On Storytelling: Conspiracies

Words: 2681 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

To reiterate, I am playing through the Resident Evil series. Those familiar with the series thus know how much it relies on conspiracies as a core plot device.

Of course, Resident Evil is not alone in this. Plenty of games and game series have used some kind of conspiracy to drive their narratives. In a sense, conspiracies are good for this purpose. Your standard plot might identify the primary antagonist as an evil that is “out there”: a leader of an evil empire or a demon king. The player’s quest is thus to travel across the game’s world to take out this antagonist. It can become a bit boring, because the enemy is so clear and effectively ever-present that the quest is effectively mindless. You’re traveling from point to point until you reach the end.

By comparison, conspiracies offer the opportunity for twists and turns within the narrative. Since the point of a conspiracy is to be secret, the writer can hide information from the player and reveal things only when the story demands it. The tension of this setup – the player trying to figure out who the real villain is – builds a suspense for the experience.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

The problem with conspiracies, though, is that they often end up being a lazy way to build this suspense. The various components of the conspiracy – the motive, the actors, the methods, the end goals – can all be so poorly laid out or conceived that the narrative becomes nonsense. And so it is useful to explore the inherent problems with using conspiracies as a storytelling device. Not that conspiracies should be avoided entirely, but rather that they should be employed carefully. Conspiracies as a component of writing place a far greater demand on good writing, and so the possibility of screwing up is much greater.

The Nature of Conspiracies

It might help to start with the basics of conspiracies themselves.

One of the problems is that “conspiracy” is a rather broad term. In effect it just means people acting in secret to accomplish a goal, usually with that goal being either illegal or causing some kind of harm to some person or group that is not part of the conspiracy. Conspiracies are conscious actions – people need to meet together – and they are generally dedicated to a specific purpose – people who merely talk about something illegal does not constitute a conspiracy, but only when they plan to do something.

Of course, even by this definition a lot of things can be defined as a conspiracy, including actions done by someone in the government. A small group of individuals could conspire, or a large group, or a business, or a group of businesses, or even a government or various governments could conspire. So this leaves us with a lot of potential for the “who.” And since all you need is either something illegal or something harmful, the “what” could also be a lot of different things.

But I bring this up because we want to then stop to consider how conspiracies work, both in a historical sense and in a logical sense.

The reason we want to look at conspiracies through these lenses is that conspiracies as a narrative device work because we know that conspiracies are possible. If it was ludicrous to imagine people gathering in secret for a nefarious purpose, then as a premise for a story it would also be ludicrous. Stories could still then employ conspiracies, but they would need to do so within a particular context: the narrative would need to embrace the absurdity that would come with the premise.

But because conspiracies have occurred, and have been successful, and even have had profound effects, we can accept in the abstract that big conspiracies could exist. But conspiracies as a narrative device tend to focus on those profound effects, usually to the point of forgetting how to make the conspiracy in any sense “realistic.”

What I mean here is that historically, conspiracies tend to be fairly small in their scope. Generally conspiracy groups are small and have very specific goals. The most common form of conspiracy, for example, is the conspiracy to assassinate a leader. Usually these conspiracies exist either to overthrow an authoritarian ruler (whether real or perceived), or as a way for the members of the conspiracy to take power for themselves and/or install a new system of government. History has plenty of examples of these kinds of conspiracies, some of which were successful and many more which were not.

Or take an economic example: oligopolies. You’ve probably heard of a monopoly, when a single business completely owns some market – only one company making computers, for example, meaning if you want a computer, you have to buy from that one company. An “oligopoly” is where the market is split between a few major companies. These companies can then conspire in various ways – such as agreeing not to compete with each other in certain markets, or to set prices at a particular point, or even to create products of a particular standard – in order to allow each company to make money without needing to worry about the pressures of competition. Oligopolies don’t necessarily involve conspiracies – to be a conspiracy the companies need to reach an actual agreement on how they act – but the basic premise helps to show how real conspiracies can occur. For a historical example, various light bulb manufacturers set up the “Phoebus Cartel” in the early 1900’s to create a standard of planned obsolescence for light bulbs: if light bulb life is kept at a standard and companies are fined for being above that standard, then the members of the cartel can all sell more light bulbs.

But the point of noting these kinds of conspiracies is twofold. Firstly, these conspiracies all had very specific aims. “Kill this leader” or “sell deficient light bulbs” are steps toward clearly identifiable goals, such as “take power” or “make more money.” Secondly, these conspiracies end up being found out. Political conspiracies usually end up being uncovered before they have a chance to carry out their plan, and the conspirators generally wind up dead. And those that succeed tend to be clear because the person who leads the conspiracy is pretty much always the person who takes power once it succeeds. Economic conspiracies – where they exist – usually have records and paperwork that help us point to them. We know that these conspiracies existed, because they were uncovered by police, recorded by historians, or there was plenty of evidence left behind.

Let’s also look at the basic logic of conspiracies. If you were, for the sake of argument, to engage in a conspiracy, you would probably be putting yourself at great risk. After all, you’re likely part of a plan to do something illegal. And the bigger the conspiracy, the more likely there are going to be various entities trying to uncover it: if you want to overthrow a government, you can be sure that government is going to be the lookout for you and your fellow conspirators. Which means there is a good chance you’ll be found out, especially as time drags on more and more. So there has to be a significant benefit in it for you personally to be part of that conspiracy. Why stick your neck out if you don’t stand to gain a whole lot for that risk?

Which takes us back to one of the basic historical facts about conspiracies: they get found out. And one of the ways they often get found out is through betrayal. A common saying is “three can keep a secret if two are dead,” and conspiracies especially show this problem. If a conspiracy is going to fail, there may be good reason to rat everyone out and potentially get rewarded for it, or get a lesser punishment. So the more people you have involved in a conspiracy, the more potential traitors.

Conspiracies as a Plot Device

Why does any of that matter? Narratives tend to paint their conspiracies as wide-ranging, successful, and big. An entire government agency plots to overthrow its own government because the agency leader wants to take power. The number of people involved who would have to know about the plan, help take steps so that the plan could succeed, and all without any one of them ever revealing the plan accidentally or on purpose, becomes ridiculous. And it is at that point that the use of the conspiracy becomes bad.

We might start out with the idea that writing an antagonist requires us to specify the “who,” the “what,” and the “why.” Who is the “bad guy”? What is their goal, and what are they doing to achieve that goal? Why are they doing it?

Conspiracies usually work by obscuring the “who” part of the equation in some way. Which is fine on its own. As long as the player has a goal at each step of the venture that ties into the conspiracy in some form, the player does not need to know the actual person or persons behind the conspiracy immediately.

However, it is worth noting that relying on existing conspiracies tends to work against the story. The Assassin’s Creed series relies on the Templars and the Deus Ex series relies on the Illuminati as their core villains. While such existing conspiratorial villains do not utterly ruin the narratives, they do introduce a lot of problems. The biggest problem is that by invoking these groups, we run into the logical constraint of conspiracies. To stay in the shadows for as long as they do – sometimes thousands of years – stretches the limits of what is reasonably possible. That such a conspiracy exists without it ever being discovered becomes so ridiculous that it hurts the story as a whole. Which is why conspiracies that are natural to the game’s own story end up working much better. It’s not impossible to use such groups, but it generally needs to be done with the recognition that the game’s own premise will be difficult to take seriously.

The “what” is a place where things more commonly fall apart. The first point of failure is the goal. Often you find that your antagonist’s aim is somewhat nebulous or even impossible. Wanting to control the world’s population, often when the group already wields incredible amounts of power and control over people. Desiring to remake the world. Attempting to become a god or godlike. The goals can end up being vague because of how big they are. Recall that historically conspiracies work through having clearly defined and specific goals. When they are “big” goals, even those goals are something that is within the realm of the easily conceivable.

The “what” also falls apart when the actual steps taken to get to the end goal stop making sense. It is very common to have conspiracies that are circuitous in their planning. The process has numerous steps that require so many things to work simultaneously, each of which could very easily fall apart. The more steps that are involved, the more likely the plan is to fail. Which again means that the narrative conspiracy runs up against one of the logical constraints.

And then there’s the “why,” another important point of failure in the writing. Usually the motivations of your antagonists are pretty simple: to get power or to make money. And those kinds of motivations, on their own, tend to work fine. But the problem within the context of conspiracies is that these motivations conflict with the “what” part of the plan. The antagonists in these conspiracies usually already have power or money – that power and money is usually what they are using to fulfill their plots. So really, their motivation is to get even more power and money. And the problem is that there are usually far easier ways in the real world to get more power and money, especially if you already have a lot of power and money. Which means that your antagonist is using the most obtuse method to gain the most power and money.

So if we want a working conspiracy for our narratives, we need to step back and ask three major questions.

One: who is going to be behind all of this? It is better to stick with a figure that is intrinsic to the game itself. Make up your own villain, rather than borrowing from somewhere else, especially if that “somewhere else” requires a conspiracy going back hundreds or thousands of years.

Two: what is the actual plan? Make it something concrete and viable. Bigger is not always better. In fact, the bigger you try to make the conspiracy plot, the more likely the plot will become ridiculous.

In addition, think about the mechanics of the plot. What are the steps being taken to accomplish the goal, and how viable is each step? The more steps you have, the harder it is for the conspiracy to feel believable.

Three: why go through with this? Consider the actual motivation for the villain(s) to not only want the Final Thing at the end of the conspiracy, but to go through with the conspiracy itself. We’re looking for answers to these questions that do not simply “make sense.” Motivations that are simplistic can make sense, but still be bad. You want a motivation that feels authentic: the player can understand why the villain is doing what they are doing, not just as a whole, but at each step of the process.

It is of course possible to use the grand, age-old, confusing conspiracy in writing. But it has to be done with the knowledge that doing so makes the plot ridiculous. It is better to use these kinds of things for comedic purposes. Trying to use these things as part of a “serious” narrative undercuts that very seriousness.

Concluding Remarks

As humans we live in a chaotic world. Things happen randomly – or more appropriately, they happen for a thousand tiny reasons that are beyond the control of any person or group. And yet, we tend to hate randomness. We love to imagine that the world and society exists according to some grand principle that is controlled by some person or group of people. That belief is not unique to your run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorists. We all often attribute intent and personhood to abstract problems. Think of the ways in which we have trouble conceptualizing issues of inequality, discrimination, or abuse as anything other than the faults of individuals.

We like to look for patterns in patternless phenomena. But when we try to create patterns, we veer into the comical. It is so easy for our stories to fall apart by trying to come up with complicated plans, because complicated plans require so much effort to keep together – both on the part of the author and on the part of the character. Much as conspiracies can seem like a nice shortcut in writing – creating a sense of drama and intrigue that goes beyond the “basic” – we should be careful in seeing the conspiracy as a tool to be used as freely as any other. Instead, conspiracies should be used sparingly, when they make sense – make sense for the story itself (i.e. the story cannot make sense without a conspiracy) and make sense for the world (i.e. the conspiracy seems plausible in some way).

Put another way, if we are going to put a conspiracy into our plots, we should try to stop and think about the implications of the conspiracy. If it exists, how has it not been discovered? If it is going to succeed, what would need to happen to make that possible? If it requires a lot of time, effort, or manpower, how would the plan every really work? If we’re not willing to think through these problems and solve them for our story – and the failing of many a narrative conspiracy is a decision to ignore these issues – then we should abandon the device entirely and try something else.

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