How to Write a Red Herring

Story Empire

Ciao, SEers! Sorry about the strange cartoon fish, but it’s the best I could find. Last time, I talked to you about the sidekick. Today we’re talking about red herrings, or the literary misdirect. I admit, all these years of writing them, and I never knew why the plot device was called what it was. So I looked it up.

The journalist William Cobbett is credited with originating theterm“red herring” in an 1807 story. Cobbett criticized the press for prematurely reporting Napoleon’s defeat, and compared that act to using strong-smelling, smokedred herringsto distract dogs from another scent.

When I read that, I was stunned to see it went all the way back to 1807. Then I wondered what it was called before that, because such misdirects were in use before then. In any event, now you know where the term comes from. And…

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