Posted by: nancycurteman | July 7, 2011

5 Ways to Create Red Herrings in a Mystery Novel

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Killer IdeasRed herrings play two important roles in a mystery novel. They heighten suspense and add greater challenge to a mystery puzzle by misleading the reader and/or the sleuth. A red herring is a false clue that a mystery writer uses to send readers and sleuths off in directions that do not lead to the apprehension of the real villain. Here are five strategies for creating red herrings:

1. Choose an innocent character and give him a motive that makes him a strong suspect in the murder of a victim. Near the climax of the novel, reveal something that proves the character’s innocence. Maybe the victim was blackmailing the red herring character—strong motive. However, the red herring was in the drunk tank the night of the murder.

2. Put an innocent character at the scene of the crime. Maybe he had come to drop something off for a friend who lives across the street from the victim’s house and had parked for a moment in the victim’s driveway. A suspicious neighbor saw him pull out of the driveway. She wrote down his car license number. Bang! He is a suspect.

3. Create a guilty character who seems innocent because there is no evidence of motive, weapon or opportunity. At the climax of the story, have the sleuth connect several seemingly unrelated clues planted throughout the story, then uncover the guilty character’s motive, weapon and opportunity.

4.  A great technique is to have the sleuth follow a trail of clues that leads to the wrong person. The more convinced the sleuth is of the person’s guilt the more she will pursue and the more she pursues, the more exciting the story becomes. This strategy is particularly effective when the killer has already been revealed to the reader.

5. Have the sleuth discover some items (red herrings) at the crime scene that can be interpreted in more than one way or that implicate an innocent person or are completely unrelated to the crime. The sleuth and the reader have to sort them all out.

When adding red herrings, it’s important that they are logical not just plunked into the story with no explanation. Also, keep in mind their purpose is to make the mystery novel puzzle more challenging and exciting for the reader, not to simply trip him up.

 

More writing tips:

Clues: The Building Blocks of a Mystery Novel

Alibis and Motives Can Make or Break a Mystery Novel

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Responses

  1. I especially like tip number 4! Thanks again.

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    • Hello,I’m delighted that as a teacher you can relate to my novel, “Lethal Lesson.” It was my first novel and one of the ones I enjoyed writing the most. As you know, authors have favorite characters too. One of my favorite characters is the Polish detective. I also like the school secretary. Our school secretary was just like her. I agree, Marie LaVeau is also kind of kicky. Thanks for taking a look.Nancy.

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  2. Good points. Have you put this together in an Ebook yet? I am forgetting some of your earlier good tips. Would be nice to have it all in one place. Thanks.

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    • You’ve almost convinced me. Thanks for your encouragement.

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  3. Terrific ideas, NC!

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  4. I am a big fan of these, but as you point out, they can bo “over the line” if they become to glaring. The best red herrings (IMHO) are those that you almost miss seeing the first time they’re presented. ))

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    • You are so right. This kind of red herring takes some clever planning but makes a big hit with readers.

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  5. Very solid ideas. The red herring has actually been the hardest part of my book to figure out. It is nice toget some thoughts on ho to do it.

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    • See Rich’s comment above. The best red herrings are the most difficult to write. They must be subtle yet not impossible for a careful reader to remember. I call this type the “OMG, how did I miss that?” red herring.

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  6. […] Red herrings play two important roles in a mystery novel. They heighten suspense and add greater challenge to a mystery puzzle by misleading the reader and/or the sleuth. A red herring is a false clue that a mystery writer uses to send readers and sleuths off in directions that do not lead to the apprehension of the real villain. Here are five strategies for creating red herrings: 1. Choose an innocent character and give him a motive that makes h … Read More […]

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  7. […] though. Don’t just plunk in something totally unrelated out of nowhere and for no reason. See 5 Ways to Create Red Herrings in a Mystery Novel on Global Mysteries for more on […]

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  8. The idea looks good…..

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    • Jeff, I hope you will find the suggestions useful.

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  9. […] Red herrings: Leads frequently come from other suspects and the forensic [and other physical] evidence. For example, if an object is misplaced, missing, or out-of-place. The sleuth sorts through the suspect information to determine what’s the truth, a lie, or unreliable information. […]

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    • Thank you for the excellent addition to my post. Good examples.

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  10. So I was reading this on the bus and eating my doughnut when we slow down and there’s this crime scene; tape, vans, cops and white suits-EVERYTHING. I got off as it was right by my stop and this is getting intense; there’s this cop saying they found an empty bakery bag on the victim and the killer was dressed as a bus driver. I lay down in the white chalk and dropped my empty bag and watched as the bus drove off, the sound of manic laughter coming from the driver…

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    • Love this story. I hope you didn’t get chalk on your clothes. I’ll never feel the same about riding the bus again!!!

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