Mystery novel with a cast of five suspects. The plot moves from red herring to red herring, making the reader suspect each of the five characters at least once.

In principle, one could go in circles and make each character fall under suspicion multiple times. There is however a diminishing return such that after a few times the reader may lose interest, or not find it as compelling as the first time that a certain character was accused.

Also, in a 50k words novel, we remove the introduction and the conclusion, and that gives around 7k words for each character to become the focus of all suspicions. If we accuse them once, then these 7k words are roughly the space to discuss the evidence against them and dismantle that. In the absurd case of each being accused ten times, each time takes around 700 words, which seems too little.

How can I find a good balance? How can I provide variety, but not become superficial (and keeping the total length of the novel to a reasonable size)?

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    In "One of us is lying", by Karen McManus, there are 4 suspects and they each become the main suspect in turn, as their secrets are revealed. Every one of them becomes the main suspect at least twice. As we learn their secrets, we also learn a few other hints, which seem relatively unimportant at the time but pile up until we can understand what really happened. Also, some hints seem very important right away, but the reader has the opportunity to forget about them because of all the red herrings. The book is extremely "systematic" in the manner it jumps from one suspect to the next.
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 11:37
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    "How many red herrings is too many"? I'd say when things start to smell too fishy.
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 18:19
  • 1
    There are 22 seasons of Midsomer Murders out there. If you want a clinic in red-herrings, that would be it.
    – J...
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 12:38

5 Answers 5


Estimating story length

Mary Robinette Kowal uses a word-count formula for estimating the length of a story:

Every character and 'stage' add 750 words (500 - 1000, average) to the story. Kowal assigns 'scenic locations' the same word count as another character. She multiplies that sum by 1.5 for every MICE quotient thread (Milieu, Idea, Character, Event) that must be maintained, each making the story half-again longer.

enter image description here

The formula is explained in this video lecture (Yes, I can see that she wrote the formula with division, but that is not how she explains it).

It's possible Kowal's formula doesn't work for mysteries, but if we apply Kowal's formula to your mystery (why not, it's a metric):

– each of your 5 suspects needs 500 to 1000 words
– assume your detective (1) is 'flat' and does not have a character arc, but has 2 cohorts/assistants/foils
– the victim, even if already dead, is 1 more character
– assuming 1 major 'stage' location described in detail (the crime scene), and 2 more key locations where overlapping suspects worked and lived with the victim
– the MICE thread is at least 1 event (the crime), but with so many suspects probably has all 4 distributed to flesh out various motives

9 Characters + 3 Stages = 12 (x 750 words) multiplied by 4 MICE threads = 4 x 1.5

This formula suggests 54,000 words – or between 36,000 and 72,000. It's clearly more of a thought-experiment to gauge how story elements will increase word count geometrically.

How long is a good mystery?

A quick websearch suggests most of Agatha Christie's novels are between 50,000 and 60,000 words.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles 59,608
And Then There Were None 54,324

And Then There Were None has 11 characters, 1 location, and easily all 4 MICE in its iconic premise. Kowal's system would estimate 54,000 words – which seems a remarkable coincidence as the plot of Christie's novel means the word count cannot be distributed evenly per character.

Means, Motive, Opportunity

Mysteries are not Romance Genre; you must have more than 3 persons of interest.

The relationship diagram (the 'crazywall' with the photos linked by pins and string) must be more complex than a 3-sided triangle or there is nowhere to add a new string as new connections are realized, new secrets are uncovered, new evidence emerges.

enter image description here

A suspect must have the ability to commit the crime (means), a believable reason to do it (motive), and the chance to carry it out (opportunity). The goal of a detective (and by projection the reader) will be to look for these 3 MMO. Each suspect will begin with 1 (or more), and start 'leveling up' as their secrets are uncovered.

When a suspect gains a new MMO, it's a good reason to interrogate them: 2/3 MMO… but if the 3rd doesn't fit that feels like a red herring. That suspect is downgraded. Fortunately, their answers revealed a secret about another suspect. Bing! Suspect #2 has leveled up and now has 2/3 MMO… Suspects can level up through new evidence. They can also level down. This keeps going. Ultimately each suspect will have their moment in the hot seat when it looks as if they have all 3 MMO.

But you need more than just 3 suspects to maneuver any surprise. A secret relationship levels up 2 suspects because they share the MMO. Another trope changes the time of death and resets certain suspects' Opportunity window, or a new method (Means) is discovered that now includes those previously eliminated. Plot twists will shift the game board, but small evidence is also accumulating making some herrings inevitable (the suspect with the strongest motive who definitely was not there).

You should be able to milk the same 5 suspects multiple times, adding and removing their MMO as the evidence shifts. 3 suspects will show the machinations (the blame has to shift to another suspect; it's either the next guy or the last guy). With 5 suspects you can eliminate 1 early then spring to full MMO later once they are forgotten. A hidden connection can only be discovered once; with 5 suspects (or more) the reader can discover multiple hidden connections, progressing the story while making the mystery less obvious.

How many is too many?

A red herring is a kind of logical fallacy. It's the wrong path.

A young detective will have many – they will jump to conclusions, they will chase the frivolous, they will make rookie mistakes. An old detective won't pursue a red herringl they will have already been burned and stick to what's obvious. Best of all, each is sure the other is wrong. This is great chemistry. The red herrings show their differences – assuming you have young/old detectives.

There's some ambiguity in whether you're saying red herring as a trope within the story, or saying that as an author you are suppose to mislead the reader. I don't think you are suppose to deliberately mislead the reader. I think you should have an MC (detective) who is attempting to include or eliminate persons of interest from a crime.

If the detective has experience (and accountability) they will find subtle ways of testing each suspect without showing their hand, asking leading questions only when they know answers, and looking for signs of those other MMOs. Maybe some of your red herrings aren't literal misdirections, just 'a line of inquiry' that isn't fruitful. The inverse would be a lie that is accepted for truth only to be undone by later evidence, that lie should feel like a red herring because it actually was, but we tend to think of any 'dead end' as a red herring. TV shows are more melodrama than mystery; their emotional tone will telegraph whoever is the current prime suspect. A literary story will involve ambiguous clues and a slower burn, mixed with complicated character drama.

Meanwhile, a comedy buffoon detective will create their own red herrings – there's no way to say how many is too many. You don't want to leave unexplored possibilities on the table, but you don't want to exhaust the premise to the point the reader feels they've fallen into Shaggy Dog territory or an endless loop. As long as the mystery feels like it's still progressing with new revelations to unpack, a variety of suspects will help because you won't over-use any 1.

You don't need my idea of tracking MMO, but it has the logic of telling the detective how to rate suspects, and also how heavily to play their role (are they fishing? Pressuring? Dismissive?). Once all suspects are leveled all the way up, the detective must eliminate them, changing the goals somewhat until the final clues reveal the ending. Suspects do not all have equal prominence as characters, so you must find the balance in an ensemble.

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    "multiplies that sum by 1.5 for every MICE quotient thread" -- note that this doesn't correspond to the formula written. YouTube comments also remark on the discrepancy. This answer's numerical examples don't correspond to the formula either. Where this answer multiples by 1.5, Kowal's formula says to divide by 1.5 (it's in the denominator). So the application to OP's mystery and to And Then There Were None gives 24,000 words, not 54,000. (Note that Kowal is talking about short stories, which are more economical with words, so no surprise Christie's novel is significantly longer.) ...
    – nanoman
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 11:38
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    ... Here's what I think is really the intent of the formula, based on Kowal's lecture: (C+S)x750 represents the description of characters and stages to cover one MICE thread. Then Kowal implies that each additional MICE thread adds 50% of the original length (think simple interest, not compound interest). I think Kowal actually wants to multiply by 1 + (M-1)/2, or equivalently (M+1)/2. However, she writes M/1.5 as a simpler approximation. The two expressions agree for M = 3, which is the example she uses to justify the 1.5 factor. And they don't differ hugely for any M between 2 and 4.
    – nanoman
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 11:39
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    Mathematical illiteracy is sad, even for writers Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 15:41
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    @electronpusher Oh yep! Have you ever noticed how non-"scientific" (i.e., non -math, -science or -technology) illiteracy is always frowned upon, whereas "scientific" illiteracy is often considered a "minor sin". At least here in Italy it is dramatically so. This may explain why there are people still believing, for example, that COVID can be cured using homeopathy or that vaccinations will "inoculate 5G chips" or some other BS like that! Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 20:40
  • The link to the seminar series was a plus. There are a number of good ideas in this answer.
    – NofP
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 22:12

I wouldn't go much beyond the rule of three. You see this in all kinds of detective stories and TV series; two red herrings that lead to the culprit.

The series House was notorious for being a bit too consistent with this: Wrong, Wrong, Right.

Series like Sherlock, Elementary, Columbo or many similar offshoots follow the same formula: Wrong, Not Quite, Final clue and Right.

A nice twist on this is the detective is Right the first time, but somehow convinced they have made a mistake, then suspect somebody else, get proven wrong but discover that first alibi wasn't all it was cracked up to be and they were Right the first time. I saw that on a show when the alibi (being on camera at a bar at the time of the murder) was faked by a hacker that reset the timestamp on the camera, so the killer was actually at the bar an hour before the timestamp shown on the camera.

IMO Three red herrings is too many. Beyond that your detective just looks incompetent and the audience stops caring. You might get away with three if you have a particularly clever way for your detective to not look dumb; like the hacked camera trick I mentioned; the detective had to be brilliant to uncover that.

  • 12
    Novels are much longer than TV episodes and are paced much differently. The rule of three is probably much more appropriate for a TV show or short story than for a novel. Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 13:33
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    Not sure I'd include Columbo on that list - He's almost always 100% right about who he suspects, right from the start of every episode. Of course, we the audience know because they always show you who-done-it at the beginning of that show, but Columbo himself also seems to be in the know - never wastes time suspecting somebody else, he always goes after the correct suspect, right off the bat. The only question is how he proves it. Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 16:00
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    Except for that one time in House when it was Lupus and they all missed it
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 9:01
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    If the red herrings were planted there by the killer to throw off the detectives, then some of them, especially latter ones, can be the detective recognizing "Hey LT, this is bogus" and maybe getting overruled and forced to follow it up anyway. This gives your detective credibility but still a good reason for them to follow up with the suspect.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 19:20
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    Definitively good advice, and to the point when you say that some red herrings need to have a clever reason. For my use case three was not quite enough though.
    – NofP
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 22:14

I personally would love a book like that. In fact, there is a book like that, except with even more characters (so also more red herrings), The Westing Game, This book was one of my favorites, but led me to suspect almost all of the characters eventually. I think you should write carefully, as it is a tricky matter, but I think it is perfectly fine as long as your readers don't believe that you (the author) have tried to trick them. If you want more advice, read The Westing Game and you'll find your answers.

  • Thank you for the suggestion. I'll try to follow on that.
    – NofP
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 22:15
  • You're welcome! Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 19:52

What is important with a story (whether written or visual) is that the audience not feel that they're wasting their time. Even one "red herring" is often too many if the audience follows the protagonist for a long time, only to discover that nothing they (the audience and/or protagonist) have learned will be meaningful to the rest of the story. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with having a protagonist explore many incorrect paths if the audience feels that even the wrong paths are providing knowledge which is necessary to figure out the ultimate solution to the story, or providing insights into the characters that would otherwise not have been revealed.

A major pattern to avoid is a "story loop" where the plot reaches a certain situation, a bunch of stuff happens, and then the plot is again in essentially the same situation without anyone (audience or characters) having learned or done anything useful. If a reader or viewer who skipped ahead from the first time the situation was reached to the second time would have a better experience than one who read or watched everything in between, that would be a pretty good sign that the material should be omitted.

As an example of a story loop (albeit not really a "red herring"), in the movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Phantom of the Opera, there's a sequence where the following events transpire:

  1. Raoul falls through a trap door into an underground pool

  2. Raoul is on the surface of the pool.

  3. A grate appears above Raoul (did he fall through it!?) and descends, pushing Raoul underwater.

  4. Raoul swims to and operates an underwater valve.

  5. The grate rises, freeing Raoul.

  6. Raoul is on the surface of the pool.

  7. Raoul climbs out of the pool, and sets off to continue his role in the plot.

I don't know exactly how much screen time was spent between steps #2 and #6, but Raoul's situation upon reaching #6 is, from the audience's perspective, no different from the situation when he reached step #2. If Raoul had needed to exploit knowledge of how the grate works later in the plot, that sequence would have served a useful purpose; as it was it, though, just felt like a waste of time and as a viewer I was just waiting for it to be over.

I'd view the principle "Don't waste the reader's/viewer's time" as far more useful than any other metric for how many red herrings is too many. Not everything in a novel or movie needs to advance the plot, but everything should have some reason to exist.

  • 2
    Don't waste the reader's/viewer's time is the best advice. Also don't try to fool the reader and make them feel foolish. Twists are fine, traps are not.
    – Peter Fox
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 8:53
  • Not wasting readers' time should be a general mantra of writing :)
    – NofP
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 22:17
  • Yes. Ideally, each suspect should advance the reader's and the detective's knowledge, rather than just being a wild goose chase. For instance, they find that the victim was having an affair, and suspect their lover, then rule them out, that's providing information about the victim as well as providing plot complications. In contrast, if they find someone sent a threat, then decide it wasn't them who did the murder, if the threat doesn't have any ramifications, that's a waste of time.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 11:41

It's not uncommon. The best selling Agatha Christi Novel "And Then There Were None" (The Original Title of the release in the UK was taken from a rhyme "10 Little [Censored]" where the censored line is the N-Word. This was changed to avoid offending sessiblities to "Ten Litte Indians" which doesn't make it better. The U.S. release did change the title to "And Then There Were None" which references the rhyme's conclusion as each of the Little... groups of people... die in the rhyme through different means. The modern releases use the Rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers" in the text.).

All that notes was to address the issue that the book has 9 Red Herrings and 1 Murder, though the plot of the book is that all 10 individuals are unknown to each other AND all are associated with having a hand in the death of someone prior to the encounter and never recieving justice for it (though the person who gathers them accuses them all of murder, the nature of the incident is not necessary a murder and many do feel remorse for their part in the death of another). At either rate, all 10 are gathered and then one by one they are murdered... in the style of the rhyme's victims in their proper order.

The benefit of this is that the characters who die first need less development compared to the characters who die closer to the end, which allows the writer to focus on the most dramatic of the characters. Additionally the plot at one point hinges on the murderer leaving a loaded gun in a place where the "victims" could get it... which raises the question of if the victim that pics it up was a victim or actual murder with a good cover for the gun.

Aside from real numbers, numerous party games also allow for red herrings writ large to form. Murder Mystery games typically run on the premise that an NPC is dead, the players are role playing suspects all of whom have information and clues vital to putting suspicion on the other players or exonerating them. After a few rounds, the players are asked to identify the character of the murder before the reveal of the who done it. Normally a game moderator, playing the police detective, will fill this role. Here are characters can be potential red herrings as the games rely on subtle clues and hints to leave all characters in suspicion before the reveal.

Another game know as "Werewolf" or "Mafia" plays differently as the players are given roles (broadly categorized as "villiager/special" or "Werewolf/Mafioso") and run in rounds with a "Nightphase" where all actions are taken and a day phase where a villiger is found dead and the remaining villigers must figure out who among them is one of the three "Werewolves" vs. who is a villiager. The villiagers win if they can execute all the wolves (typically three) through a deliberative process during the day phase where all actions are revealed to the players while the wolves win if they can kill enough villiagers that they cannot be voted on execution (The wolves have two chances to kill: Their only action in the night phase is to make a play for a single villager to kill but they are "villagers" for the day phase and can vote to kill a villager. Also hidden among the villigers are players with secret beneficial roles (A classic one is "The Little Girl" AKA "The Child" who is allowed to see the three wolves but is so frightened that she cannot directly accuse them during the deliberations of the day phase... however, she can vote to execute whoever she sees fit... but the catch is if she consistently votes for real werewolves or outs herself indirectly, the wolves will kill her as she has the most direct knowledge. Another role, the Doctor, will be able to heal someone with a limit, but risking the healing too much will give himself away and make him the target of the wolves.). Generally the wolves will know who they are and work to avert suspicion from their allies by casting blame on the innocent villiagers during the deliberation.

  • Good point about the fact that if some characters get removed along the plot, it frees up space to develop the remaining ones.
    – NofP
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 22:18

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