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.