of the events, keeping the true murderer's identity a surprise until the very end.

Examples of Red Herring in Pop Culture


"The Usual Suspects" by Bryan Singer 

In this classic thriller, the mysterious character Keyser Söze serves as a massive red herring. As you try to unravel the true identity of this criminal mastermind, you're led down several false paths before ultimately realizing the truth.
"Psycho" by Alfred Hitchcock 

The master of suspense uses the character of Norman Bates' mother as a red herring. You are led to believe that she's the one behind the gruesome murders, only to discover that Norman himself is the true killer.
"The Others" by Alejandro Amenábar 

In this dark, atmospheric film, you're constantly left guessing who is haunting the family's home. The servants are presented as potential culprits, but the true haunting entities are revealed in an unexpected twist.
"The Sixth Sense" by M. Night Shyamalan

The film continuously portrays Dr. Malcolm Crowe interacting with various characters which leads the audience to believe that he is alive. This is a red herring, as the climax reveals that Dr. Crowe has been dead all along, and only the young boy who "sees dead people" can interact with him.
"Scream" by Wes Craven 

The iconic slasher film keeps you guessing at the identity of the masked killer. Several characters are presented as potential suspects, including Sidney's boyfriend and father, creating tension and suspense by employing multiple red herrings.

Television Series

"Twin Peaks" by David Lynch and Mark Frost 

In this surreal TV show, the murder of Laura Palmer generates numerous red herrings. You're introduced to several possible culpable characters, keeping you guessing at the true killer's identity.
"Lost" by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, and Damon Lindelof 

Throughout the series, different characters and storylines are introduced as potential answers to the island's mysteries. These red herrings add to the show's enigmatic nature and keep you puzzled until the end.
"The X-Files" by Chris Carter 

In this iconic sci-fi series, FBI agents Mulder and Scully regularly encounter mysterious happenings and phenomena. Many episodes incorporate red herrings that make you question what is truly happening before revealing the truth.
"How to Get Away with Murder" by Peter Nowalk 

This legal drama often uses red herrings to keep you guessing about the true perpetrator of various crimes. As you follow the story, new evidence and alibis often challenge your initial assumptions, adding suspense to the show.
"Westworld" by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy 

In this science-fiction series, several plotlines and characters are developed in ways that lead you to question their true intentions or significance. Red herrings are employed to mislead you about the direction of the story and create riveting plot twists.

Impact of Red Herring on Literature

Red Herring Enhances Plot Development

Red herrings can greatly contribute to plot development by creating intentional distractions for both the characters and the reader. These cleverly placed false clues can lead to a more complex and intriguing storyline, allowing for surprising resolutions while helping you, as the reader, to draw connections and make educated guesses.

Red Herring Stimulates Reader Engagement

Incorporating red herrings into a story can keep you actively engaged, urging you to decipher the truth from cunningly disguised falsehoods. As you ponder about the plot and its various elements, you become mentally invested in the narrative, looking forward to each chapter and plot twist.

Red Herring Facilitates Unpredictable Twists

The use of red herrings enables authors to craft truly unpredictable twists and turns in their stories. By setting up false leads and diverting expectations, red herrings cultivate a sense of wonder and anticipation that makes it difficult for you to predict the actual outcome, providing a more satisfying reading experience.

Red Herring Adds Layered Narratives

Red herrings supply depth and layers to a story, creating disparate threads of intrigue that converge in unexpected ways throughout the narrative’s progression. This complexity encourages you to perceive the story from multiple perspectives, revealing the author’s deft hand in weaving together seemingly unrelated plot elements.

Red Herring Amplifies Narrative Tension

Red herrings can effectively amplify narrative tension by leading you through a labyrinth of doubt and suspense. As you collect the clues presented in the story, you grow more immersed in the unfolding events, experiencing profound curiosity and heightened emotional investment in the outcome.

Recognizing and Combating Red Herrings

A red herring is a misleading or irrelevant piece of information that distracts from the main topic under discussion. To effectively recognize and combat red herrings, it’s important to understand their various forms and techniques.

Identify Irrelevant Information

Pay attention to the arguments or details presented. If something doesn't seem to pertain to the key issue, it could be a red herring. It's essential to stay focused on the main topic and not allow yourself to be sidetracked.
Understand Logical Fallacies

Red herrings often involve logical fallacies, which are errors in reasoning that can detract from the validity of an argument. Familiarize yourself with various types of fallacies, including ad hominem, strawman, and slippery slope, to better spot red herrings in discussions.
Ask Clarifying Questions

If you suspect a red herring, don't hesitate to ask questions that clarify the connection between the potentially distracting information and the main topic. It could help reveal whether the argument is actually relevant or a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the central issue.
Restate the Main Topic

To keep the focus on the key issue, reiterate the main topic being discussed. This helps to reinforce what's important and helps bring the conversation back on track if it has wandered due to a red herring.
Stay Calm and Collected

When encountering red herrings, it's essential to remain composed. By staying level-headed, it's easier to address and refute red herrings while maintaining a constructive and focused dialogue.

By following these guidelines, you’ll be better equipped to recognize and combat red herrings in various situations, ensuring that your discussions remain focused and meaningful.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are red herrings considered a negative aspect of a story or debate?

Not at all! While they are a form of misdirection, red herrings aren’t inherently negative. In storytelling, they enhance the narrative by adding intrigue and suspense.

In debates or arguments, while they can be used to divert from the main point, identifying a red herring can strengthen critical thinking and debate skills.

Is a red herring the same as lying?

No, a red herring isn’t the same as lying. While both involve a form of deception, a red herring is a distraction from the truth rather than a false representation of it. In storytelling, it’s a device to enhance the narrative; in debates, it’s a tactic to divert the argument.

How is a red herring different from a plot twist?

A red herring and a plot twist are both narrative devices that can add surprise to a story. However, a red herring is specifically designed to mislead or distract the audience, while a plot twist is an unexpected development in the story that changes the direction of the narrative.


The term “red herring,” with its roots in literal fish and hunting practices, has swum a long way into the depths of literature, film, and debates. Its role as a tool of misdirection adds layers of complexity and intrigue to narratives and discussions. It challenges us as readers, viewers, and thinkers to question, probe deeper, and not accept everything at face value.

So the next time you’re engrossed in a mystery novel, watching a thriller, or navigating an argument, look out for the red herrings. They might just lead you down a fascinating path of unexpected turns and enlightening revelations.

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Aerielle Ezra is an enthusiastic student of architecture who has a wide range of interests, including psychology, lifestyle, and relationships. Apart from her studies, she also likes to engage in athletic activities, particularly volleyball. When she is not playing, she spends her free time watching her preferred sitcoms or reading her favorite books, which include fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.