Red Herring: Meaning & Examples from Film & Literature


Definition: A ‘Red Herring’ is a misleading clue or information diverting attention from the truth or the main issue. It may be a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or characters to a false conclusion. It is often used in literature, movies, and discussions to mislead the audience or participants, creating false leads or distractions.

The meaning of the term Red Herring originates from using the strong-smelling smoked fish to distract hunting dogs from the trail they are meant to follow.

Red herrings are commonly used in mystery, thriller, and suspense genres but can appear in any story.

Examples of Red Herrings from Movies

Here are some examples of red herrings from various movies:

“Psycho” (1960)

One of the most famous red herrings is directed by Alfred Hitchcock early in the film when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a large sum of money.

The film leads viewers to believe that the story will revolve around her trying to escape with the stolen cash, only for her to be unexpectedly killed, shifting the movie’s focus entirely.

“The Sixth Sense” (1999)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, throughout the film, viewers are led to believe that Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is alive and trying to help a young boy who can “see dead people.”

The red herring assumes Crowe’s living status, which is upended in the film’s twist ending.

“Fight Club” (1999)

Directed by David Fincher, throughout most of the film, viewers believe that Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the Narrator (Edward Norton) are two separate people.

This serves as a red herring for the film’s major twist reveal.

Writing Tip: How to use Red Herrings effectively in your Script

The introduction of red herrings into a story must be done elegantly and purposefully. Here are points to consider:

  • Subtlety: A red herring should quietly mislead rather than overtly distract.
  • Timing: A red herring should be introduced when it can most seamlessly divert attention without feeling forced.
  • Plausibility: The red herring must be plausible and believable within the story’s world.
  • Resolution: A red herring should always be resolved within the narrative, providing closure and adding depth to the story and characters.

Examples of Red Herrings from Literature (that has been adapted into movies)

Here are some examples of red herrings in literature:

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

This novel is filled with red herrings, particularly concerning the disappearance of Amy Dunne.

Likewise, in the movie adaptation (2014), directed by David Fincher, we’re led to believe that Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) may have been responsible for the disappearance of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike).

The media frenzy and evidence pointed toward Nick’s guilt serve as red herrings to distract from the truth.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle

In this Sherlock Holmes mystery, the legend of a supernatural hound and several suspicious characters serve as red herrings to distract both the characters and the readers from the true culprit and his motives.

You can watch the entire 1939 adaption of the novel above, which, in my humble opinion, is still the best.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson

Larsson uses several misleading clues and false leads concerning the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, and many of these also appear in the movie adaptation from 2011.

The various suspects and their potential motives distract the investigators and the readers from the true circumstances of the case.

“The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown

Brown incorporates numerous red herrings throughout the novel, misleading the protagonist and the readers about the Holy Grail’s true nature and location.

Likewise, in the film adaptation (2006), directed by Ron Howard, the plot is filled with puzzles and codes that often lead to dead ends before revealing the truth.


Red herrings in movies and literature are strategic distractions, leading audiences away from the real plot to enhance surprise and engagement.

For example, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the legend of a supernatural beast misleads readers from the human culprit.

Similarly, the film “Psycho” by Alfred Hitchcock skillfully diverts attention from the true antagonist, Norman Bates, through misleading plot elements.

These masterful uses of red herrings underscore their value in crafting compelling narratives.

Up Next: Peripeteia in Film. Definition, Meaning, and Examples


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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