Red Herrings, Foreshadows and Creating a Mystery

Recently Kay DiBianca and I talked about the elements of a cozy mystery, which you can read here if you missed it the first time.

I thought it would be worthwhile to dive into the TKZ archives to look at mystery elements in general. I love studying story elements and structure, especially with mysteries.

Red Herrings are an important part of mysteries, and Kathryn Lilley has a terrific summation of what makes some good and some stink. Foreshadowing is important in fiction in general, but I’d argue that it’s essential in mystery fiction. Jodie Renner looks at ways to use foreshadowing which can work well in setting up and revealing a mystery. Finally, how do you come up with a mystery? Where do you begin? Cozy mystery author Nancy Cohen shares her methodology, which also does a fine job of giving a rundown of the core elements of a mystery.

As always, the full posts are date-linked at the bottom of their respective excerpts.

What makes some red herrings good, and others stink like yesterday’s…well, red herring?


Red herrings shouldn’t scream, “Hey, I’m a clue!” from the rooftops. Readers are smart, and they’ll be working to solve the mystery as they go. They don’t need you to stomp on ’em. The subtlety rule applies to all clues, not just to red herrings.

A fish before dying

You can plant a red herring before your victim turns up dead, right at the beginning of your story. At that point, your reader doesn’t even know who is going to get killed, much less whodunnit.

Dead fish need not apply

All clues, including red herrings, must serve to move your story forward. Don’t use your red herrings only as a way to throw the reader off. Make them integral to your plot or character-building.

Two-faced fish

In some of my books, I wasn’t sure who the villain was until very near the end of the writing process. I write all the clues so that any of them can be red herrings or valid clues, depending on the ending.

Kathryn Lilley—August 4, 2009


Here are some ways you can foreshadow events or revelations in your story:

– Show a pre-scene or mini-example of what happens in a big way later, for example:
The roads are icy and the car starts to skid but the driver manages to get it under control and continues driving, a little shaken and nervous. This initial near-miss plants worry in the reader’s mind. Then later a truck comes barreling toward him and…

– The protagonist overhears snippets of conversation or gossip and tries to piece it all together, but it doesn’t all make sense until later.

– Hint at shameful secrets or painful memories your protagonist has been hiding, trying to forget about.

– Something on the news warns of possible danger – a storm brewing, a convict who’s escaped from prison, a killer on the loose, a series of bank robberies, etc.

– Your main character notices and wonders about other characters’ unusual or suspicious actions, reactions, tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language.Another character is acting evasive or looks preoccupied, nervous, apprehensive, or tense.

– Show us the protagonist’s inner fears or suspicions. Then the readers start worrying that what the character is anxious about may happen.

– Use setting details and word choices to create an ominous mood. A storm is brewing, or fog or a snowstorm makes it impossible to see any distance ahead, or…?

– The protagonist or a loved one has a disturbing dream or premonition.

– A fortune teller or horoscope foretells trouble ahead.

– Make the ordinary seem ominous, or plant something out of place in a scene.Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that bicycle lying in the sidewalk, the single child’s shoe in the alley, the half-eaten breakfast, etc., to create a sense of unease.

– Use objects: your character is looking for something in a drawer and pushes aside a loaded gun. Or a knife, scissors, or other dangerous object or poisonous substance is lying around within reach of children or an assailant.

– Use symbolism, like a broken mirror, a dead bird, a lost kitten, or…

Jodie Renner—January 27, 2014

How do you formulate a traditional murder mystery plot? Do you start with the victim? The villain? Or do you select an evocative location or a controversial issue and start there?

I’ll clue you in to my methodology. This might work differently for you and is by no means a comprehensive list. But these are the elements I consider when planning a mystery. It’s part of what I call the Discovery phase of writing.

Book Title
Do you title your story before or after you write the book? I prefer to have a title up front. Sometimes, this dictates what I have to do next. For example, in Murder by Manicure, I had a title and no plot.

This had been part of a three-book contract, and all of a sudden my publisher wanted a synopsis. I had to come up with an idea that incorporated the title. Someone had to die either while getting a manicure or as a result of one. I face this same quandary now. I have the title, and I have to suit the crime to this situation. That brings us to the next element.

The Crime Scene
Do you begin with the victim or the villain? In a psychological suspense story, you might begin with the villain and why he became that way. The focus would be on how he turned to the dark side and what motivates him now. Then in comes your hero who has to figure out a way to stop him while delving into his psyche at the same time.

My plots center around the victim. Who is this person? Where do they die? How do they die? Once I figure out the Howdunit, I’ll move on to the next factor.

The Victim
What made this person a target? Here we might learn about their job and personal relationships. Was this person loved without a single blemish in his past? Or did other people have reason to resent him? What might have happened in his past to lead up to this moment? And what did he do to trigger the killer at this point in time? What could he be involved in that you as a writer might want to research?

The Cause
This is the passionate belief that underlies your story. It’s what gets me excited about a book, because I can learn something new and feel strongly about an issue while weaving it into my tale. In Hanging by a Hair, I deal with condo associations and their strict rules. I also touch upon Preppers and the extremes they go to in their survivalist beliefs. Or perhaps my theme is really about family unity, and how Marla strives to bring peace to the neighborhood so she can resume a normal family life. In my current plot, I finally hit upon The Cause. Now the elements are starting to come together. It’s exciting when this happens. And that brings us to the next factor.

The Suspects
Who has the motive, means and opportunity to have committed the crime? Does every one of your suspects have a viable motive? If so, whodunit? And why now? How can you relate these people to each other? This is the fun part, where the relationships build and the plot begins to coalesce in your mind. Character profiles might help at this stage, so you have a better concept of each person before they step on stage. Seek out photos if necessary and do any research you might need before you get started writing. What does The Cause mean to these people? Is it the reason why the victim had to die? Or is it the glue the sleuth will use to put the pieces together?

Nancy Cohen—August 13, 2014


  1. What makes a good red herring for you, both as a writer and a reader? How do you avoid an obvious red herring?
  2. What’s a favorite way you like to foreshadow?
  3. How do you come up with a mystery? What inspires you?
This entry was posted in #writing, Jodie Renner, Kathryn Lilley, mystery writing, Nancy Cohen by Dale Ivan Smith. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dale Ivan Smith

Dale Ivan Smith is a retired librarian turned full-time author. He started out writing fantasy and science fiction, including his five-book Empowered series, and has stories in the High Moon, Street Spells, and Underground anthologies, and his collection, Rules Concerning Earthlight. He's now following his passion for cozy mysteries and working on the Meg Booker Librarian Mysteries series, beginning with A Shush Before Dying.

26 thoughts on “Red Herrings, Foreshadows and Creating a Mystery

  1. I’m at 52K words in the wip and just figured out who killed my victim. No title yet. There’s nothing wrong about going back and layering in the herrings, shadows, and even a new character if you need one. Or taking out a scene that doesn’t fit anymore. And no, I’m not a plotter, if you couldn’t tell. I consider my first ‘draft’ my outline.

    • That’s a great point, Terry, about layering in mystery elements after the fact. There’s so much going on in a mystery that I find that, even as an outliner, that I often add a red herring, crucial clue, or bit of of foreshadowing in revision. Characters can be added, though in my case, I often wind up with too many in the first draft, so merging or removal of characters is something I also do in revision.

  2. I follow Erle Stanley Gardner’s method. Work out the “murderer’s ladder” first. That is the act, motive, means, opportunity. Then look to the “shadow story” (what the murderer is doing “off screen” to hide and throw things off) and there you’ll find an abundance of red herrings to choose from, and can place them in the most strategic spots.

    • Great approach, Jim. I need to work out the murderer’s ladder and their shadow story (your post about that was very helpful to me, thanks again!) in order to create a mystery that works.

  3. Great collection I’ve bookmarked, Dale. And the comments are as educational as the post.

    For red herrings, an ordinary object that is suddenly out of place; an offhand remark that sounds like normal conversation but isn’t; a character who shows up at an unexpected place or time yet has a plausible explanation (which later turns out to be a lie).

    Foreshadow: like Terry, I go back and salt in clues. Often upon rewriting, I discover an insignificant detail I’d forgotten that turns into the perfect place to foreshadow. It’s great finding those unexpected breadcrumbs that my subconscious planted.

    As a pantser, I collect dribs and drabs of things that catch my interest: news stories, an odd object, a strange anecdote someone tells me, a past problem that comes back to haunt the series characters. All that stuff rattles around until an external stimulus suddenly sets off a lightbulb and random thoughts fall into a pattern. In my new WIP, a burned out house on a lake was the plot trigger.

    • Your comments are also useful tips, Debbie. We writers are magpies when it comes to finding shiny “dribs and drabs” of interest that we can use in building our nest of story.

  4. I love foreshadowing through dialogue. In a conversation ostensibly about something else, a key piece of info is revealed. It may be a cheap method, but I enjoy it.

  5. Great post, Dale, and great selection of articles from the archives. Thanks for the links.

    Foreshadowing: In my teen fantasy series, I like to use minimal disturbances, that become gradually more dramatic until the doorway of no return “opens.”

    Question: What’s your favorite book on plotting the mystery?

    Have a great weekend.

    • You’re very welcome, Steve. Minimal disturbances that grow in dramatic force sounds like an effective way to foreshadow.

      Great question. I hope others might weigh in. “Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner,” by Francis and Roberta Fugate, follows his evolution as a writer through his copious notes and letters, showing his work to master the mystery. His murderer’s ladder, which Jim mentioned above, is discussed, and many of his techniques are shared in the appendices. I own both the Kindle version and the paperback, finding the latter especially useful.

      Bonus recommendation: Sara Rosett’s “How to Outline a Cozy Mystery: Workbook” helped me a lot. It’s based off her Teachable video course of the same name, but I worked through it before taking her course, and I think it’s worth reading on it’s own.

  6. Great discussion, Dale!

    I’m not technically a mystery/thriller author (I do read that genre, though-it’s my favorite), but in my new novel releasing October 1, it’s clear in the beginning that the MC is afraid of something.

    The reason is dribbled in as the story progresses, using dialogue, memories, and real-time scary circumstances.

    Happy weekending!

    • Thanks, Deb! Salting in the reveal of your MC’s fear as the story progresses, in little bits, is a fine way to help ratchet up tension, too. Have a wonderful weekend!

  7. On my to-do list for this morning is what Kathryn Lilley suggested—is there a red herring I can plant before the victim dies? Am also going to try a suggestion from one of JSB’s recent posts—do a best day/worst day journal for my protagonist and villains and see what that reveals.

    As others have noted in the comments, it will be necessary to go back through the manuscript to see where I need to layer in herrings, foreshadowing, etc. And as Dale mentioned—I think it will be worth it to review for having too many characters. It’s easy to end up with too many characters when first drafting.

    Mysteries are a mental puzzle for the writer as well as the reader. LOL!

    • One of my beta readers is also a library colleague who has a deep knowledge of the mystery genre. I dubbed her our branch’s “mystery maven.” She told me on more than one occasion she thought that mysteries must be the hardest type of fiction to write. Having published two now, I agree. They are a mental puzzle for the writer as well as reader, as you well put it, but are also so rewarding for me as a writer.

      • Yes, I think it will feel very rewarding in the end. That’s why I give myself a pep-talk when I get frustrated & I can’t instantly solve some of these plot twists. I need to be patient, just like the sleuth working through the clues.

      • I agree with your “mystery maven,” Dale. I think mysteries are the hardest genre to write because the author has to put together a puzzle that makes sense to the reader in the end. (At least it’s hard for me!)

  8. I often don’t know who the murderer is until the end so I give several characters the motive, means, and opportunity. And I usually have to go back after I do know and beef that character’s part up a bit.

    • Having several characters with the motive, means and opportunity certainly will keep the reader guessing, one of my goals as well. One of the things I love about writing mysteries is that we can start from different directions–the murderer’s “shadow story” as Jim so well described it, or from the sleuth’s POV, having to sift through a “web of suspects,” with each seeming plausible, and more than one having a secret (one of which is that one of them is the killer 😉

  9. Good evening, Dale! As usual, you’ve selected some great TKZ words of wisdom — and on my favorite subject, too.

    In my second novel, Dead Man’s Watch, I plant a red herring, but it’s not something that’s there. It’s something that isn’t there. The dead man’s watch is missing. Later in the story, a watch in found in the trunk of the dead man’s car, and the assumption is that it’s his. I can’t go further without spoiling the story, but in the end, a watch solves the mystery.

  10. Pingback: Red Herrings, Foreshadows and Creating a Mystery – Fix Yourself

Comments are closed.