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 TropesThe 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, ChoicesA 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.
TheyJust 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:
- Intellectuals' conspiracy. They are Mad Scientists posing as harmless Absent Minded Professors and planning to bring about a global technocratic tyranny. Usually involves erasing all traces of spirituality and religion. The roots of this stereotype go back to the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, and the Illuminati, who all came into existence in the years leading up to the French Revolution, long viewed as one of the great triumphs or catastrophes of human history, depending on who you ask.
- Ethnic conspiracy, generally falling under two major subtypes.
- They are members, sometimes prominent, of an ethnic or cultural minority who just don't blend in. Because of this, They plan to enslave all different from Them, or at least mix them up to a nondescript mass. This one goes back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Jewish conspiracies in general. Due to the obvious Unfortunate Implications, this theory is defunct these days as far as scholars are concerned, although the wide involvement of homosexuals in Hollywood has given rise to a new version, the Gay Agenda.
- They are members, usually prominent, of the ethnic or cultural majority who basically don't like any of the minorities that just don't blend in. Because of this, They plan to enslave (or worse) all different from Them, or at least remove them from having any influence in the course of the society in which they live. This one goes back to the reactions to The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, and the purported need to "take back the country from... ...and return it to greatness." Due to a notable conflict in the mid-20th century, this theory is seen as both far more and less plausible as far as scholars are concerned, considering that on the one hand, it was historically attempted, but spectacularly failed in everything but bringing ruin and forced division upon the country in which it occurred, and thus is unlikely to be re-attempted. In the eyes of many minorities, especially certain ones within the United States, every example of prejudicial treatment against them is seen as a link to this wider conspiracy, rather than just as another Real Life example of Humans Are Bastards.
- Bankers' conspiracy. They are the Corrupt Corporate Executives and financiers who use interest rates and fractional reserve to turn the middle-class into unwitting slaves of profit. In other words, the working people are poor, the parasites are rich and rulin'. Like the ethnic conspiracy, this one carries some Unfortunate Implications due to the fact that, in many real life versions of this theory, many of the leading bankers are Jews; in the wake of recent global economic turmoil, however, this has entered the sphere of cultural consciousness again, albeit almost exclusively in a general Corrupt Corporate Executive form, though care must still be taken to avoid anything that could be seen as outwardly anti-Semitic.
- Bolshevik conspiracy. They are beggars, lowlifes, and generic scum of Earth who are jealous of normal people and use social and economic crises to seize the power for Themselves. Expect a KGB to secretly back Them up. Another rare format since 1991. Has also tended to be associated with Jews, ever since Jews made up the majority of members of the first Soviet parliament and since the communist/Jew connection was made way back in the infamous Protocols mentioned earlier.
- Government Conspiracy. They are a "democratically elected" Government of a benevolent country (the United Nations also fits) who plan to Take Over the World under the pretense of spreading freedom and justice. Expect The Men in Black, Culture Police and a Propaganda Machine in Their service.
- Cultist conspiracy. They are a closed religious community who plan to eradicate all different faith in favor of Their own. While originally part of Christian theories about the Jews, this pattern resurfaced in modern times with the Satanic Panic and the advent of New Age groups and other new religious movements. The Milkman Conspiracy often falls under this.
- UFO conspiracy. They are (human-looking) aliens planning to rule the Earth (or to continue ruling it indefinitely, if they are already here). This is the one exception to human-only-conspiracy rule, although They employ human agents.
Next, think of the structure of your conspiracy and how it is going to be integrated into the setting. There are three structural patterns:
- Secret society. The Ancient Conspiracy Classic. It consists of a number of otherwise unrelated individuals who pursue some esoteric goal, often passed down from their ancestors, meaning it must be pretty old. This form is most popular with Cultist, Ethnic, and Scientist conspiracies. Additionally, the illusion of an ancient conspiracy may be invoked on purpose by a single villain to motivate his agents and intimidate his enemies.
- Circle within circles. The conspiracy between a small number of members of a powerful but benevolent organization that is unaware of their Evil Plan. Usually much more recent than a traditional secret society. This is primarily a Government Conspiracy form (e.g. CIA's unauthorized projects), though Scientists can use it to a smaller degree.
- Crime confederation. A secret alliance between politics, business, crime, and/or military structures. Likely, very recent. This form is popular with Banker, Beggar, and Alien conspiracies. Bankers conspire among each other, beggars conspire with the KGB, and aliens conspire with The Government (which makes it a Government conspiracy form, as well).
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.
- A seemingly benevolent but evil organization. A rare form, usually falling within the circle-within-circles archetype, when the outside world and the lower ranks don't even know about its sinister true purpose.
- A very secretive organization. A common form, where the very existence of the organization, let alone their plans, is hidden from the non-conspirators. Often a Historical Villain Upgrade.
- A secret alliance between a secretive organization and a seemingly benevolent one. Basically, a combination of the above two.
- A secret alliance between a seemingly benevolent organization and an obviously evil (criminal) one. Likely the most common form of conspiracies: the "good" organization is usually The Government or other legitimate authority, whereas the "evil" ones are usually criminals or external enemies.
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 whole of 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 all of 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.
- An obscure technology (WMD, Mind Control, fantastic energy sources, particularly bad drugs, etc.)
- An ancient artifact (either a Public Domain Artifact, or your own invention)
- A specific person or people (either one of the potential victims, i.e. a Living MacGuffin, or some kind of super-specialists They are training)
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.
- 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 Un-Twist. 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
- There is no conspiracy. A Twist Ending where after discovering "irrefutable evidence" of a conspiracy, your protagonist has to dismiss it completely and utterly as a coincidental chain of events, inflated by his own imagination and yearning for unorthodox truths. The Double Subversion is the discovery that the "rational explanation" above was but another trick of Theirs. Then, you continue the story right where it left off.
- Alternatively, you can invert the subversion above and let the story start off as the protagonist's mind game, which eventually proves to be too real.
- Usually, They are expected to appear and act as a monolithic group, so make Them experience internal struggles and schisms. Let the protagonist draw upon these to gain allies and weaken the enemies. Contradicting motives is also one of the best ways to characterize your villains.
- Conspiracies are usually the antagonists, so you can have them actually be the good guys, or at least on the same side. Perhaps they are a benign but mysterious group working for a better tomorrow, and all the bad things actually were just misunderstandings or members of the group having gone rogue. Or maybe it just looks that way.
- The masterminds behind any conspiracy are generally expected to be rich, old, white men. So why not make your Big Bad a selfless, motherly woman or a black woman devoted to her country? The motives that made such a character join and lead a conspiracy are infinitely more interesting to explore than those of an ISO-standard mastermind.
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 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.
- 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 MotifsMotifs 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?
- Arc Words. Related to the "finding a secret document" plot premise below, the Arc Words may serve as a perfect beacon for your search of the Truth. Can be upgraded to Spy Speak later in the story.
- Chess Motifs. The protagonist himself may or may not be a piece in the Grand Plan, but even if he is, he is rarely anything more than a pawn. However, it's the pawns who get a shot at becoming Queens...
- Esoteric Motifs. Any obscure occult symbolism is good. It's not called an "Ancient Conspiracy" for nothing: if it's been here since The Middle Ages, it has to feature some of the flair.
- Mythological Motifs. Use these either when All Myths Are True or to emphasize Their god-like power.
- Numerological Motifs. Admit it: you, too, want to know what's behind the enigma of the 23.
- Significant Anagrams. Are They trying to tell us something with those? Refer to the Anagram Bin for inspiration.
- Sinister Geometry. Recurring geometrical patterns (like a pyramid... with an eye on top) are a dead ringer for a conspiracy, be it aliens, magic, or whatever They are up to.
- Tarot Motifs. Like Chess Motifs and Esoteric Motifs above.
- Techno Babble. Frequent references to an obscure but flashy technology really spice up an intellectuals' conspiracy plot, even when Artistic License - Physics yourself.
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:
- Initiation Ceremony. How, where, and when do They induce new members into Their ranks?
- Secret Handshake. How do They recognize each other outside Their secret meetings?
- How do They arrange said secret meetings in the first place?
- Any Arc Words They are required to recite every time They murder someone or when They are dying Themselves?
In a speculative setting, you could ground your conspiracy's ceremonies in a Ritual Magic of some kind.
Writing a TheorySo, 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 ThrillerA 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.
- Since your protagonist is established as an everyman, skip the miraculous conception part and start by establishing a sense of normality, which your readers can relate to. Your hero's world is basically Like Reality Unless Noted. It's good to drop a few plot-relevant hints here and there, e.g. inconspicuously introduce Their Front Organization, but nothing major yet. See the Location Scout's section for setting suggestions.
- The Inciting Incident (Call to Adventure) comes in form of a minuscule slip-up in the conspirators' otherwise perfect plan. The Hero is now aware of Their presence, usually in one of two ways:
- Someone is murdered or disappears under strange circumstances. Take this approach if you aim for a fast-paced thriller plot with a lot of suspense. It's the prevalent form nowadays.
- The protagonist discovers an important document (usually fictional) that contains proof of the conspiracy's existence, or a Secret Society Group Picture, or receives a Mysterious Note, or witnesses something he really shouldn't. Use this for a more contemplative and thoughtful approach.
- The First Threshold often comes when the hero pulls on the first thread of the proverbial "far more sinister plot". The Threshold Guardians here are the conspiracy's first line of defense, designed to shoo away the less determined: The Men in Black show up on the hero's doorstep to tell him to mind his business; strange accidents occur; his boss gives in to pressure from above... At the same time, the Normal People call him a crazed Conspiracy Theorist and refuse to believe his words about eerie visitors, swiftly-removed evidence, and hidden places. This is especially prevalent if he has the reputation of a Crazy Survivalist, a bad case of Poor Communication Kills, or is really short on time.
- Since the hero usually fails to comply with Their demands, They will keep troubling him in even worse fashion until the end of the story.
- At this stage, however, your hero may also gain a precious few supporters who do believe and stand by him later. A particularly devious Big Bad or Dragon may sign up as The Mole here.
- In the Investigation Stage (roughly corresponds to the Road of Trials), your hero is aware of Them but They are not yet aware of him (or don't consider him a major threat), giving him just enough time to collect his most important weapon — information. In other words, this is where you get to the Exposition of Their Back Story, i.e. your theory. Note that while this part of the story is called "Investigation Stage", the actual investigation already begins with the Call and often ends just before the Final Battle (see below).
- In the Despair Stage, They finally make an active move against the hero — and utterly crush him. The hero experiences a metaphorical (or even a temporary literal) death. His trusted mentor dies. His True Companions either die or abandon him and everyone else he asks for help betrays him. The Mole mocks him smugly. He has failed to stop Their plans. He has lost.
- ...but the Final Battle is not yet over. Slowly, the hero recovers. His friends return. There's still sand in his hourglass. The final confrontation in most conspiracy thrillers is both a Battle of Wits and a physical confrontation with the story's Big Bad (usually, the nominal head of the conspiracy).
- And so it comes to an ending. The conspiracy thriller is a cynical genre. Sometimes, They win and the hero dies — or survives, only to live with his failure. The hero may have defeated the Big Bad — but the conspiracy lives on, for They are many. The hero may have shattered Their Plan — but most of Them go unpunished. Very rarely, the hero destroys Them for good — but at a terrible price. Don't count on a Happily Ever After in this genre.
Writing the InvestigationThe 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 stagesExcluding 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, Foucault's 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 readerAn 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- When writing a Conspiracy Theorist's (or the Mysterious Informant's) dialogue, make extensive use of suggestive/leading questions. These have the advantage of being able to deny you have ever said anything, while, at the same time, subtly convincing the listeners that your theory is true by having them arrive to the same conclusions de facto on their own. The same reasoning also applies to the published text of your standalone theory, where suggestive questions can be also used to gloss over particularly weak arguments (you don't leap to conclusions but invite the reader to).
- Dialogue is also a good place to drop Cryptic Background References to Their other activities, outside the scope of Their current plot. A classical example (combining with the above): "Surely, you don't believe that the Cuban Missile Crisis was about Cuban missiles, do you?" One way to fit it in more naturally is to have it take place between The Hero and his Mysterious Informant at a Secret Government Warehouse, as they go from exhibit to exhibit and the latter nails down the historic trivia.
Suggested PlotsHere 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.)
Set Designer / Location ScoutMost 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.
- You will need Fictional Documents en masse. While their contents are more important to the plot than the form, the latter may also be used to great effect. Imagine discovering a papyrus with hieroglyphs or a cuneiform tablet, foretelling Their actions in modern times. Sends shivers down your spine, doesn't it? Bonus points if the documents you use actually exist (but don't bother staying completely true to their word).
- Also consider throwing in a couple of Public Domain Artifacts to serve as MacGuffins.
- Get a Black Helicopter and a Van in Black or two to transport The Men in Black, if available.
- Find a way to cram a String Theory in there somewhere. Nothing spells "Conspiracy Theorist" quite as well as a wall full of random newspaper clippings under an intricate web of red string.
- A Tinfoil Hat may be a bit overblown but you can play it for laughs or find an actual justification for its use.
- When writing an Ancient Conspiracy, you may face the need to give Them inhumanly long lifespan in order to better see Their plans through. In that case, some kind of Immortality Inducer accomplishes this best without Them straying too far from humanity. One readily available option is the Philosopher's Stone and its derivatives.
- Likewise, you may also help Them circumvent the logistical issues of being omnipresent by giving them means of instant communication and travel over great distances. An arcane Portal Network spanning the globe does it nicely; place its entrances Beneath the Earth (cf. the catacombs of Paris).
Costume DesignerSince 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:
- A cultist conspiracy or any remotely esoteric one will probably commission appropriate robes and hoods for their members (a least, for the top rung).
- A Government Conspiracy and the bankers will mostly employ The Men in Black, Badasses In Nice Suits who wear Sinister Shades, or the more old-fashioned Conspicuous Trenchcoat-sporting G-men.
- If The Men in Black are only used as armed enforcers, it may be a good idea to give them face-concealing SWAT-like gear instead. It's just as depersonalizing, and more practical in combat.
Casting DirectorThe characters in a conspiracy thriller can be generally assigned to four distinct groups: the heroes, the victims, the unaligned, and the villains.
HeroesYour 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.
- Protagonist. The leader, often the believer, and usually the one most motivated (see above) to unveil Their secrets. There are two flavors he can fall into: the Main Brain and the Infiltrator. The Main Brain is the more intellectual hero whose trump card is his vast previous knowledge (think Robert Langdon); while the Infiltrator is more of an Action Hero who gets in, cracks the codes, steals the data (think Fox Mulder). Although both types require equal amounts of creative thinking, the Infiltrator is more likely to rely on others for Exposition. Mixed types are possible, especially if he acts without backup. Many protagonists possess such traits as extensive knowledge of history and/or high-end technology, exceptional physical condition, and from time to time, special powers. Background-wise, the protagonists are often scholars, IT specialists, Cowboy Cops, Intrepid Reporters, Ordinary High School Students, or criminals. There are three basic patterns your protagonist can be involved with Them (you can combine them if you wish):
- It's Personal. He holds a grudge against Them for killing his father, abducting his sister, kicking his dog, etc.
- Patriotic Fervor. Includes national motives, with the protagonist setting out to protect public order or restore his country's honor. May be a Cowboy Cop taking a shot at That One Case.
- Seeker Archetype. Probably the most common one, this protagonist is after The Truth just for the sake of it.
- Lancer. The primary assistant and foil to the protagonist, who is very likely (3 to 1) to be of the opposite gender (so let's refer to her as female from now on). The Lancer can possess pretty much any background and traits the protagonist can (except Psychic Powers) but usually acts as a Foil, complementing his skills. Her duties range from giving the hero fresh ideas and filling in the gaps to bailing him out of trouble and remote guidance. The Lancer never betrays the hero (that's The Mole's part) but may very well die on him. If The Hero Dies instead in the middle of the story (thus moving into the Victims group), she completes the investigation. The Lancer can be introduced in several ways:
- Early in the story as a friend or relative of the protagonist. In this case, she is (at least, outwardly) one of the Normal People.
- During the Motivating Event, often as a police officer assigned to the case.
- Recruited in the end of a Person Search investigation stage. May be a former agent of Them (see also Defector below).
- Late in the story, when the evidence of Their plans is revealed. Very commonly a law enforcement officer.
- Replaces the original Lancer (usually a friend from before), after she is killed, kidnapped, or otherwise incapacitated.
- Mole. See below under Villains.
- Mysterious Informant. The Mysterious Informant is an enigmatic recurring character whose agenda is even murkier than the rest. His function is to contact the heroes (but they rarely know how to contact him) and give them new data as required. Depending on where you want to go with it, he can be a member of the counter-conspiracy (see below), The Mole, a Defector from Decadence from Their ranks, or even a Dragon with an Agenda.
- Organization. Sometimes, the hero is additionally backed up by some Ancient Tradition, La Résistance, a group of like-minded Conspiracy Theorists (a la the Lone Gunmen), or a Government Agency of Fiction. In this rare case, their help is very limited, consisting mostly of providing free resources (weapons), exposition, cover-up, search and rescue, and a few Red Shirts for the Final Battle. In any case, they don't play a big role in the story.
VictimsThe 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).
- Lancers. As noted above, a lot of lancers end up dead or worse in the course of their investigation.
- Earlier investigators. The protagonist's predecessors who knew too much for their own good. If The Hero Dies, he is transferred here, too.
- Scholars. Harmless Absent Minded Professors are especially likely to cross Their path by pure chance.
- Test subjects. Sometimes, They perform experiments on living humans (often young and female) For Science!, fun, and/or profit.
- Failed agents. Their agents who have outlived their usefulness.
- Rival groups. Individual members of the opposition or the counter-conspiracy to Them. If the rival group continues to exist after taking the hit, it may assist the heroes (see above).
- Women, children, and elderly in general make good targets for murder and cruel experiments.
Of course, these categories overlap frequently. Bonus points if the victims are personal friends or relatives of the heroes.
UnalignedThese 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.
- Police. The police and other law enforcement agencies are a ubiquitous element in conspiracy thrillers. They are usually represented by a few officers in charge and a number of Red Shirts, who fluctuate between assisting and hindering the heroes' investigation. They do, however, frequently join them for the Final Battle. If the hero is a policeman himself, his Da Chief will inevitably be a major figure in the story, either as a Reasonable Authority Figure, or a Treacherous Advisor. Also, he will inevitably demand that the hero turns in his badge at some point.
- Front organizations. A villainous Front Organization is commonly a Mega Corp. but can be as small as a local cleaning company or a girl scout troop. Its heroic counterpart is normally so insignificant, its existence is a reveal in itself. A distinct subcategory of a villainous organization is a conspiracy with good publicity, whose villainy is known to the heroes and the reader from the onset (whereas normal front organizations are revealed to be such long after their inconspicuous introduction).
- More organizations should be introduced in the manner similar to Their front organization to avoid giving the reader unnecessary clues too early. The best way to do that is by having already introduced characters to work for or otherwise be members of them.
VillainsThe 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.
- A Chase Scene, where the protagonist is running for his life from Their agents, is a must have.
- If you must have Stuff Blowing Up, stage a Fiery Coverup.
- 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.
- Illuminatus! (1975) skillfully (and completely straightly) used Unreliable Narrator, a global Conspiracy Kitchen Sink, and All Myths Are True.
- Foucault's Pendulum (1988) deconstructed the Conspiracy Theory genre viciously.
- The X-Files (1993-2002) managed to play conspiracy tropes straight in the Long Runner format and has codified the Hero-Lancer dynamic described above.
- Deus Ex (2000) put a Conspiracy Kitchen Sink into an interactive medium and got away with it.
- Higurashi: When They Cry (2002-2006) featured a very small-scale conspiracy with minimal fantastic elements.
- Hot Fuzz (2007) is a small-scale conspiracy thriller mixed with Buddy Cop Show with zero fantastic elements.
- The books of Jean Parvulesco feature conspiracies battling over the control of Russia. His books got officially endorsed by persons in connection with the Russian government, and some of his conspiracy theories are officially taught by some leading Russian intellectuals. This is the highest amount of recognition any conspiracy fiction writer officially got.
- Bielefeld Conspiracy: Originally intended as satire, this theory proved unexpectedly plausible.
- "Fantastic Easter Special": A brilliant parody of The Da Vinci Code below.
- CNN's Magic Wall Conspiracy Thriller.
The Epic Fails
- Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code offer an example on how NOT to write the back-story of a conspiracy thriller. They are still quite exciting thrillers, nonetheless.
- Conspiracy Theorists Say The Darndest Things! is an archive of bad Real Life conspiracy theories culled from the internet. The same site hosts "Fundies Say The Darndest Things" (the original) and "Racists Say The Darndest Things", themselves good sources of bad religious and racial conspiracy theories.
- "Three Steps to Building Your Own Conspiracy Theory" by Nancy Bixler
- "The A-Z of Conspiracy" at ConspiracyBomb.com
- See also our Conspiracy Literature list.
And remember: there is no conspiracy. fnord