One of the things that Chuck Wendig’s brilliant post In Which I Critique Your Story (that I haven’t read) points out–in a hilarious yet gentle way–is that writing teachers see beginning authors making the same mistakes over and over. He covers a lot of those basic errors within the post. Memorize every word.
When I teach novel writing at the more advanced level for the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program, I get to see the next generation of mistakes… the things writers do after they’ve learned the lessons of Chuck. In Mysterious Informants, I’ve talked about some of the dynamics that arise when you have one in-the-know character teasing your protagonist and the reader, while failing to reveal any useful plot clues. Now I want to talk about a different kind of informational exchange: it’s a scene where one character is telling others about something that the reader has already witnessed, in an on-stage, pie-in-your-face, OMG watch out for the clown-car, Noooooo!!! unforgettable kind of scene.
Whatever it was, it mattered to the characters… obviously, or they wouldn’t be updating the people who were home, tucked into bed, during the clown car collision. But what I see in newer novelists tackling this transaction is this: a faithful and complete summary of something we vividly remember.
And that’s boring.
What can you do? These other characters do have to be brought up to speed, right? Tommy can’t freak out over Chris cheating on him until Pat mentions having seen the two of them playing tongue-lacrosse in the sauna, am I right? Plus, the reader needs to see how Tommy reacts. Maybe the next thing that happens in the story depends on that reaction!
The difficulty lies not in the transmission of the narrative of the clown car collision. It’s the faithful and full disclosure that’s problematic. That’s what reduces us to feeling as though we are binge watching something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and we’ve hit the Previously On section. Previously On is a useful refresher when you’re watching the show one hour at a time, at one-week intervals. But hey–if you just saw all this same stuff five minutes ago, all it’s good for is a bathroom break.
1. Summarize: We have the bearer of the news, and the audience. If the bearer really is going to tell the listener everything, try giving them one opening line. “Maybe you’d better sit down,” is a classic. Then just wrap it up: “I told her about Frankie’s meltdown the day before, working hard to remember every detail.”
2. Give them a reason to leave out a crucial bit: Why do they provide every detail? As yourself: who is this person, and might they have a reason to omit something? “He outlined what happened, telling her everything except the part about how he squeezed the mustard bottle so hard that they all went home covered in yellow stains. ”
3. Think of witness bias: does your gossip, the bearer of the tale, actually see what happened in the same terms as the other characters involved? Events worth spending not one but at least two scenes on better be a little intriguing. They’re hopefully dramatic, and preferably they’re life altering. If you put ten people in a room and show them life-altering, is there any chance their stories are going to line up perfectly? If Joy kills someone in self-defense in chapter two, how much more interesting is it if chapter three opens with, “Are you kidding? It was cold-blooded, premeditated murder,” Mallory declared.
4. Can they fight? Which brings us to: how many tellers are there, and are they in complete agreement about what happened? “Holy shit, Emily, Bobo the Clown totally swerved on purpose to hit us! Stop apologizing for him?”
What if they exaggerate? What if they lie?
5. Is the news-bearer clueless? What if your reporter saw the whole thing and had no idea why it was important? “Yuck yuck yuck, we saw Elizabeth nailing some dude, in the steam room, didn’t see his face… hey, buddy, you okay? You’re lookin’ kinda furtive all of a sudden. So, as I was saying…”
6. Why is this message getting passed along at all? Review the reasons why you’ve got this briefing onstage. Fictional characters are just as happy as we are to text the boring bits to their friends and loved ones. Is the bearer motivated by good will, the desire to gossip, or the need for solace or support? Have they been asked to spread the word? Are they hoping that speaking up will make them look good? Are they after revenge?
7. Does the recipient want to hear it? What if they’ve got their fingers in their ears and are screaming “La La La Get Out!!”
By now you can see the point I’m making: unless there is some kind of twist on the second telling of your clown car massacre, there’s no point in taking us all through it again.
Remember before you go into the scene that the thing we already know isn’t important. You are writing this passage because the character reactions matter, because someone is going to give inaccurate or incomplete or just-plain-wrong information, because new light is going to be shed on the events or characters involved, or because this conversation is going to trigger the next round of important character and plot developments.
Figure out what the important thing is. Craft the scene so the crucial bit is the one that receives the emphasis.
______________ *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 already write coherent, readable prose and have some idea how a story may be structured–people trying to get to the next level.
I welcome your feedback, as well as other suggestions for similar articles.
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.
I always liked the word hook, as writing terms go. Maybe it’s because I did fish as a kid…
(I realize that the fish should be turned sideways, so that it’s recognizable, for this photo to be any use as proof. Still. That’s me, and my first kill.)
It’s one of those metaphors that really works for me. Hook embraces the idea of the title as that first glimmer of a lure… and then the opening words or sentence, the first few paragraphs, get that opportunity to either grab the reader or let them get away.
No matter what term you use for it, a well-crafted opener is a must for fiction of any length. It’s the first thing a reader sees, and that’s true whether they’re reading purely for pleasure or because they are your dream agent and they want to consider representing you, you, you.
(Sure, there are people who will chew on through a few paragraphs of sawdust because they’ve liked your other published work, or because they’re completists who’ll finish anything once begun, or they’re your mom, or Harriet Klausner, or because it’s easier to keep going than to decide to switch to something else. But reaching the smallest possible subset of your potential readership isn’t the goal, right?)
So, how do hooks work?
Well, we’ve already established they make the reader want to read on. And want–desire, in other words–is an emotion. This is a lot of what fiction-writing is. You are trying to make the reader feel something.
Midway through a book or story, you can do something terrible to a character and that desire to read on will come from empathy. The reader will by then have befriended your characters, and they’ll want to see what happens next because they’re in a relationship of sorts with them. But early on, that emotional investment isn’t there. Imagine someone you’ve just met, who asks you to meet them for a coffee. If you aren’t pretty damn sure you like ’em, you’ll put them off.
That said, it’s not impossible to evoke empathy for a stranger. If you start a story with “The two homeless kids…”, you’re probably going to find a fair number of people who’ll go a little further.
And why is that? Partly, it’s because homeless children evoke a strand of sympathy just by being big-eyed starving moppets. But mostly it’s because some part of the reader is thinking: the two homeless kids… what?
And that’s the emotional essence of a veritable ton of hooks: curiosity. That sense of What? is a comparatively easy emotion to evoke. You can take that pair of disadvantaged children, for example, and crank the mystery right up:
The two homeless kids…
…were down to their last bullet.
…fought in the dark over the leprechaun.
…had been dead for at least a day.
…definitely weren’t human.
…not only were identical, but bore a creepy resemblance to young Elvis Presley.
…broke into the magic shop at moonrise.
…flat out refused to talk, even after we threatened to charge them with espionage and insulting the dignity of a police horse.
…had silver eyes and arsenic-tipped fingernails.
You see what I mean. If you get a person wondering, they’ll read on. And then you can move into engaging other emotions–be it friendly feelings for the characters or the surprise of “Hey! I wasn’t expecting that!” Once that happens, you’re well on your way to reeling them all the way to the end.
Here’s a favorite curiosity-inducing opener:
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving: I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
In the verdant grasslands a brisk hour’s run from the coast, close enough for to spice the air with the ocean’s foam, thirteen solemn men sat circle, speaking of death.
Curiosity isn’t the only way to go, of course. There are other strategies, like…
Dialog is seductive to beginning writers–I see a lot of student manuscripts that open with speeches. The allure is that it lets you open with a character and a scene in progress. Someone’s saying something… to whom? The curiosity is almost built-in.
But, again, we don’t yet have a relationship with that character. So whatever it is that they say needs to be remarkable enough to catch our attention. If you want to open with two guys jawing over the weather over the back fence, either the weather should be life-altering or your way with voice better be as sure-footed as that of a mountain goat. “Well, Earl, we got the planting done and now it looks like rain,” just isn’t going to cut it. Though Jane Yolen comes close with Briar Rose:
Gemma, tell your story again,” Shana begged, putting her arms around her grandmother and breathing in that special smell of talcum and lemon that seemed to belong only to her.
(I looked hard for something really revolutionary, dialog-wise, on my shelves, and came up dry. Dialog hooks are hard! Help me, please, if you know of a good one? And hey–no “I” protagonists talking to the reader. That’s different.)
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of the hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.
Running, Fighting, Chasing Each Other through the Trees: Another near relation of curiosity is suspense–opening with action. If the homeless kids in the above example are on the run, we’ll hang with them for a little while to see if they get away, and who’s after them, and why. A chase or a battle is inherently compelling. We want to know who wins. And, if over the course of that clash we come to know the players a little, to feel something for them and have a stake in their predicament, we’ll have three chapters read before we remember we meant to put the kettle on. (I’m going to talk about getting readers to like your characters soon, by the way, in another post).
Here’s a bit of action:
Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson: Roscommon came and laid waste to the garden an hour after dawn, about the time I usually get out of bed and he usually passes out on the shoulder of some freeway.
Start with character–Wherein you give us a look at someone, or better yet a glimpse into their soul:
My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance.
Not last, and certainly not least, you can set a hook with the aesthetic appeal of your prose. Setting out an authoritative and cool storyteller’s voice, something we just want to listen to… it’s a powerful thing, and powerfully hard to do, too. Here’s one of my favorite voice-y openings:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the batts shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of hook types. I couldn’t possibly come up with them all. My hope is that by now you’ve got the general idea. Open any book you love, read the first two paragraphs, and analyze whether, how and why it gets your interest. Then compare it with your opener. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s not every day that your family’s ghosts come boiling out of the past to disrupt your ordinary working day.
Why does it work? You tell me.
When in doubt, remember–you can put more than one worm on a story hook. So, my final hook type is this… Multibait! None of these tactics is mutually exclusive. A great hook is probably going to play on several reader emotions, and combine more than one interest-grabbing strategy.
But if you’re stuck, I recommend starting with curiosity. Dangle something shiny and mysterious, start the reader wondering, and get your tale underway.