Ways to Extract Information From Others

I am, frankly, in love with today’s post. In every story, there comes a time when your character needs information that someone else has. So how does he go about getting it? The obvious method is to beat the crap out of the other guy. But what if your hero has a glass jaw or faints at the sight of blood? What if fighting just isn’t in his nature? There’s more than one way for your character to get information from others, and Tiana Warner is here to break it down for us.

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On his way to his goal, your protagonist will likely come to a time when he needs to get information out of someone. How do I sneak into the fortress? What do you know about the dognapping? Where have you hidden my MacGuffin?

First of all, don’t make this easy for your protagonist. That’s conflict. That’s the heart of a story. The more valuable the information, the harder he should have to work for it. To write this scene, exploit your protagonist’s strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses. This can manifest in a variety of ways. Let’s look at a few examples.

Bargain For the Information

Every character wants something. When your protagonist conveniently has something others desperately want, this calls for a bargain.

Consider Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry wants information about how to break into Gringotts:

“In return,” said the goblin firmly, “for payment.”
Slightly taken aback, Harry hesitated.
“How much do you want? I’ve got gold.”
“Not gold,” said Griphook. “I have gold.”
His black eyes glittered; there were no whites to his eyes.
“I want the sword. The sword of Godric Gryffindor.”

Whoa. Given the circumstances, that’s the highest price the goblin could have asked in return for the information. If your protagonist has something of value, she should face a similar dilemma. Force her to reflect on how desperately she needs the information, and ultimately make a tough decision. This method of getting information is great because it demands some kind of sacrifice on both ends. It advances the plot in a tense, conflict-laden way.

Convince By Force

Ah, the classic method for action movies: violence, threats, torture. Here, your character has some kind of physical advantage, and he uses it with vigor. Blackmailing also works here.

From John Dies at the End:

John put his hands on Krissy’s shoulders and turned her to face him. He got right in her face and held up his smoldering cigarette.
“Miss? You see this? You start talkin’ or I’m gonna burn you with it.”
No response.
“Ma’am, I offered. I’d do what he says. I’m a good guy, a reasonable guy, but my friend here? He’s a wild man. And once he gets goin’ I can’t stop him. Now wouldn’t you rather talk to me?”
Nothing.
John grabbed her wrist and jammed the lit cigarette into the back of her hand with a pssssst sound.
She yelped and yanked her hand back, shaking it madly. “What the heck are you doing?” she screeched.

Simple and effective, John!

The drawback of violence and torture is that the conflict is purely physical. Unless the other character fights back, your protagonist doesn’t have to sacrifice anything in order to get the information. Plus he can come across as a jerk or a hothead if you’re not cautious. The example above is short and to the point, but in a longer scene, such action sequences will be most effective when woven with introspection and personal conflict.

Appeal to Emotion

Hit the opponent’s weak spot: his humanity. In this scenario, your protagonist knows something about the other character’s wants and needs, and she can use this knowledge to make a deep (figurative) wound.

Consider an early episode of the TV show The 100, when the characters try to get information out of Lincoln by torturing him. The guy’s a beast, a warrior impervious to pain, so this doesn’t work. They didn’t exploit his weakness. Knowing that Lincoln is in love with her, Octavia then threatens her own life, and succeeds in getting the information.

Like the violence method, your protagonist has the upper hand—except her upper hand is on a meaningful level. This type of battle is extremely effective when writing, since it’s about morals.

crossed-fingers-363478_1280Trickery

This can come in many forms. Flattery, lying, a careful manipulation of words and emotions. This is an interesting, entertaining method often used by a clever character. In The Avengers, for instance, Black Widow pretends to be emotionally weak and vulnerable, giving others a false sense of power and tricking them into giving her information.

Trickery also works well for comic relief, if the opponent is less intelligent than your protagonist and lets things slip by accident.

Gain Trust

By sharing knowledge with the other character, your protagonist asserts himself and comes across as respectable and trustworthy. The other character then feels that offering the information is his only choice. It’s the logical thing to do. Similar to appealing to emotion, this method is an appeal to intellect.

Take a look at the incredible opening scene from Inglourious Basterds. We see Hans Landa gain rapport with the man, being generally pleasant, before asking for the vital information. The scene is so wonderfully written that he actually gets the information in more than one way: he promises freedom for the man’s family (bargain), and he makes it clear that not offering the information would be a dire mistake (force). In the end, turning over the information is the man’s only option.

Sexual Appeal

Ok. Let’s talk about when a girl flirts her way into getting information. Her sexuality is her strength, and she uses this to her advantage. As a self-respecting female, I am going to suggest you avoid this, as there are plenty of other strengths a woman can have that enables her to get information.

But hey, it’s biology, a method as old as humanity itself, and sometimes the scene does require this approach. I’ll call out my hypocrisy, since my book is about mermaids, mythology’s #1 source of women using sexuality to manipulate men. But that’s what a mermaid is by definition. If you’re writing about a three-dimensional, strong female character, you should do her justice. Let her use a more respectable strength to get information out of someone.

Mixing Things Up

Of course, not all of your protagonist’s attempts should end in success. Maybe, as in the iconic interrogation scene in The Dark Knight, the opponent doesn’t respond to the chosen method (for reasons of psychopathy, in this case). Foiling your protagonist’s plan is as simple as choosing a method that fails to exploit her own strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses.

When you come to that scene where your protagonist needs to wheedle information, figure out what he has to offer. Cleverness? Ninja skills? Knowledge of the opponent’s emotional weak spot? Mixing it up avoids monotony—i.e. don’t have your character punch information out of everyone throughout the story. Get creative with it!

Which method would your protagonist use to get information? Can you think of any others?

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Tiana Warner is a YA fantasy author from Vancouver, BC. Her latest novel, Ice Massacre, is currently a Foreword INDIEFAB Book of the Year finalist. Tiana enjoys riding her horse Bailey and collecting tea cups. You can connect with her on Twitter.

 

 

photo credits: Pixabay

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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15 Responses to Ways to Extract Information From Others

  1. Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [05.11.15]

  2. These are great tips!!

  3. A great post. Thank you. The method or methods I’d choose depend upon the characters involved, setting, circumstances, etc.. What matters most, besides whether the attempt is successful or unsuccessful, is that the method fits naturally into the story. Thanks again.

    • Tiana Warner says:

      I agree. When we arrive at this point in the story it’s important to consider what the characters have at stake, and allow one or more of these methods to come naturally out of that. Thanks!

  4. I’m in love with today’s post too, Becca! I’m working on a sneaky new antagonist. These are his tools of the trade.

  5. Mart Ramirez says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! Unique post. Never thought how to extract info. Hey, that might prompt a storyline idea! Thank you so much. Love the gain trust one.

  6. Elissaveta says:

    I am bookmarking this! I will be coming back when I start editing my soon-to-be completed first draft. Thank you so much!

  7. Pingback: How a character should extract information from others | Tiana Warner

  8. R.w.Foster says:

    My comment is gonna be two part. First, I have a couple of questions about your lines from the Sex Appeal part. You wrote:

    “Let’s talk about when a girl flirts her way into getting information. Her sexuality is her strength, and she uses this to her advantage. As a self-respecting female, I am going to suggest you avoid this, as there are plenty of other strengths a woman can have that enables her to get information.”

    Why do you think a woman who uses sex to get information doesn’t respect herself? Also, why did you only call out females? Men do it, too. Remember James Bond?

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    Second part: My antagonist uses torture to gain information. My protagonist, on the other hand, has a couple ways to do it as he’s dealing with a Super-Powered Evil Side (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SuperpoweredEvilSide). One was is pretending he already knows what the info is and convincing the one who really knows to tell him the info because he thinks it’s been changed. The SPES’s way is featured below:

    The guard swung around and stalked back. Right as he was passing, Carter grabbed him by the neck, spun, and slammed him against the wall. Holding the sentry in place with his right hand on his throat, the Walker showed a long, serrated blade. The trapped man blanched.

    “Do you know who I am?”

    “N-no.”

    “Ever hear of the Walker of Worlds?” The watchman gulped. “Your wide eyes and pouring sweat say, ‘Yes.’”

    “Yeh-yes.”

    “You have an idea of what I can do?”

    “Yeh-yes.”

    “Good. Saves me the time of explaining. Have you heard of the Darkwalker?”

    “Ye-ye-yes.” Carter leaned closer, allowing his prisoner to see the barely fleshed skull with glowing electric blue eyes that was his face. “Oh, sh@$.” The man’s voice was a faint whimper.

    “Excellent.” He tapped the guard’s forehead with the knife. “We’re gonna play a game. I’m going to pick a number between one and ten. You’re going to guess. Get it wrong, and I’m gonna cut something from you. Ready?”

    “Nuh—”

    “Guess the number I’m thinking of.” The Darkwalker’s voice was hard, flat. “And no stammering, or your pick is null.”

    The terrified sentry desperately tried to catch his breath, and quell his trembling. After a moment, he said, “Six.”

    Carter growled. “Damn it.” The guard heaved a sigh of relief. “Now, answer all of my questions, or I’ll make you guess again.”

    “Eh-anything! Please don’t cut me.”

    “Where is Drago?”

    “Ih-in his tuh-tower.”

    “How many soldiers between me and him?”

    “Uh…” The man closed his eyes. “About twenty?”

    Carter spoke through clenched teeth. “About?”

    “I’m sorry! I don’t know!”

    “Lower your voice, or I’ll make it high.” The sentry squeaked and clamped his mouth shut. “Where is he likely to be?”

    “I don’t know.” Carter growled. “I don’t! I’m an outer bailey guard!”

    “Would you be missed if I killed you?”

    The watchman shut his eyes as tears began to flow. “No.” His voice was a whisper.

    Carter tapped his forehead with the flat of the blade again. “For not being on your post, dummy.”

    “Oh!” His eyes popped open again. “Yes. I’m supposed to check in every ten minutes.”

    “Return to your position. I will know if you sound the alarm no matter how quite you try to be.” The Darkwalker allowed the man to slide to the ground. In a blur of motion, he slashed his own finger and drew a crimson line over the other’s neck, right above the collar of his breastplate. Drawing the hood of his cloak over his head once more, Carter turned away and disappeared into the night.

    “He’s insane,” the sentry murmured to the darkness.

    “Yeah… Ain’t it great?”

    The question seemed to be next to his ear. The guard started, and hurried back to his place, thanking the gods the Darkwalker hadn’t decided to devour his soul.

    • Tiana Warner says:

      Hi R.W.,

      Thanks for your comment. Your book sounds interesting and you provide a good example of knowing your characters well enough to identify the differences between how they extract information.

      You’re right that males will also use the sex appeal method — it’s seen less frequently so I didn’t really think of it. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but in my opinion it’s a fallback method that relies too much on basic instinct. Stories are more complex than that, involving layers of emotional leverage and interesting ways people can manipulate each other. A worthy opponent should be difficult to thwart. IMHO it’s a bit of an insult to both parties involved to imply that the characters have no better personality traits or secrets to hide!

      The other methods tend to make for stronger characters, on both ends of the ordeal.

      Cheers,
      Tiana

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