Nov 07 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Make Your Story Intriguing, Not Cryptic

Published by at 12:57 pm under Plotting,Writing Articles

Many stories create suspense by withholding important information (like the killer’s identity, in a mystery) until the end. But publishers usually reject works that are cryptic. How can you make your work intriguing (good) rather than cryptic (painful)?

1. Secrets that are known to the audience, like a superhero’s alternate identity, are usually intriguing rather than cryptic. Will Batman be able to keep his identity a secret from his enemies? That’s an interesting question.

2. It’s also intriguing when the hero tries to uncover a secret, like the identity of Mr. Body’s killer. The detective and audience don’t know the killer’s identity at the book’s start, but it’s intriguing because we can follow along as the hero tries to solve the case. That creates anticipation.

3. However, secrets that are neither known to the audience nor pursued by the characters are usually cryptic. When your mentor reveals on page 200 that Leia was your hero’s sister, your readers’ initial reaction will probably be “what the hell?” rather than “cool!” A secret that comes out of the blue usually isn’t very interesting. There’s no anticipation. In contrast, if Luke had been investigating Leia’s lineage for several chapters, then finally learning that she’s his sister could be neat (although cliche).

Here are some other tips that will help you avoid overly cryptic writing.

1. The reader is entitled to know everything that the point-of-view character knows. If the POV withholds information, readers will probably feel angry and misled but definitely not intrigued.

2. Characters should not withhold information from the POV/audience unless they have a good reason to do so. “But I won’t be able to draw out the plot if the mentor tells the hero what’s going on!” is not a good reason. “I want to surprise my readers later on” is even worse. When an author withholds information to surprise us, we probably don’t have enough information to understand and enjoy the story as it is happening.

3. Deception is generally confusing rather than intriguing. When one character says that he’s 17 and he later turns out to be 14, readers will typically conclude that the author has made a mistake, not that the character is lying. Here are a few tricks to help readers keep track of a deception-laden plot.

  1. You can give the character a reputation as a liar so that we will discount what he says.
  2. Make it clear that he has a reason to lie. For example, a defendant in a murder case will claim he’s innocent on the witness stand. Because he has so much incentive to lie, readers will take his statements with a grain of salt.
  3. You can use phrases like “he claimed” or “he lied” to make the statements seem dubious.

23 responses so far

23 Responses to “Writing Tip of the Day: Make Your Story Intriguing, Not Cryptic”

  1. t3knomanseron 07 Nov 2008 at 2:38 pm

    I’ve been working on a story involving deception. It’s only reached the “notes” phase, but the basic sketch is that a space faring warship attacks an enemy base- and everything goes pear shaped. They had bad intel, and get pwned. But the black hole the enemy base was orbiting was actually a (literally) post-singularity civilization that absorbed all information that reached its ergosphere, and everything after a certain point in the battle happens in a computerized civilization.

    Crossing “The Prisoner” with cyberpunk/singularity fiction.

    Just an odd note that seems apropos in response to this post. Odds are I’ll never finish it, but hey- I can hope.

  2. B. Macon 07 Nov 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Well, I think it’s kind of appropriate here. Your story doesn’t seem to hinge on deception, but misperception (about what’s going on and how strong the enemy base is) does seem to play a vital role. For example, if I were going to modify my advice on deception for you, instead of offering suggestions like “give your liars a reputation of lying,” you can say that the attacking species has a history of rushing into things that it doesn’t really understand, that its military intelligence is always screwed up, whatever.

  3. Anonymouson 09 Nov 2008 at 5:43 pm

    I don’t think it would be cliche to discover Leia was Luke’s brother. I mean, hey, she had a sex change! Oh, sorry, that was a typo, was it? 🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. Bretton 09 Nov 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Smart alec!

  5. B. Macon 09 Nov 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Haha, anonymous. Good eye. I’ve corrected the typo.

  6. Bretton 09 Nov 2008 at 8:37 pm


  7. Kynnastonon 25 Mar 2009 at 12:19 am

    In my novel, the main characters (Sebastian, Chloe, and Claire) are abandoned by their mother at a young age. Sebastian is enraged by this and instead insists that she is dead. After all, no one leaves Sebastian. The girls never really discuss the situation because it is obviously a sore subject.

    As it stands now, Sebastian begins the story mentioning the ‘death’ of their mother. He never really comes right out and says that their mother is dead, the farthest I allow it to go is “when mother left us”. It kind of gives the hint that she is dead, but at the same time kind of leaves the option for her to still be alive and wandering around out there.

    I foreshadow that this is just Sebastian’s lie when Chloe betrays him by kidnapping Claire and leaving him behind. Sebastian denies Chloe’s existance entirely. A few chapters later, Claire will reveal that she was the one that “sent” their mother away. But not to her siblings, she just finally reveals it during the context of her chapter.

    My question is I suppose, should I reveal this much earlier? Is it too much of a shock? I feel that I should definitely should bring this up before the end of the first book because it is vitally important to the second. And if I don’t bring the mother back in in the second, then other things can’t happen later and so on.

    I know, I’m just so chock full of inane questions. It is obvious that this is my first novel, no?

  8. B. Macon 25 Mar 2009 at 12:51 am

    Hmm. It might be confusing if Sebastian claims that the mother is dead and we later learn that’s not true. On the other hand, I don’t think it’ll be too much of a problem because there is a good reason that Sebastian is an unreliable witness. To help prepare your readers for the revelation that the mother isn’t actually dead, I’d recommend emphasizing that Sebastian has been badly shaken-up and isn’t entirely in control of his faculties.

    Also, you might have Chloe argue with him about whether their mother is alive or not. Even if we don’t know whether Chloe or Sebastian is correct, that would remind readers that there’s controversy about the underlying facts. That will make it much easier for readers to keep track of what’s happening.

  9. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 25 Mar 2009 at 12:51 am

    Hmm, I think it would make a good twist, but you should put in a few instances of foreshadowing instead of just one or two. That would increase the intriguing side and not make it a huge mystery. Dropping a few hints would show that something isn’t quite right.

  10. Blonde Emoon 06 Jan 2011 at 1:47 am

    I’m writing a comic about a boy called Janus. Although we rarely hear his thoughts, it’s always from his POV. However, it IS a mystery comic: the mystery is what exactly he’s doing. The clues and mysterious statements are all connected to other clues, statements, etc. I’m trying really hard to not be cryptic, although after reading this, I’m not sure about pitching it. What do you think?

  11. ekimmakon 06 Jan 2011 at 2:52 am

    “But I won’t be able to draw out the plot if the mentor tells the hero what’s going on!” is not a good reason.

    Is “The mentor is secretly working for the bad guys” a good reason?

  12. B. Macon 06 Jan 2011 at 9:42 am

    Is “The mentor is secretly working for the bad guys” a good reason? I like it!

  13. B. Macon 06 Jan 2011 at 10:10 am

    “It IS a mystery comic: the mystery is what exactly he’s doing… I’m trying really hard to not be cryptic, although after reading this, I’m not sure about pitching it.” Hmm. I think a story where the audience is trying to unravel the POV’s secret might be a harder sell than a mystery where you have a protagonist trying to unravel somebody else’s secret or a protagonist trying to unravel his own secret (like an amnesiac).

    However, you might be able to save it on execution. Do you have a draft ready? I could look at that, if you’d like.

  14. Blonde Emoon 08 Jan 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Yeah, but I’m reworking it so that you see all of his secrets from the start in another version. (Might be doing the wrong story). Once I’m done with that I’ll send you both.

  15. B. Macon 08 Jan 2011 at 11:17 pm

    Okay, I’m looking forward to them.

  16. Blonde Emoon 15 Jan 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Ok, it’s ready. Should I post it here or email it to you? (It’s really really long.)

  17. B. Macon 15 Jan 2011 at 10:57 pm

    I’m personally a fan of e-mail. It’s more discreet and reduces the risk of plagiarism.

  18. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 05 Apr 2011 at 12:50 am

    I’m working on a non-serious project (meaning I don’t intend to publish it) right now, and I was wondering what your thoughts were on a particular situation.

    Alex (male) works for Bob’s family, namely, looking after Bob as a glorified nanny.

    He used to date Carla and Drew. Bob knows their names and has naturally assumed both were girls, but Drew is a guy. Due to a mix up that Drew catches onto when Bob recognises him from a photo, Bob is only even more convinced that Drew is a girl. So, to spare Alex an explanation, he goes by his other nickname – Andy – when talking to Bob.

    So, Alex is deliberately withholding that info from Bob for personal reasons. When the characters (very briefly) mention Drew, there are no indications of gender. Only when Alex mentions him to Bob, he calls him “she” and the like to keep up the charade. This is the only indication of Drew’s gender gender, from Alex’s dialogue.

    I’m hoping that anyone who reads won’t notice that Drew’s gender hasn’t been mentioned outside of Alex’s words. (So I’m not taunting them with “I know something you don’t know”)

    Later on, I’ve started dropping hints, but trying to throw them off with references to a girl Alex was once friends with, hoping the readers, like Bob, will assume that her name is Drew.

    About a chapter after that, the reader will find out that Andy and Drew are the same person. (And hopefully realise Alex has been lying to Bob about it all) Then, to create tension, Bob starts to figure it all out.

    Do you think I should just mention Drew’s gender from the get-go? I really like the idea of three layers of revelation – the audience not knowing who Drew is, the audience finding out, and then Bob starting to figure it out. I figure it would work better if the audience suddenly has it revealed so they better understand Bob’s shock when he finds out. But, of course, if I was certain, I wouldn’t be asking. XD

    Any thoughts or suggestions?

  19. B. Macon 05 Apr 2011 at 1:48 am

    Bearing in mind that I haven’t read the story and am only working off of this really brief summary… I’m not feeling the idea of keeping the readers in the dark on Drew’s gender. I think I’d be really confused while reading it. I could sort of see some drama coming out of Bob gradually figuring it out, but I think I’d be frustrated if I didn’t have all the information I needed to know what was going on. (For example, I don’t think readers will understand what’s going on between Bob and Alex unless they know that Alex is bisexual).

    Like I said, I could sort of see some drama coming from Bob struggling to figure it out, but your dialogue skills would have to be DYNAMITE to sound natural without giving away something that will come out quickly in any remotely realistic conversation. (How long can Alex talk about Drew without someone else using “he,” “his,” or “him?” Is Carla also trying to misdirect Bob?)

    Also, I’m 99% sure that you weren’t planning on using the names Alex, Bob, Carla and Drew in the story itself, but if that was your plan, I’d recommend picking a set of names that doesn’t go A____, B____, C____, D____, etc…

  20. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 05 Apr 2011 at 3:02 am

    “Also, I’m 99% sure that you weren’t planning on using the names Alex, Bob, Carla and Drew in the story itself, but if that was your plan, I’d recommend picking a set of names that doesn’t go A____, B____, C____, D____, etc…”

    Yeah, I just picked A, B, C, and D so it’d be easier to choose temporary names. The whole “Alice and Bob” trope.

    Thanks for the input.

    This story I’m working on is only really aimed at two or three people I know, and it’s more of an experiment to see what I can do in this one, non-magic, normal setting. I’ve got the plot thought up and I’ve set little goals for myself to see what I can and can’t write well. I’m up to “attempt to write a twist or big revelation”, but I guess I’ll have to think of something else, if this Drew thing is too confusing. I’m trying not to end up writing a “shocking swerve”, where the twist comes out of nowhere and makes no sense, but I also don’t want to give too much away and make it obvious.

  21. B. Macon 05 Apr 2011 at 8:53 am

    I think the best twists are 1) true to the perspective of the point of view character(s) and 2) usually based on an intuitive, believable misunderstanding or misinterpretation of information also available to the reader. Optional 3): More than a few audience members might be able to figure it out early by paying close attention.

    So, for example, in the first Harry Potter book, Snape is generally a nasty wreck of a man that hates on Harry. When Harry’s broom gets cursed during the quidditch match, the protagonists see Snape staring and mumbling at Harry and conclude that Snape is trying to kill Harry. Based on what the characters know, that conclusion is entirely plausible and natural. However, at the end of the book we find out that they were worrying about the wrong man altogether–Snape was actually doing a counterspell, trying to save Harry from the person actually cursing Harry.

    Based on what I understand of your setup, I don’t feel like it is that true to the point of view yet (unless Bob is the only POV). Second, I don’t think Bob has much of a role in the confusion–it’s not much of a misunderstanding on his part. It sounds like 90% of the issue is that Alex is lying to him (with the help of Drew). One thing I generally find more satisfying about twists based on misinterpretations of the protagonist is that they give the protagonist an active, central role.

    Another issue is that the best twists usually give the characters something to pursue before they discover what’s going on. For example, HP’s protagonists mistakenly conclude that Snape is trying to kill Harry, which sets up a goal and conflict for them (how can they stop Snape from killing Harry?). In the Sixth Sense, the psychologist protagonist’s ostensible goal is to help the kid get over schizophrenic delusions of seeing dead people. (It turns out that the kid really does see dead people, and the psychiatrist is one of them*). In Point of Impact, the protagonist is a master marksman who’s been asked to help consult with a security agency trying to prevent a presidential assassination. Preventing the presidential assassination is the ostensible plot. But (spoiler, obviously) it turns out that the “security agency” is actually a setup by the people actually trying to assassinate the president. The things they had the master sniper doing to investigate the crime (like measuring ranges for potential shots) made him the perfect fall guy when the real cops came looking for the shooter.

    *Sixth Sense had an awesome twist, even though it totally doesn’t make sense if you think about it too hard. (The psychiatrist goes several days without talking to anybody but a nine year old and doesn’t realize anything’s up?)

    So, returning to your plot, if Bob is your POV, I don’t feel there’s an ostensible plot to propel the story forward while he mistakenly believes that Drew is a lady. If anybody else is your POV, I don’t think the twist is true to the information the POV knows.

    One possible solution: Bob is the POV and there’s something about Alex that really interests or concerns him. (For example, maybe he suspects that Carla is cheating on him, and the ex that’s mysteriously still in her life is sure to raise suspicion). The ostensible plot would be finding out whether Carla really is cheating with Alex. This goal would be satisfyingly complicated by Bob’s inability to be completely open with Alex (no one would lightly share a suspicion of cheating) and by Alex’s refusal to be open about his love-life (perhaps because he’s insecure about his bisexuality).

    Alternately, I think this would work for Alex’s POV, too. Alex might FEEL that Bob is asking him awkward questions about his love-life because Bob correctly suspects he’s bisexual,* but it’s ACTUALLY because Bob suspects he’s having an affair with his wife. So the ostensible goal would be “How do I hide my sexuality from this nosy bigot”, which would give way to “How do I keep Bob’s suspicions of infidelity from ruining my friendship with Carla?”

    *Note: If Alex is the POV, I don’t think the twist can be something that Alex knows (like that he’s bisexual). It’d be more effective to make the twist something that Bob knows or suspects.

  22. G. Nicholson 12 May 2018 at 5:15 am

    In the story I’m writing, there’s group of superheroes that all live and fight together. The leader, Cassandra, is a character that is incredibly intelligent and usually leaves details out of the instructions she gives.*

    For example, she’ll tell Person X that they need to locate a bomb and evacuate the people in the area, but she’ll leave out the fact that an anti-hero who Person X is trying to capture will be trapped in the area and they can either arrest the anti-hero or save the civilians.

    Do I tell the audience the detail that she knows, or do I surprise them? (The characters that she’s close with are usually aware of when she’s not telling the entire truth.)

    *She’s not a bad person, but because of her past she tends to view problems more strategically, and is willing to sacrifice a friend to save a civilian.

  23. B. McKenzieon 12 May 2018 at 3:30 pm

    “Do I tell the audience the detail that she knows, or do I surprise them? (The characters that she’s close with are usually aware of when she’s not telling the entire truth.)” If your point-of-view characters know something that’s plot-important, I’d generally recommend giving it to readers as well. In this case, it sounds like the point-of-view characters know that Cassandra often leaves out a lot of important details and/or they notice that Cassandra’s orders on this mission sound suspicious or go against standard procedures but they’re not sure why (she may have given a false or misleading reason why). Also, please make sure there is a good reason for Cassandra to hold the information rather than just the author wants to be dramatic.

    For example, if Nick Fury gives SHIELD agents a routine drug raid assignment* and the agents are surprised when a fire-themed villain is at the house, it’d be reasonably easy for the agents and readers to guess later on that Nick Fury was hiding some information if Fury happened to include a firetruck in the raid or took other unusual steps against a fire. (We might not be able to guess why Fury would hide the information, though — e.g. maybe Nick Fury suspects that one of the agents is corrupt and would have tipped off the firestarter and/or maybe Fury is trying to avoid arousing curiosity about “hey, how’d you know that the firestarter was going to be there?” because he has a very sensitive and/or illegal source of information). In contrast, I don’t think it would be terribly satisfying if Nick Fury withheld critical information about the firestarter being there just to test how officers react to unknown threats on the fly, unless you’re trying to develop Fury as crazy and/or incompetent and/or not particularly concerned if a surprised agent gets roasted (but it’d be perfectly okay if the agents SUSPECTED that the incomplete information was some sort of crazy test).

    *Let’s pretend that we’re living in a universe where someone as high-ranking as Nick Fury might be involved in a routine drug raid. He’s Nick Fury, his methods are unorthodox.

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