An editor wrote "red herring" in the margins of my story. What does that mean?
Published: July 23, 2012
Q: An editor wrote this in the margins of my story: “red herring.” What does that mean?
A: In fiction, a red herring is something that draws attention to itself, implying it will be important, but is actually insignificant. Some writers intentionally introduce red herrings as a way to mislead or misdirect in an attempt to create tension. Let’s say your protagonist, a young woman, is out shopping late one night to get some distance from her crummy roommate. As she navigates the aisles, she notices a man with stooped shoulders and a cap pulled low over his eyes. Every time she turns down a new aisle, she catches sight of him and starts to feel as if he may be keeping track of her. This scene simmers with tension. But if she finishes her shopping, slips out of the store, drives away and doesn’t see or consider the man again, then all that tension is for nothing. It was manufactured simply to make the reader worry about the protagonist while she was in the store, but it has absolutely no bearing on the story.
A red herring can be any element—a situation, a conflict, even an object. A story that lingers on the description of a character’s broken locket, for example, is setting up the idea that the locket will be important in some way later in the story. When that doesn’t pan out, the locket is a red herring.
To remedy a red herring, you first need to understand your intentions. If the element doesn’t, in fact, have much bearing on the story, then rein it in. Emphasis signals to the reader that they should pay attention. If the element is—or should be—important then you want to show that. This does not mean you need to follow through in an expected way. That shady fellow stalking the aisles of the grocery store does not need to be the threat the protagonist fears he may be, but he should have some significant bearing on the unfolding action.
In Andre Dubus’ short story “Woman on a Plane,” a poet is afraid to fly, but “her brother was dying in another city” and so she takes a flight every weekend to see him. Dubus puts a lot of emphasis on the experience of flight, from uneasy observations of the other passengers to “find the one whose number was up” to drinking wine and looking at the aisle for the two hour trip. The plane does not go down. She does not experience a nasty bout of turbulence in which she thinks her life may soon be over. Her flights are smooth. But the act of flying accumulates meaning:
On the plane going home, she folded her arms beneath her breasts. Then she closed her eyes and hugged. She saw herself buckled into the seat, under the tight arc of the plane’s body. She saw the plane in the immense sky, then her brother in bed, poised as she was between the gravity of earth and infinity.
The woman does not meet the fate she fears, but the threat and how she interacts with it reveals insights into her complex thoughts about her brother’s nearing death.
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Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide
. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including
Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.