Wednesday, August 22, 2018

10 Tips for Writing the Red Herring

by DiAnn Mills @DiAnnMills

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

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

Incorporating a red herring into a plot isn’t 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.

The following 10 tips will help the writer successfully create a red herring.
  1. Incorporate the red herring character into the fabric of the story. The technique isn’t 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 aren’t 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 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. It’s 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! Don’t 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. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Firewall, the first book in her Houston: FBI series, was listed by Library Journal as one of the best Christian Fiction books of 2014.

DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Suspense Sister, and International Thriller Writers. She is co-director of The Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference and The Author Roadmap with social media specialist Edie Melson. She teaches writing workshops around the country.

DiAnn is very active online and would love to connect with readers on Facebook:, Twitter: or any of the social media platforms listed at


  1. I like your sensory tip of smell. After all red (and other colored) herrings are smelly fish drug across the path of investigation, meant to lead bloodhounds and other searchers off the track of the true criminal. :-)

  2. i've a little anecdote about red herrings! in my prologue of me debut novel, the main character, Tessa, received a mysterious phone call. the only thing she knew was it was a male voice. when the story caught up with the prologue, i realized i needed a red herring or two - and also realized i had them there all along. the prime R.H was a jilted ex-boyfriend whose life had turned really (really) bad - and he blamed Tessa for it!