Writing Excuses 10.19: Intrigue
Key points: Mystery, suspense, intrigue. The genre is based around the spy novel and political intrigue, but intrigue turns up in many genres. Questions and people who are deliberately hiding secrets and deceiving each other. Mystery is when the author hides things from the reader, while intrigue is when the author has characters hiding things from each other. Don’t withhold information to falsely build suspense, or have characters keeping secrets that they would normally disclose (a.k.a. idiot plotting). Also, beware of being too rushed to explain. Do have POV characters notice that someone else is hiding information or lying. Make sure that readers know why someone is keeping secrets. Mystery is about who did it, suspense is about when will it be revealed, and intrigue is about why they did it. Intrigue is about levels of deception. Readers need to know what the characters are planning, what their agenda or goal is. Then the suspense is watching how they achieve that. Part of the fun of intrigue is the tension of lies, wondering when it will be broken and how long can they keep it going. Deception, lies, and truth and trust — that’s intrigue!
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 19.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Intrigue.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we may or may not be that smart.
[Brandon] So, Dan, when we were preparing this episode, you said… Oh, I forgot our names, didn’t I?
[Dan] You forgot our names?
[Howard] No, no, you know what?
[Brandon] I forgot our names.
[Howard] It’s more intriguing if nobody knows who we are.
[Brandon] It’s more intriguing. Who are we?
[Brandon] I am question mark. You said, “Well, what’s the difference between intrigue and mystery?”
[Dan] Yeah, yeah. I wanted to ask, because we said, “Oh, intrigue. We’ve done suspense and mystery, but we’ve never done intrigue.” So I wanted to ask, “What?”
[Brandon] Mary! What? Oh. You. What?
[Brandon] Not saying names.
[Mary] I think they’ll know which one I am.
[Howard] A secret cabal of writing podcasters.
[Dan] We’re all wearing masks. You guys can’t see it.
[Mary] So, then… For me, intrigue is something that turns up in a lot of different forms. But it’s very specifically about questions and people who are deliberately hiding things. So…
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. Delib… Characters who know different things from other characters. Yes, there’s the genre of intrigue, which is based around the spy novel sort of thing. Which is different from mystery and suspense. That’s an actual genre.
[Dan] This is true.
[Brandon] But there’s also… Every book you’re going to write, someone knows something someone else doesn’t.
[Howard] Stake in the ground. Putting a stake in the ground. Mystery is when the author is hiding things from the reader, and intrigue is when the author has the characters hiding things from each other.
[Brandon] Right. Right. Okay. Good.
[Howard] I mean, you can have both.
[Dan] Which is what the elements of intrigue are in most stories, but… Yeah. Okay.
[Mary] Which is why I was like… This is an aspect of storytelling that we come up with a lot. How do you deliberately hide things from other characters without doing that coy thing where you’re withholding from the reader and making them frustrated because they can tell that you’re withholding information to falsely build suspense?
[Brandon] Or the other big problem is where you don’t let characters talk about things they would normally talk about in order to further the plot. You do want them to withhold information from each other, but… My agent calls this idiot plotting. Avoid idiot plotting, if they would just wake up and smell the coffee, so to speak, that everyone else would recognize or if they would just say the thing that every normal person would say, you have no plot.
[Mary] One of the tropes that I see a lot that frustrates me is, “What’s going on?” “No time. Come with me.”
[Mary] They’re then walking and not talking about the thing. I was just reading a Diana Rowland’s Vengeance… Revenge of the Demon. Someone said, “What’s going on?” He said, “I’ll tell you as we go.” And he does. I was like, “Thank you!” Thank you, because that raised the stakes for me because I knew what was going on and I knew what was at stake and I knew exactly what could go wrong.
[Howard] What’s fun about that sort of a scene is that it gives you the opportunity to write [fingers snapping] snappy, fast-paced dialogue that’s more fun.
[Mary] Exactly. But what was also happening in this scene was that the characters were masking their emotional response to what was going on from each other, and the tells were obvious. She’s like, “I can… I could… She could tell that he was holding back about something,” but it’s not the author withholding information that the character would have divulged.
[Brandon] Okay. How do you do this? How do you make this work? How did she do it, how do we do it as writers?
[Mary] One thing you can do… Depend… I mean, there’s… When we say it. One of the things that you can do is you can have a character… So you’ve got a character who is keeping a piece of information back. You can do a couple of things. One is have the character… Your POV character notice that they aren’t saying something. Some physical mannerism. So you can flag that. You can think that their response is odd. That’s a strange response to this. You can signpost it that way.
[Brandon] I would say that one of the big things you have to do here is you have to make sure your character motives are expressed well. You can… See, the big difference between a plot where “Man, these characters, if they would just talk, this book would be over,” and “Oh, I hope they talk, he eventually is willing to reveal the secret to her.” The difference between that is when you’re in the character, you understand why they’re not talking. And if… This is only one way to do it, but if you can get across to me that this character legitimately… Who they are would not discuss this issue, then I’m on board with that as an obstacle in the relationship. If you can’t, then I’m going to be feeling like these characters are idiots.
[Dan] There’s a lot of other reasons beyond dragging out the suspense that you wouldn’t want characters to talk to each other. One of my favorite scenes in all of literature is the big dinner party in the first part of Dune where they have arrived and it’s basically just intrigue right and left. It’s one of the tensest scenes in the book.
[Howard] I forget. Dune is third person omniscient?
[Dan] So, because it’s omniscient, he’s able to jump from head to head. One person will say something, and then you get to see three or four different characters interpretations of that. What does he mean by this? Is he trying to suggest X or Y? Is he on our side or not? So you see that kind of thing in a lot of political thrillers.
[Howard] It can accomplish…
[Brandon] This is the big difference between intrigue and mystery, is… Dune is a great example. There’s no mystery, because you know who the traitor is from the get-go. The suspense is you waiting for that to drop. The intrigue is that space in between where you know who the traitor is, and you’re finding out why they’re keeping their secrets. [Garbled]
[Howard] Without going third person omniscient, one of the tools here is to have your POV character talking to someone else. Then in your next scene, that someone else is the POV character, and once you’re inside their head, you figure out that they’ve been lying. That is a reveal that draws you forward. Oh, that thing that I just thought I just learned, I didn’t actually learn. Oh, this is something different. Oh, what the previous chapter’s POV character thought he was seeing and sensing is actually this. You can bounce that back and forth and carry a reader forward very nicely that way. Sort of a spy versus spy.
[Mary] The challenge when you’re doing all of this is not only how to plant the information, but also how to keep the reader from feeling like the character is stupid for not figuring it out. One of the tricks that I use for that is having them look at a character’s behavior and say, “Oh, I wonder why they did that? It could be this… A, B, or C.” They settle on B. But it was actually C. I give them a solid reason for misidentifying it, which also helps with red herring the audience sometimes. But at the same time, it is planting the real reason as a…
[Dan] The more I think about the different books and stuff that use this tool, often… The big differentiation from a mystery, whereas it’s not one innocent person trying to figure out what is going on, it’s different people trying to deceive each other. So why do I not figure out what you’re saying? It’s because I am trying to not let you figure out what I’m saying at the same time. So there’s different levels of deception.
[Brandon] This is moving it into the intrigue genre a little bit, where people are deliberately hiding secrets from one another.
[Howard] I invite someone out to dinner… I say I. POV character invites someone out to dinner. The real intent is not I want to go out to eat. The real intent is I want to propose. That is a level of intrigue that is full of tension and full of suspense, especially if you know what the character has planned. Because this can go terribly, terribly wrong.
[Dan] I think that that is a key that really makes this work well, is when the reader knows what the characters are planning. So it’s not a mystery… It’s literally let’s just watch how they go about achieving their plan.
[Mary] I recently read a really good book written by one of our podcasters which I will try to talk about in vague terms, because they do exactly this, which is that there is a scene in which two characters are talking and one of them is approaching the conversation assuming that the other one is lying to them. The other one is not.
[Brandon] Ooo. Okay. That’s sort of a reverse of this.
[Mary] It’s fascinating.
[Howard] Well, clearly you weren’t reading Brandon.
[Howard] It was all reading, so it wasn’t me.
[Dan] Oooh. Intrigue! You’re so easy to fool, Howard.
[Mary] But the thing that was working really well in this is that the POV character was constantly trying to figure it out. Watching that… That thought process of trying to put the pieces together, was part of what kept it moving forward. At the same time, one of the things that was working was that my knowledge of how people interact was giving me… Because I was… Was giving me the ability to go, “I think he might be misinterpreting this.” So that’s one thing that you can use, is to play with societal expectations. Common experiences. That you know that if someone is sweating and it’s a 90° day, that actually they’re probably hot. It’s not maybe that they’re nervous.
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Howard] So the POV character was listening to someone, believing that they were an unreliable narrator. You, the reader, were able to treat the POV character as an unreliable…
[Mary] Narrator. Yeah. It was really great.
[Dan] Whoever wrote this book is brilliant.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah. It was just… It was a tour de force.
[Brandon] It was Mary, wasn’t it?
[Mary] Yeah. Completely.
[Brandon] We’re talking about her as if she’s not here, because she may or may not be.
[Dan] May or may not be here.
[Brandon] Book of the week. Dan, you were going to tell us about A Spy in the House?
[Dan] Okay. Yeah. A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee, narrated by Justine Eyre. This is historical fiction, it doesn’t have any overt genre elements of science fiction or fantasy. It’s just straight up historical fiction. But it is odd in the sense that it is Victorian London, and starts off with a 12-year-old girl rescued from the gallows for thievery. She is put into a special school that is secretly run by the Agency, which trains young girls to be detectives. Then we jump forward and she’s now 17 years old and is placed into someone’s house as a paid companion in order to spy on them and figure out this smuggling ring and how it works.
[Brandon] So it’s like Victorian female James Bond stuff?
[Dan] YA Victorian female James Bond. Like it pushes every button I have. It’s phenomenal.
[Mary] I want this book right now.
[Dan] Really fun to read. It’s basically what we’re talking about. It’s all intrigue all the time. The more we read it, the more we realize, wait, there are so many people lying to each other in this book. That’s why she can’t at first figure out what’s going on. Anyway, you can go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, get a 30-day free trial and pick up, if you would like, a free copy of A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee. Which is, by the way, the first of a series of four books about the Agency.
[Brandon] So, let’s lump… Jumping off of that, let’s talk about intrigue, the genre, for a little bit. Because we’ve talked about intrigue in all different genres, but it is specifically its own thing, the spy genre. What can we say about this genre?
[Dan] Spy, and I want to add political. Because I would say most political thrillers… House of Cards. While it is wildly melodramatic, and a lot of people think it’s silly for that reason, it is a master class in people lying to each other and deceiving each other.
[Brandon] Okay. So what makes it work? What makes the genre fun to read?
[Dan] Okay. So going back to House of Cards, since I was just talking about it, we know what the main character wants, what Frank Underwood wants. We know… We don’t know exactly how he’s planning to go about it, but the fun of the show is watching from episode to episode. This is how he is slowly worming his way into the position he needs to be in. It is a very long con game that he is essentially playing in order to gain political power. So, step-by-step, we get to watch the intrigue of well, why is he suddenly concerned with this one particular senator or with this one particular bill, and then we slowly can kind of piece together “Aha. I see where his plan is.” The reason that works is because we know the long game, we know the answers. There is no mystery. It’s all just watching him weasel his way around Washington.
[Mary] I think what you’re saying about the… Knowing the answer. That part of what is working with intrigue really is knowing the character motivation and that part of what is fun, part of what makes it something that I want to read, is watching how they pull it off. And watching the doublespeak.
[Howard] I think another good example of this, in terms of television, is… Oh, gosh, now I’ve forgotten the name of it. Blacklist. The Blacklist, with…
[Dan] James Spader.
[Howard] Yeah. Spader. Oh, my goodness. His character, Reddington, the agendas that he has, that he is hiding from everyone else… Yes, there’s a mystery element to it, but I love the way every conversation is laden with somebody’s lying, someone’s dangling bait, somebody is… And sometimes the bait is I’m saying something… I’m revealing some emotional piece of me. I’m connecting with you in a way that… Okay, I’m actually lying to you, but now I’ve got what I want. It’s fun. Every episode. Every episode does that.
[Brandon] So I would say part of the fun of this is the tension of telling lies. Every time a lie is told on screen, we get a little tense because we’re like, “Oo. What’s going to happen when that lie comes out? Can they dodge the ramifications? Can they keep the lie going?” The Miles Vorkosigan basically start with here’s a little lie and how far can this lie go? It is a blast.
[Mary] I think the thing to note there is that the lies are the action. So there have to be consequences to the lies in order for…
[Brandon] Oh, good point.
[Mary] It to be intriguing. The other thing is… We’ve also been talking about, is that Howard pointed out, was knowing the character’s agenda. It’s not just what they want, it’s what their plan is, what their agenda is. Then the other thing is the emotional stuff. That one of the things that… When we’ve seen a character who’s lying all of this time, and they finally pick someone to tell the truth to, that it represents a layer of trust. When it’s two people that we want to see team up together, we’re kind of rooting for that moment to happen. Which can backfire on them. I mean, there’s a lot of different ways you can go. That again raises the level of…
[Howard] When it’s one-sided, one of the characters has decided to open up and be trusting in the other character has been waiting for this moment because this is [garbled]
[Mary] This is what they’ve been working for all this time.
[Dan] I remember there’s a great moment like that in one of the Tom Clancy books. Which are military thrillers, but transition eventually into political. There’s two characters we’ve been following for several books. Eventually, they team up and trust each other, and you realize, “Oh, wait, this is the first time this character hasn’t been lying to someone.” It’s marvelous.
[Brandon] Well, I’m going to have to cap it here. This is a really great discussion, but we are running out of time. Before we go, though, and before our homework, I want to mention that in two weeks, we have a special episode coming up. We did, previously, a project-in-depth on Howard’s bonus story. In two weeks, we’re going to be doing a project-in-depth on one of Mary’s books, Of Noble Family, which should have just come out, either recently… What’s the release date?
[Mary] It’s the 28th of May.
[Mary] Of April! Excuse me.
[Brandon] Of April. Okay. So it should have come out a few weeks ago. So we’re giving you two weeks warning so you can read this book because we’ll be talking about it in depth, how Mary did the world building specifically, in this book.
[Brandon] So your homework is, I want you to write a dialogue where two people each have a different subtext and motive, the things they’re hiding from one another. The reader has to figure out what each of those things are through the course of the dialogue. All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.
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