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Red herrings appear to violate Chekhov's gun, but I've been told that not all red herrings are the same and it seems that some red herrings are OK​ if they serve some sort of purpose.

How do you ensure that a red herring doesn't violate Chekhov's gun? Can you give me a list of criteria a red herring needs to meet in order to not violate it?

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    You seem to assume you are writing a whodunit. Are you? Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 3:29
  • Many believe that Chekov's gun is itself a red herring. (though I would agree with @DJClayworth that it does apply to the traditional form of a mystery). Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 14:13
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    Chekhov's gun is misunderstood by most people starting to write. And tends to be applied blindly as a rule, rather than being taken as advice. Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 14:31
  • Also keep in mind that Chekhov's gun is most properly a principle of the theater and has limited applicability to other media. Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 2:57
  • The purpose of Chekhov's gun is to fire. The purpose of a red herring is to make the reader wonder. Both work when they fulfil their purpose. Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 13:55

3 Answers 3

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Red herrings do serve a purpose: they (ostensibly) make it harder for the reader to identify the true culprit. They don't inherently violate Chekhov's gun, but you do need to, at some point, bring them up again in order to explain that they're red herrings.

For example, let's say you have a detective investigating a death by shooting, and they find three different guns that implicate three different suspects and could all have been used in the shooting. Two of those guns are red herrings, and the detective's summation needs to explain how they know that Gun A was used and not Guns B and C.

One of my favourite examples of a red herring is the What's New, Scooby-Doo? episode "Roller Ghoster", where an amusement park is being terrorised by a monster. There's an extremely obvious red herring in the form of a kid who keeps getting turned away from rides for being too short, and gets increasingly furious about it. At the end of the episode, after the monster has been caught and unmasked, the kid shows up and asks, "How come I wasn't a suspect?", to which Velma bluntly replies, "You're too short to fit in the costume". Had he not made that appearance at the end, it would have been a violation of Chekhov's gun.

(Before anyone brings him up, I know A Pup Named Scooby-Doo has a character literally called "Red Herring", but in most episodes he doesn't actually appear until Fred randomly accuses him at the end, so he's not relevant to OP's problem.)

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    Notice: You must be at least as tall as this |--------| sign to terrorize this amusement park. Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 18:10
  • My recollection is that Fred doesn't usually wait until the end of the episode to randomly accuse Red, but instead does so around the end of act 2, where the gang has either just found a real clue they need to follow up on, or has just exhausted an actual red herring and needs a new lead. Either way, it's funny because it comes across as a complete non sequitur to the plot.
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 20:22
  • @Kevin Potentially. It's been years since I watched the series, so I may well be misremembering. I'll have to check.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 20:34
  • I would argue that the Scooby Doo example is still a violation of Chekhov's gun. Giving the character's arc an ending is not the same as having that arc contribute to the main narrative - and this is key to Chekhov's gun. The short kid should somehow contribute to the narrative (for example by following him as a suspect, Fred stumbles on some other evidence that ends up revealing the truth). That being said, red herrings violating Chekhov's gun is not a bad thing, it's pretty much an intentional countertactic to keep the reader guessing instead of knowing that everything will be relevant.
    – Flater
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 5:40
  • Additionally, Scooby-Doo has a history of un-masking's of culprits who's body type does not match the monster's, with padding, or stilts to blame. The same series had a monster that was made to look like a rapidly aging alien terrorizing a NASA facility. The various stages were achieved by 1). Dressing up a Chimp Astronaut that had been trained by the culprit for the "child", 2.) The culprit wearing the suit for the "teen" and 3.) The same culprit, wearing stilts in the same suit for the "adult", which was taller than most average adults by feet.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 13:27
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F1Krazy’s excellent answer gives a first main principle: They should be well-explained as red herrings, sooner or later. I’d like to add a secondary principle, at least for classic detective/mystery style plots: Their status as red herrings should be foreshadowed before the main reveal. Not too obviously — they certainly don’t need to be fully revealed in advance. But if at the point of the main reveal the reader really had no way to pick between the true culprit and the decoys, they can rightfully feel a bit cheated: they weren’t given a chance to solve the mystery! Ideally, you want your reader to be unsure up to the main reveal, but by the end, they should be able to look back and see how earlier evidence pointed to the true answer and ruled out the red herrings all along.

Insofar as it’s a bad thing, “violating Chekhov’s gun” means setting up inaccurate foreshadowing; this is what leaves a reader feeling cheated. A well-written red herring involves accurate but misdirecting foreshadowing — things that appear at first to incriminate the red herring, but in hindsight point more towards the true solution.

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    +1 for "They should be well-explained as red herrings". Indeed, if the detective picks up a torn piece of fabric from a rosebush behind the house and then it will never ever get mentioned, I'd find it greatly annoying. On the other hand, if he explains at the very end that at first he thought the culprit ran away in that direction due to that evidence, but then found out it was completely impossible to have done so at the time of the event, so that evidence must have been planted before/after the event deliberately to mislead him, then it's completely OK.
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 13:30
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    Suppose you have a red herring by false implication - you have a crime scene that points to a simple explanation, with a strong piece of evidence pointing another direction. This piece of evidence at first seems like it must be a red herring. As the story plays out, a second, subtler analysis of the red herring in light of the facts reveals that the two bodies of evidence are not contradictory, and actually corroborate each other if the crime was conducted in some very particular way.
    – Blackhawk
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 21:23
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The answer depends on how you interpret the principle of Chekhov’s gun, in particular what counts as firing the gun, and to what account you incorporate audience expectations and Chekhov’s gun itself into all of this:

  • On a basic level, the entire point of red herrings is to subvert Chekhov’s gun. If every story strictly adhered to Chekhov’s gun, certain plots (in particular whodunnits) would be boring: It’s much easier to figure out the solution if you know that every single hint is pointing towards it. Also, there is less room for an interesting conflict to arise from hints pointing in different directions. Red herrings solve this.

  • On the next level, subverting expectations of Chekhov’s gun is the purpose red herrings serve – and thus they are not unfired Chekhov’s guns.

  • From yet another perspective, one might consider a red herring an unfired Chekhov’s gun if it is not addressed to be a false lead on page. There is some merit to this, as for example, dropping an entire subplot hinging on a red herring is clearly unsatisfactory. On the other hand, if interpreted this way, Chekhov’s gun is merely a useful guideline, not a principle that you must strictly adhere to: In most forms of writings, you do have tons of details that mainly serve to create atmosphere and need not be picked up again. Specifically, addressing every slight hint that lead nowhere at the end of a whodunnit can just be an insufferable drag.

Thus, when creating and addressing red herrings, you have to balance between:

  • fleshing out the world and creating atmosphere,
  • restricting the amount of detail to what can be digested by the audience,
  • distracting from the solution to avoid boring predictability,
  • creating interesting conflict,
  • as satisfactory wrap up,
  • avoiding a boring wrap up of details.
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    So you're saying that every herring is in a superposition state being both Red and a Chekhov's gun until the result is observed, which collapses the probability states into one gun and a bunch of red and blue herrings? Schrodinger's Herrings perhaps?
    – Criggie
    Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 0:33
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    @Criggie I'll answer that when you tell me what you did with my cat. Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 2:59
  • @RobertColumbia your cat ate Schrodinger's herrings and is both sated and hungry at the same time. So just like any regular cat.
    – Criggie
    Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 4:02

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