Writing Excuses Notes: Intrigue

Here are some notes I took after listening to Writing Excuses.

It is an educational podcast that helps novelists/writers.

The topic was from Season 10, Episode 19.

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“What’s the difference between intrigue and mystery?”

Intrigue is something that turns up in a lot of different forms. It’s specifically about questions and people who are deliberately hiding things. Characters who know different things from other characters.

Every book you’re going to write, someone knows something someone else doesn’t.

Mystery is when the author is hiding things from the reader.

Intrigue is when the author has the characters hiding things from each other.

You can have both.

So what do I do?

Hide things from other characters but don’t withhold from the reader when they can tell that you’re withholding information to falsely build suspense. It sucks.

Let characters talk about things they would normally talk about. Don’t avoid topics just to further the plot. You do want them to withhold information from each other, but avoid idiot plotting.

If they just say the thing that every normal person would say, you have no plot.

Avoiding Traps/Tropes

A common and frustrating trope: “What’s going on?”
“No time. Come with me.”
Then they’re walking and not talking about the thing.

How to fix it:
“What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you as we go.”
It raises the stakes.

Characters can try to mask their emotional responses.
This isn’t the author withholding information. It’s the characters choosing not to share something.

So you’ve got a character who is keeping a piece of information back.
How do you make this work?

One method is have your POV character notice that either they/other characters aren’t saying something. Some physical mannerism that you can flag. An odd response that indicates something more.

One of the big things to do is make sure your character motives are expressed well.

There is a 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.”

Readers need to understand why they’re not talking.

Make it a relationship obstacle, not the writer teasing something for the future. It’s obvious foreshadowing to readers and comes across as lazy.

The best foreshadowing is hidden in plain sight.

Use a writing tool

One of the tools you have is changing your POV character after talking to someone. Then in your next scene or chapter or whatever, 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.


A challenge is how you plant information in a way that keeps the reader from feeling like the character is stupid for not figuring it out.

One trick is to use the mental process of a character. Have them wonder, “Oh, I wonder why they did that? It could be this… A, B, or C.” They settle on B. But it was actually C.

Always give them a solid reason for misidentifying it, as it helps string the readers with a red herring.

Intrigue as a genre

The intrigue genre involves people who are deliberately hiding secrets from one another.

A key that really makes this work is when the reader knows what the characters are planning.

Its not a mystery. Its about watching how your characters go about achieving their plan.

Intrigue is mostly labeled as the spy genre.

Spy or political really, because most political thrillers are masterful with people lying or deceiving each other.

The big differentiation from a mystery is that it’s not one innocent person trying to figure out what is going on.

Intrigue involves different people trying to deceive each other.


Different levels of deception

Okay. So what makes the genre fun to read?

The House of Cards example. We know what the main character wants. What we don’t know is how he’s planning to go about it.

There is no mystery. It’s all just watching him weasel his way around from episode to episode and put the puzzle pieces together to get what he wants.

Part of the fun is the tension of telling lies. Every time a lie is told, 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?”


Final Thoughts

A thing to note is that the lies are the action. There have to be consequences to the lies in order for it to be intriguing.

The other thing is 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, like when we’ve seen a character who’s lying all of this time, and they finally pick someone to tell the truth to. It represents a layer of trust. They could team up or it could completely backfire.

When it’s one-sided, one of the characters has decided to open up and be trusting, but the other character actually wanted that the whole time for their agenda.


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