I talked a lot yesterday about how useful rumors as a narrative device can be, but they often run afoul of dubious execution. In particular, I find one treatment of rumors that, unless the whole point is not-so-subtle herding, drops a lot of what makes rumors useful: when the story falls under the description “All rumors are relevant and true.” It’s not that no rumors should be relevant or true; heck, the plot device rumor works best if it is, at least to some degree both. It’s not that all rumors shouldn’t be true—though a few false ones makes life interesting, and I’ve always been rather partial to the ones that are true at the heart rather than true word by word. It’s not that all rumors shouldn’t be relevant—all right, I really don’t see why randomly overheard gossip would always be useful, but what’s the point of including it if nothing has any relevance? The problem is the “all rumors”, and the confluence of truth and relevance.
The problem with the features applying to all rumors should be pretty self-explanatory. Part of the fun of rumors, as opposed to other means of getting characters their answers, is the uncertainty: can it be trusted? Has it changed in meaning through its life as a game of social Telephone? If all rumors are equally true, equally relevant or both, then people will listen to everything and know they’ll profit from it. If all rumors are equally false, equally irrelevant or both, they’ll tune it out. Variety makes for a better spread of rumor.
If all the rumors are true, you have two problems. One, as above, is the fact that that means the rumor mill is 100% reliable, and anything some random person says on the street corner will automatically lead people to the infiltrating monster or the lost treasure or the… you get the idea. Where’s the fun in that? (This also goes for writing—if you get into a pattern of your rumors telegraphing future events, your readers are going to catch on.) The other is that it loses some of the realism that makes rumors so interesting. Who ever heard of a game of Telephone in which the line wasn’t mangled at all? Did anyone actually enjoy it?
The issue is the same with the relevance. Along with meaning that every stray bit of gossip will (or in writing “should, to the irritation of the audience who knows perfectly well what you were doing with that one”) send the average crew of characters skittering off to take advantage of it, it also messes up the realism, possibly even more. Most of us can’t ensure that every conversation we have with our friends is directly relevant to what we’re currently up to; how much more probable is it that every overheard conversation between random bystanders is going to relate to something that has some direct impact on Team Main Character, or that they’re necessarily always going to be able to sift out the relevant from the vaguely interesting but probably not useful.
In short—vary up the veracity and relevance of your rumors. It’ll make everything a lot more interesting.