Learn How to Write Misleads to
Ratchet Up Your Writing Game

Wolf in sheep's clothing

Image by Pixabay

There’s little worse than wasting time reading a dull book. It’s just easier to walk away than trying to see if it will catch fire. To save their reputations and to avoid boring their readers, writers use methods to solve this issue. One method they use is to learn how to write misleads, also known as red herrings.

Misleads throw the reader off the scent of what’s happening in a story. This is done to engage the reader. Writers want the reader to be unable to always predict what will happen in a story. When a reader can predict with astounding accuracy, she will throw up her hands and withdraw interest from the book. 

Gilbo tells us that “A Red Herring is a piece of information that misleads or distracts the reader (and sometimes the character) from an important truth or leads them to mistakenly expect one outcome over another.”

Gilbo has more to say about red herrings.

Misleads are like smoke screens. You use them to obfuscate a point. Your reader sticks with you to see where you’re leading her. Misleads crafted artfully create funhouse mirrors, that is, illusions that can bump up your plot to an exciting level of fascination. 

Learn How to Write Misleads
Using These Examples 


Image by Dream by Wombo and Canva

You’ve come across misleads when reading stories or watching movies. Recall the element of surprise when you realize you’ve been misled. But you didn’t feel duped because clues were there all along. You were just looking in the wrong direction. Or you may have had an inkling of the real killer or the real situation, but you were uncertain.

One of the most amazing misleads I’ve come across is in the movie The Sixth Sense. A psychiatrist tries to help a boy with his issue of being able to see dead people. The psychiatrist guides the boy in helping dead people who reach out to him. Feeling satisfied that he’s helped the boy through a situation, the psychiatrist says goodbye to him. And this is when the mislead ends and the revelation happens. The psychiatrist realizes that nobody has talked to him throughout the movie, except the boy who sees dead people. And one of the dead people is the psychiatrist himself!

Another example of a great mislead or red herring comes from Dan Brown’s, The DaVinci Code.

MasterClass tells us that “Bishop Manuel Aringarosa is the story’s ‘red herring.’ He is the head of Opus Dei, a controversial Catholic sect. Brown sets up the story so that it looks like Aringarosa is the mastermind behind all the evil goings-on; of course, it turns out someone else was pulling the strings all along.”

Still, we find another example of a mislead in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black is first portrayed as the bad guy. But farther into the story, it is revealed that this was a major mislead. Sirius was actually innocent. Misleads surprise the reader, and constructed intelligently, make the climax of a story more impactful. 

With your understanding and use of misleads (red herrings), you realize that this device is not just one way to improve creative writing, but it is a bridge toward mastering plot twists and deepening mystery. In this way, you make the narrative journey awesome. 

Do not undermine the importance of misleads in a story. They keep readers alert as their minds are busy with theories or suspects. They will stay with the story to see how it unravels as well as how it comes together.

As You Learn How to Write Misleads,
Use Caution

Caution cone

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay 

As with any tool, you must take care to learn how to use it. In this case, it means you should take care to learn how to write misleads properly.  Avoid overusing them. When your story is filled to overflowing with them, it can frustrate the reader. It no longer becomes a who-done-it, it becomes just a convoluted story devoid of meaning. You’ve heard the expression “less is more.” Well, this expression is applicable here.

Writing misleads/red herrings are much like telling a joke. The joke must be funny and must be understood culturally by the target audience. The delivery must have the correct timing, rhythm, and impact. If not, the comedienne will be boo-ed.  

When you learn how to write misleads, it paves the way for you to write mesmerizing stories that become irresistible to your readers and put you on the path to becoming a master storyteller. It takes dedication and practice. But it will be both thrilling for you as well as your readers. Get ready to embark on this awe-inspiring journey of literary misleads.

Red herring

"Delaying and withholding tactics, red herrings, partial and doubtful outcomes are stock in trade for fiction writers, especially crime writers." -Garry Disher

         Red herring image by Pixabay

What Is a Red Herring in Writing?MasterClass, MasterClass, 26 Aug. 2021, www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-a-red-herring-in-writing-definition-of-red-herring-with-examples.

Gilbo, Savannah. Red Herrings: How to Mislead and Surprise Readers, https://www.Story Grid, storygrid.com/red-herrings/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2024.