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October 31, 2019

How to Plant Red Herrings in Crime Novels / Guest Post by Damyanti Biswas

Please help me to give Damyanti Biswas a BIG welcome. Her book YOU BENEATH YOUR SKIN has been making waves. I am honored to have her on my blog today.

Damyanti Biswas' Guest Post:

One of the joys of reading a mystery novel is trying to address a story question—who was the one who did it? I do not write traditional whodunits---my debut You Beneath Your Skin subverts the thriller genre—making of it a whydunnit. It helps though to have the structure of a page-turner, and that means red herrings.

Red herrings do not exist in nature, the term is an idiom—for a rather fragrant distraction (herrings are cured in brine and roasted to give them a red colour) that would take the detective off the scent of the real culprit. Red herrings are the author’s way of making everyone other than the real culprit a suspect. Each red herring would lead the detective or the reader down a different garden path, distracting them from the actual clues.

A few ways to plant red herrings:

1.    Make as many suspects out of other characters as possible: This of course is the prime way to create red herrings. Give other characters the motive, means and opportunity to commit the crime. Make these as strong as those of the suspect. The mistress of red herrings, Agatha Christie, actually decided who the culprit was more than halfway into writing her novel—by which time a range of characters could easily be the culprit.

2.    Let the red herring only confuse the investigators: Sometimes, it is fine to let the investigators take a wrong fork on the road, suspect the wrong person, but the reader can know better. This makes the detectives vulnerable and easy to root for.

3.    Double meanings to create confusion: Sometimes a single clue could be interpreted in many ways. If a detective gets it wrong pretty reasonably because of a genuine confusion, it makes the case more complex, and makes the reader believe a red herring to be a suspect.

4.    Double herrings: This is about introducing too obvious a clue, which the detective dismisses because of its very obviousness. They pick up on something else which is contrary to the first one, only to realise later that the first, obvious clue was the right one.

5.    Check how the red herrings affect characters: Sometimes it is not about a red herring making the reader suspect a wrong character, but instead about showing us an aspect of the character we haven’t seen before. Deepening of character affects plot, and the reader is further engaged in not just getting to know the character but in what happens to them.

6.    Seed them early, and follow through: For a red herring to be really convincing, it needs to be placed as organically and as early as possible. Follow through within the narrative to ensure that the character becomes a viable suspect.

7.    An unreliable narrator: The reader trusting an unreliable narrator can lead to the best twists and red herrings. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn works precisely because the reader comes to trust the narrator’s diary as an intimate portrayal of truth. Sometimes making the detective the main suspect can also help turn the story on its head, especially if the reader can’t decide if they are really clean or not.

Reading a mystery novel is mostly about finding who the culprit is. It is also about getting the reader to turn pages, and care about the characters. Red herrings, when judiciously placed and allowed to grow organically, can be used to spice up a story, add twists and deepen character.


You Beneath Your Skin is a crime novel about the investigation of an acid attack on a woman from Delhi’s upper class, set against the backdrop of crimes against underprivileged women. They are assaulted, disfigured with acid, and murdered.

While the framework is that of a thriller, the novel threads together different narrative strands. The author tackles various social issues: crimes against women and why they occur, the nexus between political corruption, police and big money; the abuse of the underprivileged, be it adults or children.

Of these the issue of crimes against women is the strongest—why do men attack women? Why do they gang together? What happens when a woman tries to break the glass ceiling? Can toxic masculinity masquerade as benevolent patriarchy?

Parents would also find this novel fascinating: how do you bring up a good human being in today’s troubled times? How much do you know of your teenager’s life? If you’re the parent of a special child, what challenges do you face and what sort of support can you expect?

It is a whodunnit, but also a whydunnit, because violent crime unravels those affected: the people, the relationships, the very fabric of society, and we get a glimpse of what lies beneath. That’s why the title, You Beneath Your Skin.

The narrative of the book was researched and shaped during the author’s work with Project WHY, and some of the experiences generously shared by acid attack survivors from the non-profit Stop Acid Attacks. To return this debt of gratitude, all author proceeds from the book will go to these two non-profits.



Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and works with Delhi's underprivileged children as part of Project Why, a charity that promotes education and social enhancement in underprivileged communities. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. You can find her on her blog and twitter.

All the author proceeds will go to Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks.

Thank you, Damyanti, for your awesome tips and for sharing your book with us. More, for the good you are doing. You are AMAZING!

Please leave a comment for Damyanti. 


  1. Hello Chrys and Damyati, these red herring tips are awesome. I have one WIP on the shelf that is mystery. So, these tips are timely and also intriguing. I thought of Girl On The Train regarding unreliable narrators and how this works well to play with the reader's head. Damyati, your book sounds not only thrilling but also a statement on political and social issues in India. Well done on your work with these victims and so unique that you are donating all sales proceeds to Stop Acid Attacks. Chrys, thanks for sharing Damyati and her writing tips! Happy Halloween!

    1. So pleased that the tips work for you, Lisa.

      Thanks for the kind words on the book. All the women attacked with acid who I have met are survivors--their courage is exemplary and inspirational.

      I hope my proceeds are able to help them--I'm glad that the book is already bringing visibility to their cause.

  2. Excellent tips! Even if you're not writing a crime mystery, it's good to scatter some plot options about the story so a reader doesn't get bored.

    1. I'm glad you like the tips, Elizabeth. A plot comes form characters, and if I get my characters right, I can usually keep the reader intrigued in genres other than crime.

  3. Great tips, enjoyed. Congrats on the release.

    1. Thanks for your support with this book, Juneta. So thankful.

  4. I've never given much thought to red herrings before. Interesting.

    1. When writing crime novels, red herrings are a great way to keep the reader guessing.

  5. Excellent review and book. Good luck Dammyati with the release.


    1. Thanks for the kind words, Yvonne. I appreciate it.

  6. Nice tips, and timely as I’m just starting my 5th murder mystery (no, actually my 6th—there’s that one in the files...). I have learned to think consciously about my red herrings, actually to plan them, after having to go back and insert them into the first book AFTER I had drafted it! Hard to get it right that way :D

  7. Forgot to mention that another great way to approach them is to figure that everyone is lying about something—and you and the sleuth have to figure out what they are lying about, and if it relates to the mystery.

  8. i love the post and for me, the more red herrings, the better. i read tons of crime novels and to keep me guessing until the end is something i revel in. great cover!
    sherry @ fundinmental

  9. Congrats to Damyanti on her release. It sounds like a cool story. Since I've been meaning to read more mystery this will be bumped up on my TBR.
    Great insights into mysteries and red herrings.

  10. What great advice. And the novel sounds fascinating. I don't read a lot of mysteries, but this one's going on my list. Thanks for the interesting facts.

  11. Additional tip: Add an actual red herring. Add a great deal of description of said fish. Have no character ever interact with the fish. Confuse the readers as to why there is a fish.

  12. It takes a lot of planning to create a red herring!

  13. Hi Chrys and Damyanti - just made it before Feedly rejected you! Sorry - been off doing my thing.

    I loved Damyanti's book ... while these tips seem to tick all the boxes ... great you can both write novels ... I doubt I'll get there - but who knows. Cheers Hilary