How the heck do you hide a unicorn anyway?

It has that pointy ice cream cone for a horn and a glorious, flowing mane.  A horse with sparkles.

Hardly something that would be easy to hide.

So you’d do it with a fish.  A red herring, to be precise.

What is a red herring?

A red herring is a false trail in a book, designed to distract the reader from the actual clues.

It’s like being a magician when you write!  While you are showing the trick to the audience, you’re also slipping in the actual trick under the radar.  Pretty cool, huh?

The real clues are actually right in front of the reader, but the red herring is really shiny.  It screams: “Look at me. I’m important!”

Might only be a squeaky voice, since fish don’t really talk.

Clue hide-and-seek

  1. Take the clue out of its frame of reference.  Makes it hard to realize the clue is important without the context.
  2. Make something else the obvious choice–that really shiny thing.  You can play up on the reader’s expectations here…like the guy with the violent criminal background has to be the killer and then–BANG!  He’s the victim.
  3. Bury it in a list.  Human brains can only take in three things at once.  If you give them four, they’ll probably forget the second or third items.

But always play fair with the reader.  It’s no fun to have the detective know something and the reader doesn’t.  That’s the fastest way to get a book thrown across the room.  We like being given information and not seeing it.  We don’t like being tricked.

What’s fish got to do with it?

Nerd me had to ask where the term “red herring” actually came from.  Was it a popular mystery story now lost to time?

Dons my black belt in Google Fu.  Ee-yah!

Turns out a journalist in the 1800s wrote a story about a boy using red herrings to mislead the hounds.

More reading about red herrings

International Thriller Writers on Hiding Clues from the Reader

Gillian Roberts on Playing Fair with the Reader

Let me hear from you about a red herring you spotted in your travels!