Writing the red herring

Red herrings are an essential part of crime and mystery stories.


Mystery and suspense writers value the challenge of creating a red herring, a clue designed to deceive and mislead the characters and readers.


  1. For the writer, developing a red herring takes time and imagination.
  2. For the protagonist, discovering the real culprit requires skill and insight.
  3. For the reader, absorbing details becomes a challenge of wit.


Incorporating a red herring into a plot isnt a series of misunderstandings that label the protagonist as ill-equipped to investigate a crime. Instead, the technique adds an additional level of complexity for an unpredictable story.


Solving a crime

The following ten tips will help the writer successfully create a red herring.


  1. Incorporate the red herring character into the fabric of the story. The technique isnt an add-on when the plot lacks tension, stress, and conflict.
  2. The red herring is an innocent character who has motive to commit a crime, while the real culprit has nothing established pointing to his involvement.
  3. During the investigation, clues arent easily achieved and are obtained in a deductive manner.
  4. The findings are unexpected, and indicators point to the innocent character.
  5. Establish an antagonistic setting that works against the red herring. Be selective of where scenes take place. For example: the character frequents the same coffee house as the victim. Perhaps an argument took place there.
  6. The red herring may or may not have a plausible alibi. For example: the innocent character may be afraid and lie about his whereabouts during the time of the crime or request another character vouch for him. The investigator discovers the ruse, adding more indications of guilt.
  7. Sensory perception has the power to persuade. For example: a distinct smell is detected at the crime, and the scent is associated with the red herring.
  8. Its natural for other characters and readers to assume the red herring is responsible. The investigators have worked hard to establish his guilt.
  9. At the climax, the investigator evaluates statements, evidence, body language, and tangible items that move the case in a different direction. This character reveals insight regarding the guilty character that others or readers may have overlooked.
  10. Stop sign! Dont purposely mislead or deceive the reader. A red herring is believable based on credible evidence.


Red herrings are an essential part of crime and mystery stories. How are you creating a maze of evidence in your writing?


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, and a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers.


DiAnn is passionate about helping other writers be successful and speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. She and her husband live in sunny Houston. DiAnn is very active online and loves to connect with readers on social media and at diannmills.com.