A red herring is a technique used in fiction (literature, film and TV) to distract the audience from the main storyline by leading them to believe that an irrelevant detail is important.
The genre that uses this device the most is crime fiction because the story usually revolves around an investigation.
What is a red herring?
The term itself “Red Herring” comes from the fact that hunters used a particular kind of fish (that has a strong odor) to teach dogs how to focus on a prey’s smell instead of getting distracted.
Writers do something similar in storytelling. They show the audience a bunch of plausible (but false) clues in order to make them suspect one individual or make them believe one scenario.
Then, in the end, they reveal at the end that this was actually the “wrong smell” and that the readers should have focused more on the subtle (but real) clues that revealed the real culprit.
Red herring and mystery or crime fiction
Think about any detective story, murder mystery, crime thriller, etc… what do they all have in common? The culprit isn’t revealed immediately.
It’s kinda obvious, right? You can’t write the beginning of a story and then immediately jump to the end.
What would Law and Order be without the two detectives strolling around New York City in their winter coats (‘cause it’s always winter) asking a question to uncollaborative witnesses?
How could CSI make science “cool” without the montages of them working in the lab at the beat of some pop song from the 2000s?
How long would an episode of Scooby-Doo last without the running from door to door, the piling things up in front of doors, and Fred’s plans?
A Red Herring is an excellent way to keep the story interesting while filling the second act of the story.
If the audience wants to know who the culprit is, they’ll follow every possible lead and either fall into the trap, and suspect an innocent character, or smell the herring right away, and focus on other clues that might lead to the solution.
One of the shows that uses Red Herrings the most (and most effectively) is Veronica Mars.
Every episode of the show revolves around an investigation: a client shows up at Mars Investigations and Veronica and her dad work to find the truth.
Because of this episodic format, (and because the cases don’t necessarily revolve around a murder or a crime), the series can explore different aspects of the investigative job and use tropes typical of the crime genre without seeming repetitive or boring.
Here are some typical tropes that fall into the Red Herring category:
1- The Red Herring is a person
In season 1 episode 11, Keith is asked to help the Sheriff’s department to find a serial killer who kidnaps young girls, kills them, and leaves a guitar string around their necks.
The primary suspect is a shady man nicknamed “The worm” who records videos of young girls at clubs without their permission. He seems like the perfect suspect: he has no friends or family, plays the guitar and is obsessed with high school girls.
But he is not the killer, another man, the owner of a guitar store is the real culprit.
It might seem that this plot twist comes out of nowhere, that it is just a gimmick made up to surprise the audience. But if you pay close attention during the episode, you’ll find out that most clues point in the direction of the guitarist.
What we know about the killer:
- he is insecure and hates women
- he is obsessed with guitars
- he brings the girls to a place where no one can hear them even if they scream
Meanwhile “The worm”:
- he appears insecure, but has enough confidence to ask for a lawyer and refuse to talk to the police
- he has a guitar, but there are no evidences of him being a musician
- his hotel room has very thin walls, everything that happens inside can be heard from the outside
Why the guitarist is the real killer:
- the first time Don and Keith visit the guitar store to interrogate him, Don makes a remark about the guitarist hiding insecurity behind his rockstar facade
- he owns a guitar store and is obviously obsessed with music
- he has access to a private soundproof room in his store
2- Prejudice as a distraction
Season 1 episode 9 follows Veronica while she investigates the whereabouts of a schoolmate, Casey, who seems to have joined a cult.
At the beginning of the episode, Veronica is warned by multiple people to not get too close to the cult in question, despite that she decides to follow Casey in the lion’s den.
Later, when she is among the people of the Moon Calf Collective, she tries in every way to “expose” the truth behind the appearances, but the more she digs the less convinced she is that they are a real cult.
The episode concludes with Casey’s parents basically kidnapping their son and brainwashing him into coming back home and keep his 80 million dollar inheritance from his grandmother into the family.
In conclusion, the Moon Calf Collective never was a dangerous cult, but the show was able to make it a Red Herring by using Veronica’s prejudices (and the audience’s prejudices) to cloud her judgment.
3- The villain blames the innocents
Now let’s look at season 1 episode 12, where Veronica is falsely accused of creating fake IDs and has to find the real forger to avoid getting arrested.
Everything starts when a kid of Neptune High goes into a coma after a night of bar crawl, the friend who was with him that night tells Veronica that they were forced into it by a secret society of the school, The Tritons.
Veronica spends the whole episode investigating the society and its members, only to find out in the end that they had nothing to do with the bar crawl that made the student fall into a coma.
It was actually Rick, the friend who was out drinking with him that night who forged the IDs, voluntarily decided to drink with his friend, and lied about the Tritons being involved.
In this case, the Red Herring is created by the real culprit in an attempt to throw off the rails the ones investigating him.
We as audience members end up falling for it as well because we send the entire time trying to solve the investigation when in reality this is not even a real investigation.
A Red Herring is almost always used to distract the audience and prevent them from solving a mystery or a criminal case too early.
It’s the secret weapon of Veronica Mars, which uses it both in the single episode format and in the overarching plot that involves the murder of Lily Kane.