There are scenes that form basic building blocks for novels, teleplays, screenplays, and even video games of various genres. One of these crops up most frequently in the mystery and thriller field. It goes like this: a main character who’s engaged in trying to solve a puzzle, understand a mysterious event or literally solve a crime has an encounter with someone who parcels out tiny little morsels of information about what’s going on.
(I titled this essay before realizing that Mysterious Informant is, of course, the name of a related TV trope. What I’m talking about is very much in the same wheelhouse, but it’s less about what it is and more about how to do it. Because sometimes this is well worth doing.)
Anyway, they get together. One wants info; the other has it. Some verbal fencing ensues. The in-the-know character (henceforth, the Source) makes a few frustratingly vague statements and takes off, leaving their interrogator (let’s call them the Seeker) to experience frustration and other related feels before plunging back into their quest for understanding.
A few mistakes that beginning writers tend to make with Mysterious Informant scenes are:
- The actual exchange of information is insignificant.
- The Source has no agenda, and in particular no adequate reason for withholding the information except that if he or she spilled, the Seeker could proceed directly to cracking the case.
- There’s no subtext. The characters speak honestly, without recourse to half-truths, double entendres and outright lies.
- Sometimes, there’s no reason for the encounter to have taken place at all.
- The Source appears more than once, in scenes with a similar construction, emotional tone, and outcome.
Let’s look at a scene that works. Take that first encounter between Buffy and Angel in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot, “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” At first glance, Angel seems to be doing exactly what I am complaining about: mouthing off, being mysterious for the sheer joy of it, and offering up nothing of use. (If you run a web search for this episode title and “transcript”, you can find the whole script, or a reasonable facsimile, online.)
In point of fact, a tremendous amount of information is exchanged between the two characters. It is Angel who reveals to Buffy that Sunnydale is on a Hellmouth, a hint that she and Giles research in greater depth later on. He tells her to get ready for the Harvest, a big upcoming vampire attack on a town that should really just put all the major evil holidays in a calendar on the City Hall website.
By offering up a few tidbits, Angel ensures that Buffy makes real progress on her problem, and thereby lets her know that like it or not, he might have his uses.
What else happens? Angel gives Buffy a cross. Blessed Bling, useful for fighting the undead! It is a dual declaration. It says “I like you” and also “I want to fight on Team Good!” Unspoken but significant is his fulfillment of a cherished personal agenda, which is basically to get a look at the Slayer up close after stalking her for… was it months?
Note, too, that in keeping with best Mysterious Informant protocols, Angel engages in a little wordplay, telling Buffy he doesn’t bite. His intention is for her to understand that he knows she’s a Slayer, while simultaneously having her take him for something other than the vampire he is. What he says is literally true, but at the same time it’s a conflict-avoiding obfuscation. This becomes even more of a complication when it turns out they’re strongly attracted to each other. They are, after all, each other’s natural prey. As becomes obvious later, they most emphatically should not date.
Two other things that make this encounter with Angel work, where less carefully crafted scenes might fail:
- It is exceedingly short. (Shorter even, I fear, than this analysis of it.) The two characters dance around each other for less than a minute, and he’s gone.
- There’s no history between them. It is harder to pull off a mysterious in-the-know visitor, I think, when the person withholding information is someone the other character knows well.
Still. Aside from the fact that it’d be boring for us viewers, why doesn’t Angel show up and say “Hey, here’s a flyer about living on a Hellmouth, and while you’re at it the Harvest will be starting at the Bronze at exactly midnight, and I’ve made up a handy infographic about the local vampire government and its plans. I’m older than you and stuff, but you wanna date?”
His motivation for being reticent is, in large part, shame. He doesn’t want to admit to having been Angelus. Who would? Angel wants to help out, to fight on the side of good, but without having to say how he knows what the local vampires are up to. He doesn’t want to tell Buffy he’s one of them.
So, how do you construct one of these scenes – which can be immensely suspenseful and effective – without leaving the reader feeling as if the Source is jerking the Seeker around for no good reason?
First, figure out how the informant got into the scene. If they entered the exchange willingly, then it follows that there is at least some small piece of information they want to divulge. This ties into the question of their agenda.
What if they didn’t seek out your protagonist? Sometimes it does turn out that the Seeker is a nice active kind of detective, the sort who digs up witnesses on their own initiative. In that case and assuming the informant can’t simply run away, clutching his precious knowledge to his chest, the Seeker is probably going to offer up the absolute minimum information required to get them out of what is effectively an unwanted interrogation.
In either case, the Seeker wants more! They want all the info, with drawings and annotations. This is where some of the conflict comes from.
Second, it is necessary to have a legitimate and defensible reason as to why the informant doesn’t say: “Here’s everything I know, so please eff off now.” Why are they giving partial information? It can be out of fear for their own safety. to protect another individual, because of national security, or because, like Angel, they have some reason to be ashamed. (I suppose that sometimes they might just be a serious dick, but I promise that is harder to pull off.)
Your guideline here is that as long as it is a believable reason, great! If it’s just to drag out the plot, readers are going to feel justifiably jerked around.
Third, ask yourself: can the minimal revelations of the Source be exploited by your Seeker? If not, everyone’s time has been wasted and I shall be obliged to despair.
Fourth, figure out what else has happened in the exchange. The revelation moves the plot forward, and that’s lovely, but what is the effect on the relationship between informant and interrogator? What did they communicate beyond their lines of dialog?
Fifth: It’s worth it to remember that each time the mysterious informant appears, they’re probably going to get less mysterious.
Six: Like all relationships, the Seeker/Source connection evolves. When you’re trying to solve a problem and a person who knows a lot about it gives you partial information, it is only natural to take the crumb trail as far as you can and then try to return to the source. So remember that, with a scene like this, you can’t give it to us the same way twice. The next time these characters encounter each other, you need to hit different emotional beats.
This is why we so often see cops going back to their sources, only to find them beaten up, shot, gasping their last, fleeing town, terrified into silence, dead, or otherwise deprived of their ability to continue offering even inadequate aid to your fictional heroes.
Seven: What makes your scene a little different? Here, for further analysis, is a scene from Sherlock where the exchange is almost all subtextual and emotional rather than truly informative:
I’d have started it earlier, and I do recommend finding the whole scene if you can. Then watch it and ask yourself: what do these guys want from each other? Which one is seeking? Ultimately, what do these men tell each other? How much of it do they actually say aloud?
Check out your current work in progress and see if any of this resonates. And feel free to mention or share your own favourite mysterious informant scenes!
*My Writing102 tag is a 2015 addition to this site – it’s meant to indicate essays for writers who aren’t entirely inexperienced. The Internet has a wealth of information for people just starting out, and less for those looking to develop next-level skills. In these essays, I’m trying to explore questions that might challenge people who can write coherent, readable prose and have some idea how a story may be structured–people trying to get to the next level. It’s a work-in-progress–in fact, this is the first attempt I’ve actually so labelled!–and I welcome your feedback as well as other suggestions for similar articles.
Writing is, to a great degree, learned through trial and error. But errors can be hard to identify – especially as a writer starts to be pretty good at the basics. Once things start to go subtly wrong with a person’s work, it becomes obvious there’s no single right answer as to how to fix a given challenge within a manuscript.
Part of the answer, of course, is to find a group of peers with good reading skills and the same need to have outside eyes laid on their work. People with goodwill, a story in progress, and an understanding that half of critiquing is about helping the author fix their work and the other half is about cultivating your own critical sense so you can better address your own.
With short story critique groups, there’s a rhythm that can work quite well: new writers submit a story to a workshop, everyone critiques it, and then everyone goes home to hopefully rewrite the piece before sending it to market. When they return, it’s generally with another piece. There’s a fresh start. This is how Clarion and Odyssey and a number of other workshops are configured. (There’s an article in Wired about the SF workshops this week
, by the way. I found it a bit shallow, and the comments thread may make you blind with rage, but some of the actual interview responses are interesting.)
With novel workshops, the logistics get much trickier. If you submit your first three chapters, and get a bunch of feedback, do you then revise those chapters? If you do, do you submit them again to make sure they’re working? If they’re not, do you revise and resubmit them again? That’s just an ornate way of never getting the book finished.
On the other hand, it can feel very weird to submit chapter one, get feedback, try then to use that feedback to write a better chapter two. (Next you submit that, and try to use the next round of feedback to inform chapters three and four.) This gets your novel done–and I am a huge fan of done! But drawback can be that if you are truly improving your craft as you go, the last chapters of the book may be significantly better-written than the opening ones. This leaves you to discover, four or five hundred pages later, whether you’re up to the task of revising. You are drafting better, which is great, but can you raise something you wrote six months ago to the level of what you’re creating now?
Additionally, the plunge-forward system doesn’t address any huge structural changes you decide to make along the way. When you turn the guy who was formerly the love interest into the main character’s brother, around about chapter five, the question arises again… do you go back and tweak this before moving forward?
Okay, so what if you got a dozen writers together and they all managed to submit a completed novel draft on the same day… make it November 30th. You could then set some kind of reading period–one book every two or three weeks–and trade off so that each participant was getting one critique during each round. But how to get a dozen writers to all finish their book on the same day? I chose November 30th because it’s the end of Nanowrimo, but most Nanowrimo projects would require considerable massaging before they were workshop-ready.
There are other logistical challenges with novel-in-progress workshops, but these are some of the things I’m mulling right now.
Has any of you been in a novel group that worked? How was it structured?
Moving on from my previous post about Die Hard, workshop etiquette and providing fictional/film examples, here’s what I’d say about The Imitation Game. This is the problematic stuff, and would come later in the critique than the section where I praised the characterization, the weighty and worthwhile subject matter, and the general structure of the story, which holds together in a decently coherent fashion.
Hi, Graham and Morten,
- Though the story moves from beat to beat in a logical manner, and is effective in achieving the desired emotional effect, it lacks subtlety. The story feels heavy-handed, on the nose, as if the characters are bellowing slogans like, “War is bad!” and “It takes more than guns to win these things!” and “Look at this amazing maladjusted smart guy and all the people he saved!” and “Wow, isn’t it horrific and amazing that every day he and his band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but it’s fundamentally clunky.
- The details of your chosen historical period and the military/intelligence community are for the most part accurately rendered, but you have chosen to simplify the chain of command by making Turing and his guys seem responsible for an enormous swath of military action, including calling or cancelling bombing raids. I understand why simplifying is often a good choice, but it’s less interesting, in this case, than if you tried to hint at the complexity.
- Turing’s male sidekicks are somewhat slenderly characterized. They blend together in my mind, forming something of a multi-headed bully when they’re not on his side and a multi-headed cheerleader when they are. The only one who stands out at all is the fellow with a brother in the Navy. That’s less about characterization and more about the story attached to him.
- I’m not sure what I think of you showing us apple and cyanide during the story, foreshadowing the manner of Turing’s death, without explicitly saying that he poisoned himself. Apples have both Biblical and fairy-tale freight, and I wonder if you couldn’t do something more with this.
All of the above is clear and yet it’s respectfully worded. It’s not so “nice” that the intent is lost, but it doesn’t try to snark, show off my huge brain, or score points.
It would be easy to push that line, especially with the first item. I could simply add a touch of sarcasm to the sentences I use to illustrate the story’s various points. (Even if I tool the last one up slightly “Gee willikers, do you all get that every day Turing and his plucky band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” the tone changes.)
The exercise here, if you missed the previous post, is to critique a movie that many people will have seen, as if it were actually a novel or short story submitted to one of my classes. It’s a chance to practice critique. And to get to say, “Dear Francis Ford Coppola, about this thingie you’ve written…” Which is just, I hope, fun.
Next in this series, we will discuss my deep and abiding hatred of the most recent X-Men movie.
One of the exercises I assign to many of my writing classes goes like this:
Imagine a popular film was actually a story or novel submitted to this workshop. Write a critique, using the guidelines I’ve set out for workshopping. This is your chance to say: “Dear Joss, I’ve had a chance to review your story ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and…”
It’s a fun exercise, and spawns lots of conversations about films and about critiquing.
Now I’m trying to generate a few examples to go with the exercise. I asked my social media followship to help me choose a film that would work well. I got great answers, but ended up deciding there wasn’t a single one-movie-fits-all answer that met all my teaching needs. Now I’m breaking the task into sections.
Critique in a lot of workshops, mine include, starts with the portion of the process where you say what is working with a particular piece. Here’s my handy sample for that:
…for example, if I wanted to write a critique of a novel called Die Hard, by a couple of guys named Steve and Jed, I might say:
-There’s no doubt that this is John McClane’s story–he’s the guy with both an internal conflict and a goal. The former is his struggle to accept his wife’s independence, and the fact that she has struck out on her own. The external struggle, of course, is the one which occupies most of the story–his fight with the thieves in Nakatomi Plaza.
-The tone you set in this piece is nicely balanced. The action moves along and we’re never bored. The bad guys seem genuinely dangerous, especially Hans Gruber, and yet the humorous moments play well.
-John’s very much a guy of the Eighties and his uneasy and incomplete concessions to feminism reflect that attitude. Held to the standards of the present day, he doesn’t seem that enlightened; it may be that this story doesn’t score perfectly on that front either. But we are looking at something that’s set about thirty years ago. And I think it’s praiseworthy that Holly Gennaro isn’t there merely to motivate John in his fight against Gruber and company. She stands up to Gruber, and works hard to keep a lid on a terrifying situation, thereby protecting the other hostages while hiding her true identity from the thieves.
-Your use of Holly’s last name as a plot device is especially brilliant. It’s a bone of contention between John and Holly. Because they’re fighting about it, it’s already on our radar as Gruber tries to figure out who is causing him such problems and whether he might have any leverage on John. This is a classic example of a story element that works on more than one level.
What you should all notice about this is that I’m not just saying what I like–I’m going into as much detail as I can about why it works.
I’ll be doing this for other elements of critique, including things that don’t work in some other movie.
Caitlin Sweet has tagged me and Kelly in the Writer Process Blog Tour, and posted her answers to the questions in that meme here. (She was tagged by Peter Watts, incidentally).
I will provide answers, but being tagged reminded me that 1) I’m trying to channel my inner Gomez Addams by finishing old business before jumping into new;
and 2) I’ve been working up a post about the things we writers post to the Internet about writing.
These essays tend to fall into a number of categories.
Write, Sell, Lather, Rinse, Repeat
– How to write more.
– How to write better.
– How to get your more better writing published.
– What traditional publishing is like.
– What self-publishing is like.
– Whether to go traditional, Indy, or hybrid.
– Stuff happening in publishing and how it benefits or harms writers.
– How to promote your work: how to sell it to people.
Writing lifestyle stuff
– To have a day job or not.
– To write in a cafe or not.
– Just plain finding the time.
– Also in this category is all the material about the emotional journey. That means things like coping with rejection, coping with success or failure, supportive versus unsupportive spouses (children, parents, gerbils, etc.), your first fan letter, good bad and ugly reviews, writers’ block. Anything you have feelings about.
– My genre is like this, your genre is like that.
– This particular story is categorized as one thing, but is actually another.
– These genres are basically the same but are marketed to different people.
– Actual academic analysis of the work.
– Books, shows, games, gadgets and other media that we think is cool. Sometimes we even talk about how well-written the stuff is.
History of writing
– How Leon de Tocqueville got it done and the Marquis de Sade’s editorial relationship with his… never mind.
Politics of writing
– Sexism, Racism, ablism, and other issues: on the page, in the community, and within fandom.
– Writing that promotes a political agenda in some way.
– Writers who are politically active and whether/how/when/why that’s appropriate.
Health safety and wellness
– Writing desks short and tall.
– Food or exercise issues.
– Writing through illness.
– Technological assists.
– Why we should all have kittens.
The reason I’m thinking about all of the above is that it makes me wonder I am wondering what we don’t talk about. Are there uncomfortable and difficult topics we should be addressing online? Would our readers and/or new writers be interested?
If so, what are those topics?