Photo by Karolina Grabowska

In the second installment of Walter Boutwell’s OMAI series, titled Exiles’ Escape, readers are in for a surprise as a plot twist gets exposed. His mysterious way of turning the story around is a perfect example of a well-executed red herring.

Imagine you were promised money only to receive its fake counterpart. Or, you were promised liberty from something, only to be trapped in another situation. You’ve just been deceived or distracted from possibly receiving a positive and prized thing, only to receive a similarly detailed but relatively substandard counterpart.

How would you feel if you were in such a position?

Frustrated, sad, or disbelieved – these would probably be a few of your possible reactions. Nobody wants to be deceived, tricked and taken away from a deserved truth or reward. In real life, deception is something nobody wants to experience. To be distracted from something you deserve would make you feel inadequate, as though you’ve failed to make the proper judgment.

This fallacy is something nobody wishes to experience but wants to consume.

Deception is a staple in every mystery and suspense material. The experience people so ever avoid in real life becomes something they crave in literature and the media. Such a concept is commonly known as a red herring.

Coined from a story about using a herring fish to distract dogs from chasing a rabbit, a red herring in literature refers to misleading readers away from the truth. It’s the device writers use to distract readers from predicting the story’s outcome and add thrill to the plot. If executed perfectly, a red herring will make readers enjoy the plot twists and, ultimately, the surprise at the ending.

For instance, in the book series called Old Men and Infidels by Walter Clark Boutwell, readers are exposed to a massive plot twist. This detail is subtly built up in the first book and revealed in the second installment, Exiles’ Escape.

In the series’ first book, Outland Exile, readers are introduced to two worlds. One world comprises the younger population, while the other includes the older population. The younger society is initially presented as this picture-perfect world, where everyone lives peacefully, retiring at forty.

However, this harmonious image is broken in the second book, revealing that society is controlled by illusion. Boutwell interlaced this detail in his book so that nobody could have seen it coming. How do authors create red herrings that aren’t blindingly red so that readers easily catch them?

Red herrings only work if readers don’t see them coming.

What’s the use of a distraction if readers already know what’s happening beyond it? An excellent red herring should be woven seamlessly into the story. Its primary purpose is to misdirect readers. Hence, this detail shouldn’t stand out and grab readers’ suspicion.

Make Use of the Characters’ Innocence

Readers can be easily susceptible to red herrings when they’re profoundly rooting for a character. Authors need to make use of their existing characters and craft them in a way that readers will have something about them to root for. This can be the gloomy and suffering victim; readers will cheer on to seek justice or revenge. Or, the author can mask the guilty with innocence and have readers fight to prove their innocence.

The authors can reveal the truth to these characters near the end. This can be giving them an alibi to clear their name or letting the fact out due to one incident.

Only Distract the Main Character

Typically, the readers are given the time of their lives finding out the red herrings. But for a twist, they can be given a complete insight into the story.

So, who’s going to suffer the distractions? The main character.

Readers may already know everything about the story: the real victim, the suspect, and the whole motive of the event. While they aren’t kept in the dark, the readers will see the main character struggling with false clues and making wrong decisions.

These are only a few ways to tackle and craft the perfect red herring. Using these properly and ensuring that they are well-constructed in the story, authors are assured their book won’t stink with predictability and disappointment.