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Thread: What is a Red Herring?

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    moscow32's Avatar
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    Default What is a Red Herring?

    I've been around the forums for a while now, and every once in a while, I see someone make a comment about how MS said there were no intentional red herrings and then going on about what they perceive as a red herring that he set. I propose to here define what a red herring is, and by exclusion, what it is not.

    A Red Herring

    The term Red Herring apparently originated from the practice of dragging a smoked herring or kipper across a game trail in a fox hunt to distract the hounds. The scent of the herring was very strong from the smoking, and therefore confusing to hounds. See this Ask!Yahoo article for a bit more on the subject. There is some debate as to why and who was laying the distracting scent, as evidenced by this article.

    In the sense of a puzzle or a mystery novel, a Red Herring is a false clue deliberately placed by the author, intending to mislead the reader or puzzler. If you have read anything by Agatha Christie, you will know that she is the queen of Red Herrings. She places the real clue and the red herring so well that even though you think you know what happened (Whodunit), you are likely wrong because you followed the wrong trail. The only way to find out, of course, is to keep reading.

    Examples of Red Herrings

    One of my favorite red herrings was in a text adventure game I used to play. In one room there was a bird flying in the room and you could shoot it with the gun, but you only had a few bullets, so if you shot the bird you couldn't shoot at the end of the game. When you found the body of the bird, you would discover that it was a Red Herring. At the time, the humor was lost on me.

    Another of my favorites is found in Graeme Base's The Eleventh Hour. On one of the pages, where the guests are playing cards, there is a pinkish vase with letters and fish on it. If you unscramble the letters, it spells Red Herring.

    And finally, my all time favorite comes from the movie Clue. Repeated in each of the alternate endings: "Communism was just a red herring."

    What it is not!

    A red herring is not a distraction. We've all looked at the Spider Puzzle in ATT. The other colors in the celtic knots were distractions. They didn't lead us down any false paths.

    A red herring is not the clues are misinterpreted. If a reader goes down a false path because he didn't understand the clue, that's a misfortune but certainly not a red herring. Check out the ATT archive for lots of these, including some that I participated in.

    And finally, a red herring is not a clue invented by the reader. I've seen many people claiming Red Herrings, when in fact they are simply giving significance to something that is insignificant. The "letters" in the dust on page 20 come to mind.

    So we've seen what Red Herrings are and are not. Please post other examples of this nefarious false clue here, as well as discussions of other uses of the term.

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    benzleasr's Avatar
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    Default 12 Red Herrings

    moscow: I suggest reading JeffreyArcher's novel, 'Tweleve Red Herrings.' which was published about 1994. It contains 12 stories, all of which contain a Red Herring clues to fool the reader. I guarantee after reading it, you will understand what a Red Herring is all about.
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    I think that was an excellent post, and I fully agree with your defininition. I have no personal examples of "Red Herrings" (although I love the Eleventh Hour reference - one of my favorites!)

    I also think that, based on the conclusions of the ATT hunt, that MS felt the same way about what a Red Herring is (or isn't). However... I do want to add a word of caution about definitions. Our definitions may not be the same as MS. (Remember all the analysis around "a day's drive"!)

    Steve (O.A.T.)

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