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So You Want To: Write A Conspiracy Theory
Political activism aside, the conspiracy theory is a Post Modern genre of Scrapbook Story that combines pseudo-historical and pseudo-scientific (hence, "theory") narratives under the premise that all of them are stages of an Evil Plan conducted by an omnipresent, omnipotent secretive group known as "The Conspiracy". In a sense, a Conspiracy Theory is a What If? Fan Fic based upon the Real Life, and we love to read those, don't we?

And then, there is the Conspiracy Thriller. A Conspiracy Thriller is blend of the traditional narrative and a Conspiracy Theory, focusing on a conflict between the (anti)heroic protagonist and the (anti)villainous conspiracy. This genre is characterized by Jigsaw Puzzle Plots, Clueless Mystery, and stunning Reveals. A Conspiracy Thriller is commonly but not always based upon a Conspiracy Theory.

Necessary Tropes

The core of any conspiracy are "Them". Imaginary or real, They are humans (or whatever passes for humans in your setting) united by a particular trait that singles them out (super rich / Nazists / communists/etc.). However, instead of accepting their unusualness, they turn evil and secretly band together and hatch an Evil Plan to twist the current way of things to suit Them better, which always involves ending the current way of things first.

Choices, Choices

A Conspiracy Theory is a story spanning many years and describing the famous historical events they orchestrated and the lives of famous people involved with Them. A Conspiracy Thriller is a much shorter story, usually focusing on a fictional protagonist's struggle against Them. In both cases, They and Their Plan are the cornerstone of the narrative.

They

Just who are They and what are They up to? As mentioned already, They are an obscure, depersonalized group with an Evil Plan. Don't forget to include a plausible explanation for Them doing it: "For the Evulz" is not a motive, not in this genre. The classical, universal motivations are money and power. More ambiguous types go for the greater good as they see it.

There are a few basic conspiracy patterns, based upon historical examples, to inspire you:

Of course, nothing prevents you from having multiple secret societies battling each other behind the scenes.

Next, think of the structure of your conspiracy and how it is going to be integrated into the setting. There are three structural patterns:

After deciding on the nature and structure of your conspiracy, give it a snappy, menacing name, which it will be known by to outsiders. Gratuitous symbolism is welcome but word salad isn't. The name should very vaguely hint at the conspiracy's nature but may not reveal it too early. Bonus points if the name is associated with a recurring visual Motif in your story. Some suggestions to spur on your creativity (see more in Mad Lib Thriller Title):

  • Most conspiracies can be called "Something Society/Circle/Association/Clan".
  • Bankers and governments often use economic lingo: "Something Fund/Trust/Group/Company/Cartel/Club" or simply, "The Group/Company".
  • Intellectuals, aliens, and sometimes governments use scientific language: "Project Something" or anything in Latin or Greek.
  • Ethnic or cultist conspiracies can go for "Brotherhood/Order/Knights/Elders of Something".
  • More exotic variations like "Priory" or "Enclave" can be used if it suits the plot.

The Other Wiki has many examples to inspire you. You may also cut the whole thing short and just recycle a historical secret society for your purposes.

Evil Plan

Before moving on to the actual Evil Plan that will drive the story, refine your conspiracy a little more. The definitive trait of any conspiracy is that it never appears completely evil at first, which leaves us with four distinct possibilities:

Unlike The Masquerade, the conspiracy exists to achieve a clearly defined goal, an evil master plan, which, in turn, consists of many evil sub-plots. There are actually very few ultimate goals that a conspiracy may aim for:

  • Power is by far the most common motivation. The sub-plots of a secret quest for power may concern either taking it (getting a elected into an office, taking over a company, an Ancient Tradition, or indeed, the entire world) or protecting it against new challenges (killing off the upstart rebels, securing new resources, etc.). Normally, the power in question is political, but in a more speculative setting, it may also be mystical or magical.
  • Destruction of some group. These conspiracies exist in order to completely annihilate certain people, either a specific group (e.g. out of revenge or racism), or the entire humanity (aliens love doing this).
  • Profit is common among the economic/banking institutions. Sub-plots often involve astronomic sums of money and huge deals.
  • Survival. Such conspiracies are formed by people who learn about some impending doom (The End of the World as We Know It, Alien Invasion, etc.) and plan to survive it at the expense of everyone else.
  • Science. Very rarely, They do it solely for the sake of scientific advancement. More commonly, though, science is but a stepping stone (see below) for power, profit, and destruction.

If you are writing a thriller and need to flesh out your villains, a very common personal motivation is self-gratification, i.e. the villains participate in the conspiracy in order to prove they are right about something or achieve others' recognition. The conspiracy on the whole, though, is very rarely motivated only by this.

Next up are the victims of the Plan. Who is going to suffer because of Them? Naturally, if They are targeting a specific group, it will be high on the list. In all other cases, Their villainy will in one way or another afflict the entire humanity or at least, a considerable part of it. When writing a thriller, you should concentrate on a single sub-plot of Their master plan and decide who exactly will be targeted in it. See also the Victims section below.

What methods do they use to achieve their current goals? There are actually quite a few: murder, kidnapping, mass destruction, human sacrifices, human experiments, illegal business practices, blackmail, deception, cover-up, drug trafficking, water and food supply tampering, eugenics, orchestrating wars, false-flag operations, jaywalking, etc. In a thriller, the protagonist usually witnesses only one sub-plot of Their master plan, so most of the operations above will remain out of picture (unless you are lucky enough to produce a Long Runner, then you are free to try them all out). The most common method is murder and you may throw in a few more from the list but don't attempt to cram everything in.

Most of the time, Their methods, as outlined above, are questionable enough to make for a good thriller but for an extra kick, you may throw in a MacGuffin to serve as the ultimate prize in your story.

In the end, you have to end up with a brief summary of your conspiracy theory or a synopsis for your conspiracy thriller (minus the protagonist's involvement). It should go somewhere along the lines of "The [insert Their name here] have conspired with [insert Their ally's name here] to [insert the objective of Their current subplot here] by [insert Their methods here] at the cost of [insert Their victims here]". For some examples, see "Suggested Plots" below.

It may be a good idea to monitor the recent news to inspire you at this stage, since Real Life itself will often easily top anything you come up with on your own. Same goes when writing your Back Story (see below).

And the last thing. Standalone conspiracy theories don't really need titles besides "[Insert Their name here] are conspiring against us to [insert Their objective here]" but you may want to pick a catchy title for your thriller story. See Mad Lib Thriller Title for a number of classical thriller title examples and inspirations.

Pitfalls

  • The conspiracy theorists operate in the gray areas of history that have not been properly studied (yet). Tread very lightly when incorporating major historical events into your narrative: your readers will go and attempt to prove you wrong with more historical evidence. Therefore, don't stray too far from the Canon but use Bellisario's Maxim sparingly when the story demands it.
  • On the other hand, don't delve too deeply into historical detail. You are writing entertainment, not a historical thesis. While a minority of readers will go and dismiss your theory as nonsense, the vast majority will, at most, look up some names and events in That Other Wiki, (hopefully) go "Oh Crap, it's all true!", and carry on reading. That should be your goal, too.
  • As tempting as it may be, do not try to compile a Grand Unified Timeline of the World from Their point of view. At best, you will be frustrated by the ungodly amount of source material, most of which you won't even need for your story; at worst, you will end up writing a lot of Back Story and very little actual story. Timelines and general sense-making are best left to the fans and their nifty little wikis.
  • Do not confuse an Ancient Conspiracy and The Masquerade: a conspiracy always has a plan and hides it from non-conspirators, while a masquerade simply hides the secret world from the Normal People.
  • If you rely on the premise that All Myths Are True for added esotericism or demythtification, you are running in constant danger of being Sadly Mythtaken. While not fatal (after all, you are writing how it all really went down), straying too far from the canon may make some readers wonder why you chose to include those myths in the first place.
  • As with any story, don't leave your Conspiracy Thriller without a resolution (as in, "resolution of the conflict between the protagonist and the conspiracy"). Be it exacting some revenge, rescuing his loved ones, restoring his country's honor, or killing him, you must bring his story to a close. On the other hand, do not disclose all of the conspiracy's secrets in the main text. Conspiracy theory is the one genre where narrative threads Left Hanging actually contribute to the story quality and the readers are invited to participate in theorizing themselves (e.g. along the lines of "What If? this long-missing character was actually behind that unexplained event?"). And you get a Sequel Hook for free, too.
  • Always foreshadow your Reveals in advance, otherwise they become Ass Pulls. But if you foreshadow it too much, it'll become The Untwist. Don't overuse The Unreveal, either. And for all that's holy, remember that a Shocking Swerve is not a twist.

Possible Ways to Play With A Trope

Writers' Lounge

Suggested Themes and Aesops

  • Power of Trust. Only by learning who you can really trust (which is anything but trivial in this genre) can you triumph over whatever the Powers That Be throw at you.
  • One thing you can always do is to get Genre Savvy and explain just what exactly constitutes the audience appeal of conspiracy theories in general: Real Life is insanely complicated and, to be completely honest, it's often just a bunch of chaotic unrelated events caused by so many different factors that we simply cannot comprehend the links. But a conspiracy theory gives us a clear idea that something (They) is behind all of this and since They have an agenda, it all serves some purpose, after all.
    • In other words, conspiracy is (post-)modern God.
  • Learning history (and geography) is cool. A bit on the meta side, but a lot of well-written conspiracy thrillers, especially of the global Ancient Conspiracy variety, prompt the readers to read up on history (if only to prove the author wrong) and discover how many more fascinating stories it contains.

Potential Motifs

Motifs are essential to conspiracy theories. After all, a motif is defined as something recurring over and over again... doesn't that make you wonder, just who exactly placed those repeating patterns there to begin with?

Not really a motif, but nonetheless important: every society has its Rituals and Ceremonies, and conspiracies are no exception. Research or make up some for yours. This is particularly important to Ancient Conspiracies, but other types can profit immensely from such details, as well. Consider following:

In a speculative setting, you could ground your conspiracy's ceremonies in a Ritual Magic of some kind.

Writing a Theory

So, how do you actually write a conspiracy theory? By now, you should already have the general concept for Their identity and Their Evil Plan, so it's time to flesh it out with historical detail. Note that for a standalone conspiracy thriller (especially if it's a movie), you don't need an elaborate conspiracy theory: simply mix your evil plan concept with some juicy historical trivia, add The Men in Black, Black Helicopters, and the rest of the flair, and already you have more exposition than you can fit into a reasonably paced thriller. If you are doing a series, however, it's recommended that you put some effort into Their Back Story.

To start off, do the research. We cannot overemphasize this enough. Most conspiracy theories and thrillers get icy receptions because they leave their readers Dan Browned way too often. To avoid that, go ahead and read up on the history of the time period They have been active in. For instance, if The Knights Templar are at the core of your conspiracy theory, you have nine centuries of European and Middle-Eastern history to traverse. Take a look at the popular Urban Legends and, if All Myths Are True is involved, actual legends, too. As you read, you will probably notice patterns and clues that fit perfectly into your conspiracy concept. Write them down for later! If you are doing a science-themed conspiracy theory, read up on the corresponding scientific research; if it's about political intrigue, study contemporary politics and sociology. Don't be afraid to draw inspiration from the already existing conspiracy theories (see, for instance, our Useful Notes on Conspiracy Theories and Clues To The Conspiracy).

After you get acquainted with the subject matter, it's time to enter the mindset of a true Conspiracy Theorist—by committing what we here call "a historian's mistake" and violating the Hanlon's Razor principle. First, assume that They are smart enough to predict the outcome of schemes of arbitrary complexity. Second, postulate that all events that would have benefitted your hypothetical Them and are usually explained with incompetence of those involved, were actually orchestrated by Them and said "incompetent" people were Their agents.

Now you are in the right frame of mind, so return to your studies and compose a narrative (or multiple narratives) detailing the progress of Their Plan in the style of a Faux Documentary. Don't be afraid to alter your initial concept of Them if you find some juicy stories you want to include but cannot fit into it. On the other hand, feel free to gloss over obscure facts that get in the way of the plot or present them in a slightly altered light. If you lack a crucial piece that connects everything, you can claim you learned the story from a Surprise Witness who knew too much or that you found a secret manuscript. Remember, a conspiracy theory is a story, not a scientific work, so you are entitled to an Artistic License (within reasonable constraints).

You don't have to go into detail just yet. Your first priority is to write an outline of Their actions from the beginning to the Present Day; you can always expand the parts you like later. So, instead of chronicling everything and everyone, pick out the significant events (Stock Unsolved Mysteries, wars, disasters, unexplained accidents, inventions) and famous personalities (nobility, politicians, clerics, scientists, artists) from your selected time frame. These will be your framework story and your dramatis personae, respectively. Compose a coherent narrative that answers following questions: How were They involved with each significant event of Their time? How are said events even interconnected? Who among Their important contemporaries was/is one of Them, Their agent, or Their opponent (hint: the latter don't live long)? How close have Their come to Their goal by now? As you go, spice up your story (and flesh out your characters) with things your readers can relate to: greed, fear, love, etc..

One last note on using a Constructed World as a setting. If it is an established world, either your own creation or someone else's and you are writing a conspiracy-themed fanfic, you must be very familiar with its canon, just like you would have researched Real Life history. If you create a new world for your narrative, you must write both an official history and a secret history for it.

And that is it. You now have your very own original conspiracy theory.

Writing a Thriller

A Conspiracy Thriller can be likened to The Hero's Journey or the "Overcoming the Monster" plot, in that your Seeker Archetype is The Hero and They are The Monster. To make the story more personal, They are usually personified by The Man and a few less prominent villains (see Casting Director section below). Although defeating even the most high-ranked of Their members doesn't automatically defeat all of Them, it may be a satisfactory resolution for your particular story.

Writing the Investigation

The investigation is the centerpiece of a Conspiracy Thriller, much like in the Mystery Fiction, although it may at times be overshadowed by more pressing concerns (fights, chases, etc.). It spans for almost the entire duration of the story and usually beings with a single motivating event (see above) and reaches its apogee when the protagonist discovers the true nature of the conspiracy. The latter event often involves infiltrating an important location and discovering a crucial document or omniscient character who reveals everything else. The final stages of the investigation usually concern the location and/or identity of the final enemy, against whom the Final Battle is fought.

An investigation is essentially a quest for information on the conspiracy. It consists of a number of stages, during which the protagonist must find and decipher (two distinct sub-stages) a piece of information to proceed to the next stage. Most logically, deciphering one piece of information gives the protagonist clues on where to look for the next one, in addition to being a major Reveal in itself.

The first stage of the investigation is invariably a Motivating Event (ME), which differs from all others in that it doesn't have to be found, only deciphered to kick-start the investigation proper (the First Threshold). Later in the story, more MEs can be introduced but too many of them ruin the plot coherence. Another special stage type is the Exposition Flashback (EF), in which the protagonist relates the progress he has already made in the investigation to the reader. While useful to provide information that would otherwise fall outside the scope of the story at hand, EFs should not be used often, for the danger of boring the reader.

Investigation stages

Excluding the initial MEs, an investigation consists of a small number of find-and-decipher stages, which can be roughly subdivided into three distinctive types, depending on the end goal of the particular stage (see below). The number of stages depends on the number of Plot Threads:
  • Statistically, an investigation story told from the perspective of a single character (the protagonist) consists of 4 to 7 major stages, excluding the initial Motivating Event.
  • A multi-threaded narrative, related by several concurrent investigators, consists on average of 8 to 10 distinct stages, with 2 to 6 stages for each character (most of them seen through the primary protagonist's eyes). Before the Final Battle, however, all narrative threads converge into one or are cut short until only one remains.

An investigation stage is essentially a mini-quest that advances the overall investigation by rewarding the protagonist with new information about Them for considerable efforts on his part. Investigation stages are grouped into three types by the medium that contains the information on the conspiracy that the protagonist is after in that particular stage:

  • Document Search (DS). In such stages, the protagonist is looking for a small, mobile inanimate data source: letter, book, video- or audiotape, computer file, etc. The finding of the document is complicated by the fact that it can be effectively anywhere, while the deciphering (for important documents rarely contain data in plaintext) may be hindered by encryption, riddles, and codes. An additional intellectual effort is often necessary after the deciphering to fit the new information into the protagonist's existing image of the conspiracy. Pure DS stages are rare in modern conspiracy thrillers (at most, 1 or 2 in a story, often presented as quests for MacGuffins) but for example, one of the most famous and respected examples of the genre, Foucaults Pendulum, is composed almost entirely of DS stages.
  • Person Search (PS). Here, the protagonist tracks down another character, who holds a piece of information. This can be a specific person or a generic specialist in the required field of expertise. Their allegiances may also vary: it can be a neutral informant (scientist, inside person, etc.), a fellow investigator (possibly, a secondary protagonist), or a villain (an agent of Them). It may be therefore more or less difficult to find and "decipher" (that is, persuade them to comprehensibly share) their information. One common variation of this, found in every other conspiracy thriller, is search for a character, normally a police officer or a freelance journalist, who unsuccessfully investigated Them before (or, if they are already killed, to retrieve their investigation notes, making it a DS). PS stages are best suited for smaller scale conspiracy thrillers and they create a personal, character-driven story.
  • Location Search (LS). The protagonist must gain access to a certain stationary location, natural or man-made, usually, without prior knowledge of what he is looking for. His search is often hindered by Them closely guarding it. To "decipher" a location, the protagonist must figure out where and how the required information is stored. Most commonly, the protagonist discovers an important document or a knowledgeable character, crossing over to DS or PS zone. Rarely, the location in itself is the source of information, for example, it is a crime scene, is home to supernatural phenomena, or contains revealing artificial structures. LS stages are most appropriate in larger scale conspiracy thrillers, as they allow for a frequent change of settings and decorations. In smaller scale conspiracies, a single LS stage is often found in the end of the story, when the protagonist looks for the final enemy.

Although in most conspiracy thrillers, the investigation is a linear process, presented from the primary protagonist's point of view, there are some common variations that allow increasing the plot diversity:

  • Lost Thread. Upon completing the latest investigation and finding the sought information, the protagonist still has no idea where to look for the next piece. This plot turn often precipitates the Despair Stage of the overall plot or coincides with the discovery of the "final" piece of information that reveals the true nature and plans of the conspiracy. It is commonly solved by the protagonist switching his attention to another pressing concern (only to come back later) or by an external force coming to his aid. The latter, however, becomes a slight Ass Pull, unless properly foreshadowed and justified.
  • Red Herring. The protagonist makes a mistake deciphering an information source and reaches a dead end in his investigation after a few stages in the wrong direction, often leading to a Lost Thread plot turn. Considering an arbitrary limit on the number of stages in a story, red herrings should be used sparingly to avoid slowing the plot down.

Outsmarting the reader

An investigation story remains entertaining as long as the reader has not figured out its secret, mainly: who are the perpetrators and what do they want. It is therefore imperative to always stay ahead of the reader's own investigation. There are three possible approaches to this:

  1. Genuine intellectual and educational superiority of the author over the majority of the readers. Needless to say, this is the hardest to attain, but that's how the greats like Umberto Eco do it.
  2. Deliberate incoherence and ambiguity of the plot, making the discovery of the author's true intentions literally impossible. The greats like The Illuminatus! Trilogy justify this with an Unreliable Narrator and heavy meta-lapses.
  3. Using constant suspense to prevent the reader from prescinding from the story. Dan Brown is famous for using this in all of his books, creating tension with rapid shifts between multiple Plot Threads accompanied by tantalizing cliffhangers.

Writing dialogue

Suggested Plots

Here are some simple conspiracy suggestions to get you started:

  • The Illuminati are planning to release the new modification of mind controlling flu virus by adding it into the H1N1 vaccines in order to discredit, then take over the Red Cross.
  • The Swiss banks have conspired with The Knights Templar to blackmail the European Union into giving the Templars seats in the European Parliament.
  • A secret research project by the US military is kidnapping purple-eyed children, because they are the easiest to turn into psychic soldiers.
  • The Bilderberg Club and The Greys are secretly building a Kill Sat to bombard the Chinese to force them to drop the protectionist barriers.
  • The vampires have allied themselves with GRU to assassinate the president who attempts to enforce blood transfusion control as part of his health care reform.

Also, you can use one of the following links to generate any number of plot ideas:

(Just make sure to deny any knowledge of TV Tropes if you are caught using these.)

Departments

Set Designer / Location Scout

Most conspiracy theories are narrated from Present Day perspective to enforce a sense of insecurity in the reader/audience, therefore it's a good idea to set your Conspiracy Thriller in modern times, as well. Depending on the scale of your conspiracy, you may need a bigger or smaller set of decorations:

  • For a small scale conspiracy, you may want to invent your own Town with a Dark Secret or even a Dying Town, shaping it just the way you want it. You may also pick out a real town with dark secrets and take considerable liberties with it, provided most readers have never been there. The price of liberty, however, is that you must spend extra time familiarizing your readership with your setting first.
  • The next step up is a Lovecraft Country/Campbell Country, which is exactly like a Town with a Dark Secret, only a tick larger, allowing for an Adventure Towns sequence in the Investigation Stage. You may invent your own or choose an obscure rural back-country nobody knows much about and you must provide a seemingly normal Back Story first.
  • Next up the scale are large metropolitan areas and cities (such as London, Paris, New York, and Tokyo). Any big old city has its share of dark secrets and Urban Legends and you may reasonably expect anyone to know a bit about it. However, you are also bound to the local landmarks. Inventing your own city with a dark secret works but for all the trouble of fitting it into the world map later, you might as well write a whole new world from the beginning.
  • Starting from a capital city, you may move on to a Government Conspiracy or an Empire with a Dark Secret. The rules are basically the same as Campbell Country above but you may use famous landmarks like Area 51 (e.g. in connection with Ancient Astronauts). Also, unless you opted for a Constructed World or Alternate History, you should expect Internet Backdraft and death threats at this stage, thanks to the political implications of your work.
  • International conspiracies are our tip of the day. Not only are they more fun to write (you get the entire world to twist to your liking!), but you may also legitimately expect your readers to know the basic history of the world without you telling them. Europe makes a great starting point because it is relatively small and tight-packed and has a bonus of well-documented and popularized history, which you, as an English-reading author, are most likely to be familiar with. From there on, your protagonist may travel all over the world for clues, e.g. The Middle East is thinkable if you're dealing with The Knights Templar legacy.
  • For a more unconventional approach, set your conspiracy Inside The Internet, not bound to a particular locale. Cyber Punk conspiracies have become popular in recent decades, and there's obviously a reason for that: most people interested in technogenic conspiracies are intimately familiar with online and internet.

Remember, thrillers rely on epic dangers and rapid location shifts to upkeep the suspense, so don't limit your story to a single decorations set, no matter how small the scale. If you want to revisit a particular setting, you can make it a MacGuffin Location or the protagonist's base of operations. In the latter case, it will most likely be destroyed or taken over by Them in the Despair Stage.

In any case, do not forget to visit a Secret Government Warehouse at some stage.

Props Department

Costume Designer

Since most conspiracy theories are set in modern times, you don't need to give the clothing a lot of thinking. Just give your characters whatever seems appropriate to wear in contemporary urban areas and move on to more important stuff. There are, however, exceptions:

Casting Director

The characters in a conspiracy thriller can be generally assigned to four distinct groups: the heroes, the victims, the unaligned, and the villains.

Heroes

Your protagonist is very unlikely to go against Them alone. Usually, he has a small cast of supporting characters who band together around him. Their distinctive trait is that they are all aware of the conspiracy's existence, as opposed to unaligned sympathizers (see below), who are held in the dark for their own safety. Sometimes, the protagonist acts completely on his own, with occasional help from otherwise uninvolved characters, but this is very rare.

Victims

The victims are the ones killed or otherwise hurt by the conspiracy, thus providing motivation for the heroes and reasons to hate Them for the audience. To increase the emotional impact, they should be introduced and characterized individually (because, sadly, A Million IS A Statistic).

Of course, these categories overlap frequently. Bonus points if the victims are personal friends or relatives of the heroes.

Unaligned

These characters or groups are, at their first introduction, neither (obvious) agents of Them, nor directly involved in the heroes' investigation. They may assist the heroes in one way or another but the crucial difference between them and lancers is that they never learn the whole story. Although they form the majority of the cast at first, many of them will be revealed to have been Their agents all along. Some, however, may get promoted to lancers. Note that some "unaligned" characters may investigate Them independently but their attempts are futile (at best) unless they join the heroes.

  • Friends and families. These people provide material and emotional support, help the heroes in a tight spot but are rarely told the full story (for their own protection). An important function of this group is to provide additional characterization of the heroes.
  • Ordinary people. Businessmen, mobsters, government officials, scientists, medics, clergy, etc., who sell information and resources to the heroes and may occasionally bail them out of trouble. Most informants sought in the Person Search stages fall into this group.
  • Organizations:

Villains

The villains are members of the conspiracy, who can be further subdivided into the heads and the hands when Their numbers are appropriately large.

  • The Man. The Man is the head of the conspiracy and the Big Bad of the story. Although there can be a Man Behind the Man, who is the actual head, he doesn't play a large role in the narrative. The Man is very often someone in position of enormous (public or hidden) power. Alternatively, he is a brilliant scientist or mystic. Or both. His skills include analytical mind, strategic planning, Compelling Voice, emotional manipulation, acting, and Flaw Exploitation. See our guide on how to Write A Magnificent Bastard for more writing tips. Since he is Their strategic leader, he is responsible for most of Their wrongdoings, therefore his death (rarer, imprisonment) ends the story. The Man can be introduced at several points:
    • Early in the story as The Mole (see below), who is revealed as the Man much later.
    • Early in the story as an unaligned character, ditto.
    • Late in the story, with his identity as the Man made obvious.
  • Dragon. A secondary villain who has to be defeated before facing the Man (e.g. he is the only one who knows the Man's identity), an Evil Counterpart to the Lancer. His identity is a less guarded secret than the Man's, as he works out in the field and later, pursues the heroes. He is usually more physically robust than his boss and specializes in combat and field tactics. His background is either that of a Professional Killer, or military (colonels and generals are popular). A dragon is optional, since a particularly badass Man may not need him at all, or opt for a Quirky Miniboss Squad or Co-Dragons, who split the dragon's authority among themselves and are little more than Elite Mooks (see below). Like the Man, the dragon can be introduced at several points:
    • Early in the story as an unaligned character. Before his exact position in Their hierarchy is revealed, he may claim to be "the Man" himself.
    • Early in the story as "the Man", before the real Man is revealed.
    • Early in the story as the mole (see below).
    • Later in the story, replacing an old dragon who was Killed Off for Real (use only in Long Runners).
  • Mole. The Mole is a devious member of Them who joins the protagonist as a secondary or even primary Lancer to spy and sabotage his plans. Like the dragon, a mole is an optional character, appearing in ca. two out of three conspiracy thrillers. Half of the time, the mole is revealed to be the Man himself, otherwise he has a high chance of being the dragon. Even when the mole is a regular agent, the chances of him going through Conspiracy Redemption are very low. His background is fabricated to mimic that of a regular Lancer and he may not even be aware of his true agenda.
  • Defector. A optional minor agent of Them who goes for Conspiracy Redemption for ethical reasons. In a way, the opposite of the mole. If female, she may be Defecting for Love.
  • Agents. Regular, unnamed, and expendable mooks, who only know what they need to know for their job and work only for money and, maybe, a higher rank in the conspiracy ladder. Their unifying property are their sheer numbers and anonymity. An additional distinction can be made between Conspicuous Trenchcoat-wearing spies and The Men in Black enforcers, who deal with troublemakers by intimidation or brute force.
  • The Man Behind The Man. The real Man Behind the Man behind a conspiracy may be someone who is never properly introduced, only hinted at in the story. The Man himself may be the dragon to the Man Behind The Man (don't get confused now). Alternatively, multiple Men Behind The Man comprise The Omniscient Council of Vagueness. They meet in a dimly lit room with their faces obscured, engage in an Arc Words-filled Cryptic Conversation (which only makes sense once you know the entire story) and an occasional Palantir Ploy, then disappear into darkness. The heroes will probably never meet them all in person (if they did, they'd inevitably discover a lot of familiar faces). As long as at least one Council member survives, the conspiracy can continue on.

Stunt Department

Special Effects

  • Use Scene Shift Captions to help your readers/audience keep track of time passage and location changes. Not only is it helpful, it also conveys that distinct Faux Documentary feel you are going for.

Extra Credit

The Greats

Satire/Parody/Pastiche

The Epic Fails

Further Reading


And remember: there is no conspiracy. fnord
Who Shot JFK?The Index Is Watching YouWritten by the Winners
Make A Collectible Card GameSoYouWantTo/See The IndexWrite A Cosmic Horror Story

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