Have you ever watched a movie and felt completely confident you knew who the culprit was, only to be left speechless by a shocking twist? Or perhaps you devoured a season of your favorite show, only to realize a seemingly pivotal clue was nothing more than a clever distraction?

These are the hallmarks of the red herring, a storytelling technique that thrives on misdirection.

Today, we're going to go over the term, look at examples and tropes, and talk about why you should use them in your writing.

Dive in, if you dare. Did you hear about the teens that dove in last summer? I wouldn't dive in if, if I were you...

Red Herring Definition

Red Herring Definition

Game of Thrones


A red herring is an element in a story that deliberately misleads the audience (and sometimes the characters themselves) by diverting attention away from the crucial issue at hand. The expression has become a cornerstone of storytelling, employed across cultures and genres.

Tropes and Characteristics of a Red Herring

Tropes and Characteristics of a Red Herring

North by Northwest


Red herrings are more than just plot devices; they are testaments to the power of storytelling itself. By skillfully leading us astray, they enhance the payoff of the big reveal.

However, the most effective red herrings don't merely deceive; they leave us feeling satisfied even though we were misled. As viewers, we enjoy the intellectual challenge of deciphering the narrative puzzle laid before us.

Filmmakers utilize a diverse arsenal of techniques to weave red herrings into their narratives.

Here are some common tropes:

  • The Misplaced MacGuffin: Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, frequently employed the "MacGuffin," a plot device that drives the characters forward but holds little intrinsic value. In North by Northwest (1959), microfilm containing government secrets is the MacGuffin, but a series of red herrings, like mistaken identity and a chase across Mount Rushmore, keep the audience guessing about its true nature.
  • The Convenient Witness: A seemingly credible witness emerges with a bombshell piece of information, only to be revealed as unreliable or part of a larger conspiracy. This tactic is used in The Usual Suspects (1995), where a mysterious informant, Keyser Soze, becomes a central focus despite his ambiguous existence.
  • The Hidden Motive: A character suspected of wrongdoing might possess a seemingly obvious motive, leading the audience down a false path. In Gone Girl (2014), the husband's infidelity paints him as the prime suspect in his wife's disappearance, but a web of hidden motives from other characters unfolds as the story progresses.

The History of the Red Herring

The phrase "red herring" has a surprisingly literal origin. The actual red herring is a type of fish cured and smoked, giving it a reddish color and a particularly pungent smell.

It is believed, though the theory is unsubstantiated, that these strongly scented fish were used to train scent hounds, teaching them to ignore distractions and follow the true prey.

In the early 1800s, English journalist William Cobbett popularized the term in its now commonly known figurative sense.He compared the practice of using red herrings to distract dogs to the way misleading information in the press could divert attention from important matters.

From there, the phrase took on a life of its own, becoming synonymous with false leads. It's a popular tool in mysteries, keeping readers guessing, and now "red herring" is used in various contexts to describe something that intentionally misdirects.

Why Use Red Herrings in Film and TV

Why Use Red Herrings in Film and TV

The Usual Suspects


Red herrings go beyond simply misdirection. They are a versatile tool that filmmakers can use to build suspense, develop characters, explore themes, and create a more layered and engaging viewing experience.

Here's some reasons to use them in your writing:

  • Building Suspense: We explored how red herrings keep us guessing, but they also heighten suspense by raising the stakes. Imagine a detective film where the protagonist stumbles upon a seemingly clear suspect. The tension builds as they chase this lead, only to discover it's a dead end. This throws the investigation into disarray and makes us question everything we thought we knew. This kind of whiplash keeps us glued to the screen, desperate to find out the truth.
  • Character Development:We mentioned how red herrings can reveal a character's flaws. Let's expand on that. The pursuit of a red herring can expose a character's impulsiveness, naivety, or even hidden biases. For example, a detective fixated on a specific suspect might overlook crucial evidence due to their personal beliefs. This not only adds complexity to the character but also makes them more relatable, as we see them grapple with the limitations of their own judgment.
  • Thematic Exploration: Red herrings can be powerful tools for exploring complex themes. Let's say a film uses a red herring that revolves around a character's mistaken identity. This could be a metaphor for the difficulty of truly knowing someone or the dangers of stereotyping. By leading us down a path based on false assumptions, the red herring forces us to confront these broader ideas.
  • Adding Layers and Complexity: A well-placed red herring can add depth and richness to a story. It prevents the narrative from being a straightforward A-to-B journey and creates a sense of mystery that keeps us engaged. Imagine a seemingly simple whodunit where a red herring throws suspicion on a character who appears unconnected to the crime. This sudden twist forces us to re-evaluate everything we thought we knew about the plot and characters.
  • Keeping the Audience Engaged: Red herrings are a way to actively involve the audience in the storytelling process. They challenge us to think critically, analyze clues, and form our own theories. This active participation makes the viewing experience more rewarding, as we feel a sense of accomplishment when we correctly predict a twist or identify a red herring.

How to Spot a Red Herring

How to Spot a Red Herring

How I Met Your Mother


A well-crafted red herring should be both believable enough to misdirect and surprising enough to elicit a gasp of realization when the truth is unveiled.

It's a delicate balance, and when executed with precision, it leaves a lasting impression.

The best red herrings force us to think critically, not just about the story but also about our own biases and assumptions.

Be a Keen Observer:

  • Pay attention to detail: A crucial aspect of spotting red herrings is meticulous observation. Filmmakers often plant subtle clues within seemingly insignificant details. These details might later be revealed as red herrings or hold the key to the real culprit/solution. For instance, a character might make a seemingly offhand remark that becomes crucial evidence later, or a seemingly unimportant object in the background might hold a hidden message.

Question Everything (and Everyone):

  • Motive Matters: Don't take characters at face value. In a well-crafted mystery, everyone is a suspect. Scrutinize every character's motivations and actions. Does a character's behavior seem inconsistent with their established personality? Are they withholding information? A character with a seemingly obvious motive might be a red herring designed to divert attention from the true culprit.

Be a Genre Guru:

  • Genre Awareness: Consider the film's genre and thematic concerns. Different genres often have established tropes and red herring patterns. For example, a sci-fi film might use a red herring that revolves around a seemingly alien threat, only to reveal a more human conspiracy at the core. By understanding the genre's conventions, you can anticipate potential red herrings and identify inconsistencies in the narrative.

Look for Inconsistencies:

  • Plot Holes and Logic Gaps: Red herrings can sometimes create inconsistencies within the story's established logic. Pay attention to plot holes or moments where information seems to contradict itself. These could be signs that the narrative is leading you down a false path.
  • Beyond the Obvious: Not all red herrings are blatant attempts to mislead. Some are more subtle, designed to plant seeds of doubt without completely derailing the narrative. Be alert for seemingly unimportant details or character interactions that feel slightly off-kilter.

Enjoy the Journey:

  • The Thrill of the Chase: While spotting red herrings can be satisfying, it's important to remember that the journey is part of the fun. Don't be afraid to get swept away by the story and enjoy the process of unraveling the mystery, even if you don't always predict every twist.

Red Herring Examples in Film and TV

Red Herring Examples in Film and TV

The Departed

Warner Bros.

Red herrings are a storyteller's secret weapon, keeping audiences guessing and adding layers of intrigue to narratives.

We've explored the "why" and "how to spot them," now let's delve into the captivating world of "what" with some iconic red herring examples in film and television:

  • The Mandarin in Iron Man 3: Throughout the movie, Tony Stark is pitted against The Mandarin, a seemingly powerful terrorist. However, it is later revealed that The Mandarin is a complete fabrication, played by an actor to distract Stark from the real villain, Aldrich Killian.
  • Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: For most of the film, Sirius Black is believed to be the escaped convict who is after Harry Potter. However, it is eventually revealed that Sirius is innocent and that the real villain is Peter Pettigrew, who had been hiding in plain sight as Ron Weasley's pet rat, Scabbers.
  • Knives Out: Harlan Thrombey's death at the center of this whodunnit is initially believed to be a suicide. The entire family appears to have secrets, motives, and shady actions that make them seem like potential suspects. This keeps the real circumstances of his death, and the identity of the culprit, a mystery until the very end.
  • Billy Loomis in Scream: In the horror movie Scream, Billy Loomis is one of the first characters to be seemingly killed by the Ghostface killer at the party. This leads the audience to believe that he is a victim, however, it is later shockingly revealed that Billy is actually one of the Ghostface killers.
  • Dottie in WandaVision: In the Disney+ series WandaVision, Agnes, Agatha Harkness's neighbor, is initially suspicious and seems to know more than she lets on. The audience is led to believe that she might be a villain or somehow involved in the strange goings on in Westview. However, it is later revealed that Agnes is just a normal citizen who was caught up in Wanda's reality warp.
  • Usual Suspects: The entire premise of this movie is built on the seemingly unreliable narration of Verbal Kint. The audience is fed information about the mysterious Keyser Söze, only to discover a major twist where the true nature of Kint's character and the events of the film are completely different.
  • Pretty Little Liars: This whole show is basically a masterclass in red herrings. Each season has multiple characters who appear to be the mysterious "A" tormenting the main characters. Clues are dropped, motives established, and suspicions heightened – only to have a different "A" reveal at some point.
  • Lost: This sci-fi mystery series was full of unexplained events and bizarre plot points, making nearly every element seem like a potential clue. The enigmatic "Others" on the island and the mysterious experiments of the Dharma Initiative led viewers down so many rabbit holes before the core mysteries were finally addressed.
  • Game of Thrones: With its complex political machinations and shocking character deaths, Game of Thrones loved to throw viewers off-balance. Characters seemingly destined for heroic roles might commit shocking acts of betrayal, while those positioned as antagonists might later reveal hidden depths. This made predicting the outcome of power struggles especially difficult.
  • How I Met Your Mother: The entire framework of this sitcom is essentially a long-winded red herring. Ted spends multiple seasons telling his children the story of how he met their mother, introducing various girlfriends and potential partners. While the audience expects a grand, romantic reveal, the identity of the mother is more nuanced and bittersweet than initially anticipated.

These are just a few examples of how red herrings have shaped the world of film and television. By cleverly weaving misdirection into narratives, storytellers keep us on the edge of our seats, and the thrill of uncovering the truth becomes an integral part of the viewing experience.

The power of the red herring isn't just about fooling us; it's about immersing us more fully in fictional worlds where nothing is quite as it seems.

Let me know what you think in the comments.