Red Herrings with E. Kaiser Writes

Red herrings - the antithesis to foreshadowing. Leading your reader to believe that one thing is true, when, truly, it's quite the opposite. I can't say that I'm particularly great at this (I'm a terrible liar), but I have E. Kaiser Writes here today to talk about the art.

E. Kaiser is, if you'll remember from yesterday, the author of multiple books, including the gorgeous Thaw series, and she tells me that there's a pretty strong mystery element to them (awesomeness!). And she also has several mysteries in her works-in-progress, which sound absolutely lovely, so can she please hurry up and finish them so that I can read them????

Let's hand it over to her now, shall we?

E. Kaiser Writes
Christian/Fantasy/Kingdom Fiction/Retellings/Mystery
Author of Thaw

Reel In Your Red Herrings

Red Herrings work best if they are only lightly traced in. They can seem to corroborate a pet theory that your detective (and, importantly, the readers) want to prove true… and these are ideal because it’s human nature to try to force facts to line up with what one wants them to become.

However, it’s crucial not to be too obvious that your detective is willfully wrenching the case in favor of their private opinions, since as a mystery it’s important that the reader be drawn into the line of reasoning as well, and no one will follow a detective that is clearly molding an investigation into their own image.

So you have two challenges:

 1) Set up something solid enough to seem like the right trail, but still sketchy enough that when it unravels there aren’t any un-swallow-able, gaping holes in the true trail that glaringly show you’ve clumsily tried to trick your readers...

And 2) overlay enough motivation that your readers, and detective, are willing to stick their necks out a little, to give weight to the theory the red herrings are real; but nothing so concrete that you can’t take it all back and have everyone happy that the other trail turned out to be real after all.

It’s a difficult thing to do well, but it helps if you start out with the right perspective.

The trick to a well-crafted mystery is much the same as a well-crafted still life. It’s all about the composition of the piece.
You could throw a hodge-podge of things into either, but it’ll only result in a mess, unless each thing is carefully considered and put where it belongs.
Like a still life, all the pieces are set in place and they each by themselves may be very common and every day, but it’s the composing of them, the arrangement that makes them “shine.”
Makes them qualify as Art.

And of course, the better drawn they are, the higher quality of art they become.

So to keep your readers guessing, it’s important to have all the clues laid out, like your still life. The knife may be partially obscured by the overflowing lettuce leaf, and you may want to lay it with the handle just so in order to fool the reader’s eye into assuming it’s just a paring knife… when in the next-to-last chapter your detective will suddenly realize it is “the murder weapon!” after all.

…Because we’ve been searching this book, and this murder scene, for the historic Mexican stiletto that’s vanished from the weapons display in the locked library…
But the simple paring knife makes a similar wound, and no one thought to look at that.
(Two things that seem wildly different, but are actually alike in one strange way are perfect for this.)

That’s how you must treat your mystery, like a painting that you lay on with a light hand… but you must think about and include all the details… in fact, you want to include more details than are necessary, to provide camouflage for the real ones amongst the red herrings.

You need three categories of facts:
1; The real, pertinent facts.
2: The red herring, confusing facts.
3: The utterly useless facts that look like the other two just enough to make it hard to distinguish between those previous two categories; and absolutely smooth the reader right past the first category facts.

The art of mystery-writing is the art of clever misdirection, so unnoticeable that no one gets mad at the end that you did it to them.

It goes without saying that you want to pay as much attention to the third category as you do to the first two, because you can’t afford to get too wordy, so each facet has to be pared down and carefully placed in just the right angle, so your object is achieved.

So the Cat 3 things need to be presented in as lean a manner as possible… if they’re obviously introduced in senseless rambles, no one will be at all distracted by them.
Though senseless rambling is a great place to introduce Cat 1 facts, but of course you can’t “bloat” over them, either.

To do Red Herrings right, you have to look at your plot as one of those 3D sculptures… which when looked at from one angle throws a shadow of a certain letter on the wall, but when lighted at the other angle the shadow is a completely different letter.

The best sources are commonplace occurrences that everyone can relate to, but then given a sinister twist that cloaks them in epic importance.

In my Thaw: book 2, The Winter Queen, I had a key piece of the puzzle that was going to reverse a seemingly irrevocable act. The queen signs a document that will grant total power to another character, and at the time she is truly convinced this is the right thing to do.
However, at the end of the book, that document needed to turn out to be completely invalid… but not through any trickery of hers, or anyone else’s.
The act needed to be entirely voluntary and completely sincere, at the time of the signing… and yet be utterly reversed by the end of the book.

I worried over this piece of the puzzle for quite some time, but then while jotting down a date it occurred to me how hard it is to change when one year passes and the new one is upon us, and how many times people unintentionally “back date” out of sheer habit. Usually they notice, say “Oops, forgot that!” and change it.
But what if someone was super stressed, and in a hurry?

And there was my answer! I have the wrong numbers jotted down on the document, a simple switching of the correct numerals to render the document backdated to before the current ruler’s ascent to power… and voila! The document was void the moment it was signed, but no one realized it until the end of the book. (Readers included!!!)

In fact, this simple slip of the pen became an important plot point, inducing a near murderous rage in a character as soon as it’s privately noted. There’s instant room for speculation, that the queen meant to do that, she was toying with them all… the implications are vast if such a “back dating” was done in earnest.

I keep it being a mere mistake, but it leads to a resolution that ties everything up with a neat little bow.

And that’s the last note to remember about Red Herrings. Always explain them, neatly, for how they got in there. Don’t just leave them hanging with a “Well, confusing things happen in Real Life! Haha!”

This is not Real Life, this is a mystery, and nothing happens conveniently for no reason in a mystery tale. Readers want to “know why”; that’s what draws them to the genre. If you flippantly toss an important clue out the window with zero explanation, they will be forming up in lynch mobs to come after you.

Or at least vow to never read any of your writing, ever again.

Which is the exact opposite of what you want. You want to create a puzzle so intriguing and so cleverly designed that readers want to sign up in droves to enter into your next masterpiece, and the next, and the next.
It’s called building a readership, and that’s what being an author is all about.

So… work hard on your Red Herrings… and they may turn out to be like the loaves and the fishes: feeding your mystery career for a long, long time.


  1. Thanks for the advice! I like the way you explained the topic; I'll have to see if I can use some of these tips in some of my fairy tale retellings (which aren't mysteries, but are meant to be just as twisty as a good mystery).

    1. Yes, utilizing a few themes from the 'mystery writing playbook' so to speak, can really add a fresh twist to your fairytales! There is almost always a small matter of suspense in almost any plot, so you can touch it up with a little pixie-dust-gilding with paying attention to a few of the mystery rules.

  2. Thanks for the epic post, E. Kaiser! I've always loved the idea of writing a mystery novel/novella at some point...maybe now, I will! ;)

    ~ Savannah
    Inspiring Writes

    1. Writing a mystery is both terrifying and thrilling... much the same effect you want to instill in your readers! :-) I feel it's a much more demanding structure than say, a rom-com, but wihtin that structure some writers find it more freeing!
      So it's a toss up.
      For me, the intricacy of the set up is a lot of fun to get going, but then back combing with a find tooth comb to make sure you've set all your dominoes in the right places is a real stress! So I'm always relieved once that step is over.

      Just make sure to jot out 'brain maps' for all your consequences... that'll help keep things straight to the writer, and confusing for the reader!!!

  3. Many threads to untangle. I like it. (I mean, I hate it when I get suckered by a red herring in real life, but I do end up loving red herrings in mysteries.)

    1. HAhah!! ;-) Have you run across a lot of red herrings in real life? I can't say I've met many "in the wild." ;-)

      But yes, a well done red herring can be a true literary delight, but it must be "cooked to a turn." ;-)


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