Red herrings are elements in your story that lead the protagonist in the wrong direction of reaching his or her goals. If you’ve ever read mystery novels like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, you know the value of red herrings. They help to add tension and conflict to a story.
Mysteries aren’t the only genre where red herrings are important, however. Most stories (if not all) have red herrings, in every genre. They are part of the journey that the main character goes through in order to reach his/her goals. They are distractions that waylay the main character and help him/her to figure out what is important.
Red herrings are part of your story structure. They go in the “second act” of your three act story. After setting the scene and after the catalyst that sets the story in motion, your character will face hurdles toward achieving his/her goals.
For example, in Pete the Cat: I love My White Shoes, Pete the Cat wants to enjoy his white shoes, but he keeps stepping into things that change the color of his shoes. These are the red herrings that hold him back from achieving his goal of enjoying his white shoes.
In Goodnight Moon, the little bunny wants to fall asleep, but first he has to say goodnight to everything in the room. If you’ve ever tried to put small children to bed, these are very familiar red herrings that waylay you and your little ones form going to bed and to sleep.
In another story favorite at our house, If you Give a Mouse a Cookie, the little boy wants to please a mouse by giving him a cookie. But he is waylaid by a never-ending cycle of activities, or red herrings, that take him on a journey as he tries to achieve his goal.
Another example can be found in my book, Olly the Oyster Cleans the Bay. Olly wants to help clean the bay where he lives, but he is waylaid by other sea animals who tell him he can’t because he is not like them.
These red herrings are the crux of the story. They help form the journey that your characters will follow in order to answer the Major Dramatic Question and achieve their goals. They will help to add tension and conflict that will give your story depth and meaning that readers will relate to, and they will help to strengthen your story concept.
Give your main character loops and turns that take him/her in the wrong direction. You’ll find yourself rooting for your character, just as your readers will. And readers will cheer for your protagonist at the end when all of these obstacles are overcome and he/she achieves his/her goals.
The best way to learn how to add red herrings to your story is to learn from others. Go through the children’s books in your collection, or go to the library or bookstore. Look through the books that are similar to your story and find the red herrings. They may be small and seem unimportant, but they are actually serving as a major part of the plot structure. Then go back to your own manuscripts and be sure they have red herrings.
Check back again for more writing tips.
Books mentioned in this Writing Tip:
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Nemeroff
Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by James Dean and Eric Litwin
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown