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 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.
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