Smell something fishy? It's probably a Red Herring.
Ever gotten to the big reveal of a movie and wondered to yourself, “How did we get here? How on Earth did I miss that huge clue?” Well… it’s probably because the writer used a tried-and-true plot device called a Red Herring.
Let's dig into this very popular plot device, exploring what it is, where it came from, and how you can use it to write better screenplays. But first...what's a plot device?
More Plot Devices: Everything You Need to Know About MacGuffins
What is a Plot Device?
Plot devices are storytelling techniques writers can use to move the plot of a story forward in some way.
So, What Exactly is a Red Herring?
Not a fish, that’s for sure! There’s actually no such species, so the name of this plot device is itself a bit of a Red Herring.
In storytelling, a Red Herring is a false clue. It’s anything that misleads or distracts from the larger question or mystery at hand.
The mystery, thriller, and horror genres have always been rife with Red Herrings, but nowadays you could work one into any kind of story to distract from a big reveal or revelation. In fact, Red Herrings can be used within a story to mislead the characters or by the writers themselves to mislead the audience.
A Red Herring can be just about anything — a character, a piece of information, a physical object, an event, or even an element of the filmmaking. And it doesn’t matter if the use of the Red Herring is intentional or unintentional; if it misleads, purposefully or not, it’s a red herring.
Why Red Herrings Work
Red Herrings are a bit like magic tricks — they work best when you don’t realize what’s really going on.
Magic tricks are all about misdirection. While the magician is prompting you to look at something shiny in his left hand, he’s carefully hiding the multi-colored scarf up the sleeve of his right. Red Herrings function on the same level, distracting characters from the larger questions or prevent audiences from predicting the outcome of the story. If you don’t notice them until it’s too late, that means they’re working well.
Much like Chekhov’s Gun, Red Herrings hinge on expectations. Unlike Chekhov’s Gun though, Red Herrings don’t require a payoff. So, if the Red Herring is a gun and it distracts you from the actual weapon (which is a knife), it never has to be fired for the plot device to be used effectively.
The History of Red Herrings
False leads started to become known as “Red Herrings” in the early 1800s when an English journalist named William Cobbett used the term to compare the media’s premature reporting of Napoleon’s defeat to the practice of using smelly fish to distract hound dogs from chasing rabbits.
But while Cobbett gets credit for the origin of the term itself, authors and storytellers have been using false leads to surprise audiences since they started telling stories in the first place. Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used Red Herrings in their mystery stories, and the technique, like most, made the jump to film in the 20th century.
Red Herrings are still alive and well (albeit sometimes smelly) at the movies, although the Golden Age of Television saw a new application of this plot device — serialized television shows are full of red herrings used to stretch and enhance plotlines or coax viewers into watching another episode.
Now that you understand how Red Herrings should function within a story, let’s take a look at how they’re used in a few popular films.
**Shouldn’t have to say it given this topic, but there are spoilers ahead**
Red Herrings in Psycho
Hitchcock loves a good Red Herring — for stories, not for dinner, of course! And Psycho is full of ‘em.
The first Red Herring is the money Marion Crane steals from her boss. Not only does the plotline about the stolen cash lead to a dead-end in the middle of the movie (with Marion dead in a bathtub), but Norman Bates unknowingly lets it sink to the bottom of a swamp when he disposes of Marion’s body. The money is ultimately unimportant, serving only to distract the audience from the bigger question about what’s really going on at the Bates Motel.
Norman’s “mother” also serves as a Red Herring, as do the non-diegetic screeches of violin that put the viewers on high alert.
Red Herrings in Frozen
Animated movies often feature Red Herrings (in part to make the story interesting for the adults in the audience), but 2013’s Frozen took things up a notch with a Red Herring within a Red Herring within a Red Herring. Or, as you might call it, Red-Herring-Ception.
When Elsa accidentally hits Anna with some of her magic, the trolls reveal that only “an act of true love” will stop Anna from turning to ice. Naturally, everyone (audience included) believes this means that Anna must get Prince Hans to kiss her because, you know, true love’s kiss solves all.
But… Red Herring Reveal… Hans isn’t Anna’s true love! He’s actually the movie’s villain! This means that the weaselly Duke of Weselton was also a Red Herring.
Anna realizes she loves Kristoff, so she sets off to smooch him instead when she sees Hans about to kill her sister Elsa. So she jumps in front of his sword just as the curse is complete, and turns to ice.
And… Red Herring Reveal Number 2… Anna immediately thaws out because the real “act of true love” was in her sacrificing herself to save her sister.
Other Examples of Red Herrings in Movies and TV Shows
- 12 Monkeys: The Army of the 12 Monkeys
- Get Out: Racism
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Sirius Black
- Scream: Billy getting stabbed
- Saw: The "reveal" that Zep Hindle is Jigsaw
- Big Hero 6: Alistair Krei
- The Sixth Sense: Malcolm helping Cole with his "dead people" problem
- WandaVision: Dottie
- The Usual Suspects: Basically Verbal's entire testimony
- Blade Runner 2049: K being the "Chosen One"
- Captain America: Civil War: The Winter Soldiers
How to Use Red Herrings in Your Story
Modern audiences are savvy and can sniff out obvious Red Herrings faster than a hound dog chasing a rabbit. But that doesn’t mean this plot device can’t be incredibly useful if employed in a smart, original way.
Bake Red Herrings into Your Plot
Not literally, of course. No one wants stinky fish in their stories. All this means is that any Red Herring should be essential to the story itself. If you took the Red Herring out, the story should completely fall apart. Otherwise, why include it in the first place?
Use Every Part of the Fish
By which I mean, it’s necessary to understand the difference between withholding information and misleading attention. Writers must employ Red Herrings to divert the audience or characters’ attention, not use them to intentionally leave out crucial information. Remember that a satisfying ending is one that could have been pieced together sooner if only the clues had been seen in a different light.
To Fish, Or Not To Fish
Red Herrings can be used on purpose or by accident. A writer cannot control what every audience member perceives, and therefore must realize that some details may be construed as Red Herrings upon viewing.
Intention doesn’t matter with Red Herrings — if it looks like a Red Herring and smells like a Red Herring (i.e. if it’s distracting), it’s a Red Herring. Do you think Christopher Nolan intended for that spinning top in Inception to be a giant, perplexing, still-talked-about-ten-years-later Red Herring? No. But that’s what happened.
Red Herrings are a staple of the mystery, thriller, and horror genres, but can be found in just about any kind of story. If you need to distract your characters or audience, grab a stinky scarlet fish and get to work!
Check out our other plot device breakdowns from this series here!
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.