A red herring is a technique often used by screenwriters in movies that involve a mystery. It consists of distracting the audience with false or misleading clues that bring the spectator to the wrong conclusion.
Red herrings are often used to prepare the ground for a big plot twist, which is usually the big revelation that the character who seemed guilty is actually innocent or vice versa.
An example of red herring
It’s easy to find a classic example of red herring in the Harry Potter franchise. Here, each movie revolves around a mystery to solve, and the audience follows the protagonists as they uncover the truth.
A mystery is
This pattern repeats over and over in the movies, Harry and Co. follow the traces that seem to lead to the solution to the mystery only to find out that they have been wrong all along.
How to place a red herring
Let’s start by saying that the writer knows that the red herring is a false clue, but the audience doesn’t and shouldn’t notice the difference between a real proof and a fake one.
The people watching the movie are supposed to believe that a false clue placed to distract them is actually a step towards in the resolution of the case.
This means that if a “proof” planted to frame someone is obviously fake, no one will be fooled.
Picture this scenario: a detective enters a room and finds a man with a knife in his hand, clothes red with blood and a corpse at his feet.
The logical conclusion is that the man murdered someone.
But what if the detective had found something different? There is blood everywhere: on the walls, on the furniture, on the floor, on the ceiling, and then there is a man with clean clothes standing there visibly shaken.
Is it logical to think that he is the murderer? Or is it more logical to think that this is just a guy in the wrong place?
A red herring should always follow the basics of logic. Even if it is not true, it should appear to be possible at the moment.
When the real culprit is too obvious
Have you ever had the painful experience of realizing who the culprit is during act 1 and still having to sit through act 2 and 3 waiting for the dumb protagonist to reach the solution?
A movie that uses red herrings usually has a “fake” culprit and a “real” culprit. While the fake one is standing in the bright light of day, the real one should be hiding in the shadows.
Unfortunately though, some writers are afraid that if they don’t flash out the real culprit immediately the audience won’t be able to understand the story.
What comes after is usually a scene where the innocent, sweet little girl gets accused of a terrible crime while the mustache-twirling villain sits in a corner going: “MUHAHAHAHA!”.
Dumbing down the plot and the characters is not a good thing
As long as the story is clear and things are explained well, the audience will be able to understand what’s happening. No need you to make the bad guy super obvious.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The mystery of this movie revolves around Sirius Black, the first wizard to escape the prison of Azkaban, who decides to hunt down the person responsible for his imprisonment.
We, as the audience, are lead to think that Black is a crazy murderer who plans to kill Harry Potter and reunite with his master, Voldemort.
But towards the end, we find out that he was wrongly framed for murder and that the real villain has been in plain sight all along in the form of a rat.
And here’s how the movie manages to fool you:
How the false clues are placed
In The P
Then, the boy is told by the Minister of magic that he should be really careful now that Black is at loose, but he doesn’t know why yet.
Later, Mr. Weasley tells Harry that the reason why he, in particular, is at risk is that
And finally, Harry overhears a conversation between Professor McGonagall and the Minister, finding out that Black guided Voldemort to his parents the night they died and then killed one of his classmates.
The movie manages to make us believe that Black is the culprit by giving us a mystery within the mystery.
Before, Harry simply knew that there was a random dangerous wizard on the run, but little by little he manages to find out the “truth”.
Creating more than one false clue that lead to the same conclusion is way better than making up different clues that all lead to different outcomes which contradict each other.
It’s true that a red herring is supposed to distract the audience from uncovering the mystery, but it also has to convince them that they are on the right track.
The real culprit is well hidden
This is the third movie in a series that uses red herring. We know that a plot twist is coming, but somehow, the story manages to be unpredictable anyway and make us believe that Sirius Black is a mad killer.
How? Simply by hiding the real culprit very well.
Peter Pettigrew is beyond suspicion for 3 reasons:
- he is a rat
- everyone is already convinced that Sirius betrayed his friends
- he is believed to be dead
Those 3 things make Pettigrew “invisible” to the audience. They see a rat but don’t know just how important he is for the narrative. And it’s only thanks to Sirius’ efforts that we find out he is still alive.
A red herring forces both the writer and the reader/spectator to pay attention to what’s going on in the story, and not just passively go through it in order to reach the ending.
The reader is forced to select which clues lead to the resolution and which clues are just misleading. The writer is forced to take the audience’s expectations into consideration and do his best to outsmart them.
The Prisoner of Azkaban is not just an example of red herring done well, it’s an example of a story that doesn’t look down on its audience.