I was working on a fun scene yesterday, with two characters having a conversation. Each character’s goal was to get information out of the other without giving away what they knew. They had just met, didn’t trust each other one whit, but were the only clues to help both of them solve a mystery they both need to solve.
While they had particular plot reasons for keeping quiet, this verbal dance is a technique that can benefit a variety of scenes, because it adds tension and conflict, and can create mystery. People hold back information all the time. We don’t say what we think, we keep secrets, we don’t want to embarrass ourselves, and all for a myriad of reasons both good and bad.
One aspect of this is subtext, but this is a little more deliberate. Characters know what they’re not saying, and the whole point is to hold information back in some way.
(Here’s more on writing subtext)
Take a peek at your scenes, especially any that you feel lack tension, conflict, or mystery. Ask:
Is anyone not being honest?
This is different from out and out lying, because we can hold back information or cast it in a different light to make ourselves look better and still tell the truth. Maybe the character isn’t being honest about how they feel, or what they think, or might even be avoiding a topic so they don’t have to lie.
(Here’s more on what your characters are ashamed of)
Is anyone lying?
Then there are the actual liars. They aren’t telling the truth or give false information on purpose. Motives here can range from deceitful to well-meaning, but the reasons behind the lie are deliberate. Some lies are meant to hurt, others meant to help.
Is anyone holding back information that can help (or hurt) another character?
This can also have a wide range of motives behind it, from trying to help someone by not revealing information that will hurt them, to keeping a secret that would benefit them greatly. The information could be fairly benign—feuding siblings might keep quiet to get the other in trouble with Mom—or have major consequences.
(Here’s more on why anyone should help the protagonist)
Is anyone afraid of saying the wrong thing?
Fear keeps many a person quiet when they ought to speak. Maybe they fear reprisal, or fear hurting someone, or maybe they fear what might happen if that information got out. They might even be afraid to face whatever it is they don’t want to talk about.
(Here’s more on making your characters uncomfortable)
Is anyone trying to gain more information than they give?
A staple in any mystery, and we often find one character trying to pump another for information. Detectives interview suspects, sleuths question witnesses, lovers question friends—if there’s a relationship of any type, odds are someone is trying to find out something.
(Here’s more on how characters answer questions)
Is anyone wrong?
People assume all the time, and often assume wrong. Misjudging a situation might cause a person to hold back and not be honest, thinking they were doing the right thing by staying quiet. Or someone might (wrongly) think what they have to say has no value and stay quiet. Or they might think speaking up is the worst idea possible.
Half the fun of reading a story is trying to figure out all the mysteries and puzzles of the plot. The more our characters hold information back, the harder it will be for readers (and other characters) to solve those puzzles.
While we certainly don’t want to hold back vital information and trick readers (that’s just mean), not letting every character be completely forthcoming is a great way to add conflict and tension to a scene, and keep readers guessing what will happen next.
Do you have any characters who are holding back? Are there any scenes that would be better if someone did?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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