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Sherrill Joseph Asks Are You Confused by Red Herrings and MacGuffins?

Sherrill Joseph is the author of the Botanic Hill Detectives mystery series for ages 9 to 12. You can find out more about her on her website www.sherrilljoseph.com, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and find her books here.

If you are a reader, writer, or filmgoer, and your answer is, “YES,” then I say, “Perfect!”

Photo of a labyrinth for Sherrill Joseph's post on Red Herrings

Aficionados of crime, thriller, mystery, whodunits, or suspense stories want to be confused by red herrings and MacGuffins. Why? Because when used effectively as plot devices in those genres, red herrings and MacGuffins help writers craft compelling stories, leaving an adrenaline-fueled audience guessing until the end.

So, what is a Red Herring? In a story or screenplay, a red herring is a seemingly plausible clue, or decoy, that is intended to mislead. The audience is led astray in an irrelevant direction, distracted from the true issue, important truth, and/or real culprit.

Well-placed red herrings can build suspense and help storytellers present dramatic, satisfying plot twists or surprise endings. Without red herrings, the mystery could be too easy to solve.

The term “red herring” was popularized in 1807 by the English polemicist William Cobbett, who told a story of a person dragging a herring, made red and pungent by smoking, across a path as a training tool to try to divert and distract dogs from chasing a rabbit. Others say it had to do with training horses in a similar manner.

There are two kinds of red herrings: 1. intentional, where a false clue is purposely planted by a character who intends to confuse others, especially those trying to solve the mystery, e.g., planting someone else’s glove at the scene of the crime to transfer guilt or suspicion; and, 2. coincidental, where a piece of information happens to mislead the audience or a character in the story, e.g., a false clue not necessarily placed with the intent to mislead, but it does, anyway.

Some famous examples of red herrings from literature include 1. Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet,where the word “RACHE” is written in blood on a wall. Police inspector Lestrade thinks it mean “Rachel”; Sherlock Holmes says it is German for “revenge.” Neither guess is correct. 2. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, where the character Vera, one of the last island survivors, deduces from the term “red herring” in a nursey rhyme that it is a clue not to accept the identity of the murderer at face value. 3. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, where one prominent character is assumed to be Pip’s anonymous benefactor, who paid for his education to become a gentleman. Actually, the benefactor is the least likely character.  

Be on the lookout for red herrings. Some of the most memorable stories employ them to create an entirely different conclusion from what the audience was led to expect!

Now, what is a MacGuffin? In a story or screenplay, a MacGuffin (sometimes spelled McGuffin), is a desired, attention-grabbing object, goal, quest, character, or event that is necessary to set and drive the plot but is intrinsically insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant. Usually, the characters care more about the MacGuffin than the audience as the story progresses.

Photo of crossed wires illustrating Sherrill Joseph's post

MacGuffins can hold the audience’s attention and build suspense as the audience anticipates a solution to a mystery and will, therefore, continue to follow the story unfolding even if the initial attention grabber, i.e., the MacGuffin, turns out to be irrelevant.

MacGuffins are thought to be important to stories until one of the following is revealed: 1. the object turns out to vanish or never to have existed; 2. if it exists, it is far less consequential but points to something more significant; 3. it is significant but alludes to a more tangible set of connections/emotions that are integral to the story; or 4. it exists, is significant, but by the end, does not end up in anyone’s hands, which diminishes its physical value.

The MacGuffin was popularized by the master of suspense himself, Sir Alfred Hitchcock. He borrowed the term from an old shaggy-dog story by screenwriter Angus MacPhail. The story goes that train passengers were discussing a fellow passenger’s large, strange-looking package. It was purported to contain a MacGuffin, which was used to catch tigers in the Scottish Highlands. The passengers pointed out that there are no tigers in Scotland to which the package’s owner said, “Well, then, this must not be a MacGuffin!”

Hitchcock held that the “classic” MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters since they worry about it, but the audience ends up not caring.

Classic MacGuffins include the killing of Marion Crane and the 40,000 dollars she stole in Hitchcock’s movie Psycho; the microfilm in the Mexican sculpture in his movie North by Northwest; the letters of transit in the movie Casablanca; the falcon statuette in The Maltese Falcon; and, the necklace in “crook” stories and the papers in spy stories.

In contrast, George Lucas defines the “modern” MacGuffin as a prop or object, acting as a plot device that is cared for by both the characters and the audience.

Modern MacGuffins include the rings in The Lord of the Rings; the Horcruxes in Harry Potter; and, the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Red herrings and MacGuffins can create thrilling, scintillating experiences for readers and moviegoers. Now that you know what these plot devices are, I hope they continue to confuse you!

Resources:

Click HERE for “How to Add Suspense to Your Novel” (including Red Herrings).

Click HERE for more about MacGuffins.

Sherrill Joseph

Sherrill Joseph is the award-winning author of the Botanic Hill Detectives series for middle graders. You can find out more about her on her website, sherrilljoseph.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Pinterest, or Instagram.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. saralynrichard

    I love your thorough explanations of these terms. I spent part of the first year of covid studying Alfred Hitchcock movies, and experienced multiple examples of both red herrings and McGuffins. Like you, I appreciate these tools for enhancing the joy of reading a mystery!

    1. Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Saralyn! I’m glad you appreciate Hitchcock, too. My studies of the master of suspense and his films caused me to become fascinated with red herrings and MacGuffins. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could bring Hitchcock back and listen to him and Lucas argue about MacGuffins since they took very different views of the device?

  2. Sherrill, this is such a great post, and I appreciate your definitions of these two plotting devices. We do love to include both in our stories and I enjoy reading crime fiction books that use them. Thank you!

    1. Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Margaret! Red herrings and MacGuffins are so important to our reading and writing of crime fiction.

  3. Christine DeSmet

    Good analysis of those words and how they’re used!

  4. Laurie Buchanan

    Sherrill — Oh, what an interesting post! And thank you for the explanations, especially for the new-to-me term, “MacGuffin.”

    1. Sherrill Joseph

      Laurie, thank you. Glad to have helped. Once a teacher, always a teacher!

  5. Sherril, it seems like we talked about this only . . . Friday! How did you have time to write it! Now that I’m on to them, I look forward to identifying a MacGuffin or Red Herring in your books!

  6. Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks, Tracey. I believe it was you, Galit, and I who talked about red herrings and MacGuffins at the birdbath the week before you went to the conference. One of you asked me what a MacGuffin was, and that’s what sparked my post topic. I do have red herrings and MacGuffins in my books, so have fun finding them. I’m especially fond of using MacGuffins in my stories.

  7. Terrific post, Sherrill. Next time someone bugs me about something extraneous in one of my stories, I will tell them it’s a MacGuffin. <wink, wink, nudge, nudge)

  8. joyribar

    Thank you Sherrill for enlightening and enjoyable reading. I love your examples, which brings the terms to life for me. I’m a visual learner. You inspired me to try creating a MacGuffin of my own.

  9. Sherrill Joseph

    Hi, Joy! You’re welcome. I’m a visual learner, too, and look forward to your MacGuffin(s).

  10. Tim Chapman

    I love those Hitchcock films. 39 Steps has a pretty good MacGuffin, too. I’m not as big a fan of the red herring, though even some of the old hardboiled stuff I like uses it. Your explanations of both MacGuffin and red herring are both helpful and fascinating. I like that you mentioned some more recent film MacGuffins, too.

  11. Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks, Tim. And yes to your comment regarding Hitchcock’s 39 Steps. I often find it difficult to offer more recent film examples because I’m such a classic Hollywood “old film” buff!

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