Red Herring & Retroactive Continuity — A-to-Z Blog Challenge, Literary Terms

RA rough few letters and in the past week, and I start a new week with a somewhat easy letter. It’s a nice load off my mind, considering that this week and next week will be the hardest part of the challenge. Just one day at a time.

From the messages I’ve received, my posts have helped people learn a lot and that makes me very proud, as my goal with this blog is to teach people.

The words today is Red Herring and Retroactive Continuity.

As always, look forward to hearing from you. I feel I have made some new friends thanks to the contest, and it is always a welcome surprise to see your posts. Special shout out to fellow AtoZ Challenge Tasha Sophie Sara Veronica Nicohle and thank you for your support.

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Red Herring

My first exposure to this term was a Pup Named Scooby Doo. I didn’t learn it was a literary term until Jr. High, but it never sink in until I was in college.


The basic definition of it is a way of storytelling that distracts or misleads the reader and/or characters to a false conclusion. It can either be a direct red herring, where the information is given in conversation, of an indirect one, in which it is used in narration as foreshadowing.

While it is unknown where the original expression came from, it is believed to come from a strong-smelling smoked fished used to train hounds to follow a scent or to divert them from the correct route when hunting. There is no fish called a Red Herring. This is more of an old wives tale, and doesn’t seem to be any truth to it.

However, it is now believed to come from William Cobbett. He apparently wrote an article on February 14th, 1807 in critique of the English press who reported Napoleon’s defeat. He told of how he used red herrings to deflect hounds in pursuit of a hare. It was used again and the term red herring became a term, though the truth of the words origins was lost on people, focus on the hunting and not on someone making up a term.

Just so you know, Mythbusters tested to see if a herring could throw off scent hounds. The dog stopped, ate the fish, and did lose the scent for a moment, but was able to pick it up again.

mythbusters red herring

This is often used in mystery, when the function of the conflict of the story is to understand whodunnit. It can be used to point to one person who later becomes innocent.

The beauty of Red Herrings is that there are many different ways to use them. That’s something they don’t teach you in English class. A special shout out to TV Tropes.

So, there is the normal method that is simply a misdirection that we spoke of up top. An example of this is Hot Fuzz. Interesting, the Red Herring doesn’t lead to the wrong killers, instead to the wrong motives. The Main Character develops an overly elaborate motive that involves money, land, cheating, and jealousy. While there was a connection between the victims, their only connection that led to their murder was the town leaders didn’t like them. Citing one was a bad actor, another had annoying laugh, another had an awful house, and the last was for spelling mistakes in the newspaper.


Next is the Red Herring Mole. To fully understand this, watch the video below. Warning, it is has animated violence.

Admit it, you thought the spy. This is an example of a Red Herring Mole. When the narrative points to a character to betray the others, and it seems obvious to even the characters, and it ends up not being who everyone thought.

Another example of this is the Pilot Episode of Firefly when we are introduced to Simon, we are led to believe he’s the mole. It turns out it was Dobson.


Next is the Red Herring Twist.

“Come on baby, and lets do the Twist”

Anyways… The Red Herring Twist is a way of distracting the audience from the main plot. Often times, there is a twist ending. It’s best used in murder mysteries when the author doesn’t want the author doesn’t want the reader to know who the killer is yet. So instead, another character who is innocent is actually guilty.

Next is the Red Herring Shirt. This is when a character is in trouble and needs help and no one is there, and two guards come up, who end up being the hero in disguise. One of my favorite films is The Three Musketeers (1993) where this trope is seen, where D’Artagnan is about to get his head chopped off and the executioners, whom you can see their faces, ends up being Porthos and Aramis. Almost the opposite of a wolf in sheep clothing.


Then there is one of my favorites, mostly for the name. Chewbacca Defense. Simply put, it is “winning” (and I put that in quotes specifically) an argument by confusing your opponent they stop arguing with you. If a person stops arguing, that means they are the loser, and by default, the other person is the winner. Right?

What’s sad, is this is a tactic that is done in real life. Often times, it is the who is yelling the loudest or make the most ridiculous claim that resorts to the Chewbacca Defense. You can also repeat your point over and over again, because the first 6 times apparently didn’t come through clearly. Constant interrupting, nitpicking other arguments, and rapid fire nonsensical responses can also be part of the Chewbacca Defense.

So this introduces a few fallacies. Proving the other side wrong so one can feel justified that they are right is a False Dichotomy. Also making them look bad to prove their position is wrong, is an Ad Hominem attack or a Strawman argument.

The unfortunate part about this, that no matter what you say, how intelligent and well throughout your argument is, the other using the Chewbacca Defense will perceive you doing the same thing. They know they’re right, no matter what you say, so you must be using dirty tactics to try to win. Even in the face of logic.

The trope was named for an episode of South Park. In the episode, a Johnnie Cochran lawyer is giving his closing statements, which is complete nonsense:

…ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, I have one final thing I want you to consider. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!

Why would a Wookiee, an 8-foot-tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor, with a bunch of 2-foot-tall Ewoks? That does not make sense! But more important, you have to ask yourself: What does this have to do with this case? Nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case! It does not make sense! Look at me. I’m a lawyer defending a major record company, and I’m talkin’ about Chewbacca! Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense! None of this makes sense! And so you have to remember, when you’re in that jury room deliberatin’ and conjugatin’ the Emancipation Proclamation, does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make sense! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests.


Does your head hurt yet?

A great example that can actually explain it better is the movie Thank you for Smoking. In the movie, which uses a lot of red herrings and fallacy based arguments, the Main Character is explaining to his son about his job. It would make this post longer to really go into the details, so I will simply show you a video.

The last Red Herring I will feature is the Untwist. Say there are two characters that are suspected of committing a crime. One is a loud mouth jerk, who admits he had motive and opportunity, while the other is simply a quite person who can barely say 3 words and stays in the corner. The idea that it could be the loudmouth is too obvious. It has to be the other person, this character is meant to be a red herring, to convince us that the other person is innocent. Well, jokes on you, the loud mouth is the guilty person.

In many ways, this follows the concept of Occam’s razor. Occam’s Razor postulates that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions tend to be the correct one. Hollywood has butchered this to mean, the argument with the easiest explanation tends to be correct. In this case, the obvious suspect was the actual suspect. I also call this the Reversal Red Herring.

A good example of this was an episode of Futurama called, The Lesser of Two Evils. In this episode, Fry hits a robot with a car. It turns out that it is a Bending unit like Bender named Flexo. There is one distinctive difference, in that Flexo has a beard. This is a Red Herring poking fun at Star Trek. The evil Mirror Universe Spock has a beard.

Immediately, Fry has a hatred of Flexo, claiming that he’s up to no good. He tried to tell his coworkers of his distrust, but they keep thinking he’s talking about Bender. Then Flexo is hired to help deliver high valued cargo. Fry remains suspicious that Flexo will steal it, and sure enough, it gets stolen when Fry is set to watch it and falls asleep. Now both the item and Flexo are gone, believing that Flexo took it.

Fry immediately notices that Bender is wearing a number of items to cover his chin. Fry can’t help but wonder if it is Flexo in disguise. Still, they search the ship, and despite his misgivings, doesn’t stop Fry from searching for the item or Flexo in Leela’s panty drawer. How many purple panties does a girl need? Eventually, it is revealed that it Bender was wearing special clothing to add class.

On the planet to where they were suppose to deliver it to, they catch up with Flexo, and Bender takes him on in a fight. During the fight, it is revealed that Bender had stolen the item, not Flexo. Flexo ran off because he saw Bender do it. This setup was a Red Herring, because we believed that it was Flexo who did it when he was innocent. More than that, the show had established that Bender was the sort of person to steal it, and we dismissed it due to a new character being introduced. Fry even commented, “So Bender is the evil Bender?”


Red Herring’s can be a great device to use to keep your readers interested. But over use can make your story predictable and tiring. But, with a variety to choose from, it can help you create something fresh and keep you readers guessing. It can be difficult though, like foreshadowing, some people won’t get it and be taken by surprise and others will see through it immediately.

Retroactive Continuity

Retroactive Continuity, better known as retcon. I’ve seen this term before, but never knew what it meant. I didn’t even know it was an abbreviation.

As the SpoonyOne once stated:

“Comic book fans will be familiar with the term ‘retcon’, which in layman’s terms means that the writer waves his hand and tells you ‘Remember when we said this? We screwed up, forget about that.'”
— Spoony on Highlander III: The Sorcerer.


Can’t say it better myself…but I’ll try anyways. So say you write a book. It’s a good book that everyone loves. So popular, you’re asked (and begged) to write a sequel. Now, you never planned to write a sequel in the first place. You brainstorm and you get an idea you want to do, and you go with it.

One little snag. The problem is; there are a few things from the first book that would contradict elements in the second book. The book is already published, people have already read it. So going back and changing it is not an option.

Now you can ignore the contradiction. Such as Star Wars Episode IV, when Kenobi told Luke that his father was killed by Vader. Only to be told by Darth Vader in Episode V that he was Luke’s father. So Kenobi said his father was dead and Darth Vader contradicting that. There are fans who state that Kenobi was speaking metaphorically. I say Lucas was lazy.


If you’re like me, you don’t want things to be left unsaid. So you need to address it. There are a few ways you can go about readdressing it.

1. Cerebus Retcon. Say your first story was more comical, but the overall storyline was so good, that for the sequel, you are more serious. However, one of the things featured in the first book was a lot of running gags. So now you need to explain the running gags in the first book as making sense in your universe.

A good example of this was the Men in Black films. In the first two films, we get a good feel for K being a stick in the mud, very straight forward, and this was played for laughs. However, in the third film, we see in the past, he was a very likable person. The end of the film explained this transition from fun guy to serious guy by the first film.


2. Revision. Where we add additional backstory without altering or contradicting any previous information.

Stargate SG-1 had to do this in light of the differences between the movie and the show. The main difference was that Ra’s was a being with the shape of a human, whereas the Go’uld were parasites. The show creators created a backstory to allow some of the events in the movie to fit, while ignoring other parts.

3. Rewrite. This is retcon that directly ignores or contradicts information in the backstory.

The same as above, they chose to ignore the alien inconsistencies of the move to tv show. We have to pretend that what we know about the Stargate Universe (the Universe, not the stupid show), is what happened in the movie.


4. Cosmic Retcon. Basically a reversal is done in the universe, to change events. Generally accomplished by time travel or magic. Not often used for serious drama. Characters in the next novel travel back in time to prevent the events from happening.

5. The last one done, which is a bit of a slap in the face and lazy writing is introducing the ongoing character for the first time. Essentially, there is a character that everyone knows about, he was there from the beginning, but the audience never saw him before.

The best example of this is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the movie, Khan is face to face with Chekov, with Khan citing “I never forget a face.” The problem was, that when Khan was on the original Star Trek, Chekov was not cast as a character yet. So there is no way that Chekov and Kahn could have known each other, though many fans cite that Chekov was not a bridge officer at the time, but was still on the ship.


Another example is on the show Scrubs, where Turk tells JD that Kim had always been around, but since she was wearing a wedding ring, he never noticed her (even though TCW was wearing a ring and he noticed her), in fact appearing at Ben’s Funeral right behind JD. Basically, they put her in Carla’s place in the funeral.


Red Herring & Retroactive Continuity

So we established that Red Herring is misdirection, and Retconing is try to handle a detail from a previous story. The link here is presentation. How information is presented. With any presentation, there is the danger of under doing it and over doing it.

With Red Herring, overdoing it will come off as obvious that we are doing it, but under doing it may be missed by the readers. Retcon is much the same way, under doing it and people will complain of the inconsistency and over doing it and people will think you are trying too hard to make changes.

Both can be really helpful to tell your story. Red Herring can keep your audience guessing where Retcon can help you deal with inconsistencies. But both are a challenge to get right. It is important to remember that you cannot please 100% of the people 100% of the time. So some will see through your Retcon and your Red Herring, and others may miss it all together. It is a delicate art to do, and you will fail some people.

I don’t discourage doing it, but get all the advice you can and have a variety of people proof read it to confirm if you effectively pulled it off.

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  1. […] when it is first experienced that it is named, but generally the most popular, such as the Chewbacca Defense. Also, Doug inspired me to write this article, so as a thank you, I name it after […]

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