BREAKING IN: Writing Credible Conspiracies

“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22

If you came of age anytime after the JFK assassination or Watergate, you grew up in a world in which “conspiracy theories” were a fact of life. And, rightly or wrongly, fear and mistrust of the government is an American tradition. Americans seem to take it for granted that when the guy in the dark suit from “the government” arrives, he’s up to no good. That’s probably why so many scripts that cross my desk involve secret government conspiracies.

Many thrillers are based on the premise that the hero has discovered secret, explosive information, which could blow the lid off of a government conspiracy. Dark and powerful forces conspire to silence the potential whistleblower before he can “go public” with what he knows – and he’s running for his life. He hopes to turn the tables on his pursuers before they can kill him.

Of course, not all movies of this kind involve the government or politicians. Some thrillers involve conspiracies by another powerful group – such as the Church, academia, “Big Oil,” Wall Street, drug companies, or any similar organization.

If your script involves any kind of institutional conspiracy, domestic or foreign, political, religious, military, or “big business,” these tips are for you.

MOTIVATION
Paranoia is the basis of many a great movie thriller. In fact, it’s pretty much a requirement. But if you’re writing this kind of movie, make sure that whoever is behind the secret conspiracy really has a powerful, personal motive for keeping the information our hero has discovered a secret.

I read a lot of scripts in which the group or individuals who are conspiring to suppress (even to the point of murder) the secret information the hero has uncovered would have no compelling motive to do this. I know we’re an increasingly paranoid society. And all you have to do these days is say, “government conspiracy,” “big business,” or “rogue organization within the CIA,” and many Americans nod their heads in agreement, ready to believe the worst.

But I read too many thrillers in which the screenwriter hasn’t taken enough time to think through whether his plot makes sense. If you’re writing a thriller involving a secret conspiracy of some kind, make sure the villains’ motivations are logical. This means that the secret must:

1. Be truly explosive. The secret has to be the kind of information that, if it got out to the general public, would really rock the world, and mean “the end” for the schemes of whichever powerful individuals or organization is trying to hide and suppress it.

2. Involve high stakes that motivate the main characters to take action. The stakes have to be so high that we can believe that the conspirators would be willing to kill our hero, and possibly others as well, just to keep the secret from becoming public. Also, the stakes have to be so high – for our hero, and for the world – and the conspirators’ plot so evil, that the hero would be willing to risk his life to make sure that they are stopped and that their secret gets out.

I read many “conspiracy” thrillers in which vague, shadowy, powerful groups are trying to stop the hero. But if you’re writing a conspiracy script, it can’t be “fuzzy.” And it must be believable. At some point in your story, we have to find out exactly who is behind that secret scheme, what they are up to, what they hope to gain by it, why the information is being kept secret, and why they would be willing to do anything – even kill – to stop that information from getting out. In other words, what do they have to lose if they’re exposed? It all has to make sense.

For example, if a kid discovers a piece of lint in his bag of marshmallows, it’s not credible that “dark forces” within the candy industry or the FDA would conspire to assassinate him to prevent him from “going public” with his information. At least, not unless the movie is a very dark comedy.

By the way, most scripts I read about “ETs” assume that the U.S. government wants to cover up any discovery of aliens on Earth (presumably, to avoid potential “panic”). Frankly, this has never made sense to me. If the government discovered an ET, they would hold a joint press conference and the ET would get his own Fox reality show.

SORRY, WRONG DEPARTMENT
If you’re writing a movie about a conspiracy, do your homework and pick the correct department of the government (or other organization) that could conceivably be behind such a plot.

ALPHABET SOUP
In a lot of the conspiracy thrillers I read, the rogue organizations trying to kill the hero include sub-groups within the CIA, the FBI, and a whole “alphabet soup” of powerful secret plotters. But, let’s get real. The larger the scheme and the more groups and individuals involved, the more likely it is to be discovered. As Ben Franklin used to say, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” This is all the more true in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Also, is it really credible that all these folks in separate government departments would work together to do anything? And that Wikileaks or The Huffington Post wouldn’t ever find out about it?

In real life, most people are not bright or organized enough to execute a successful conspiracy even if they wanted to. And some script readers are like me: they aren’t quick to believe that just because someone works for the government or “big business,” or has a different religion, they are “out to get me.” If your script has a dark and evil conspiracy at the core of it, make sure that the villains’ motivations and actions are clear, credible, and convincing, and that the stakes are high.

Keep pitching. See you next month.

12 thoughts on “BREAKING IN: Writing Credible Conspiracies

  1. winter cantagallo

    Yikes! Now I’m paranoid about competition! (ha) I didn’t realize so many of us were writing in this genre that you would write an article about it but I’m very grateful you did! Better get back to work before someone finishes before I do!

  2. Steve Barto

    Great tips. Thanks so much. I am even more afraid of doing a conspiracy thriller as my first screenplay. That’s why I’m working on a coming of age, redemption drama. I’ll keep your suggestions just in case I get brave with my second script.

  3. P Freeman

    Strong, balanced motivation, stakes, logic and credibility apply to all genres, so are good basics in general. But a plot that hinges on conspiracy is what-iffier than other genres, so those wires suspending disbelief must be even more secure. Cutebunion? Now there’s an e-handle.

  4. Joseph DiLalla

    I have written a novel that has all of the above mentioned requirements that make a good and believable story. The title is THE CHOSEN FEW. It is based on an actual discovery, the details of which are outlined in the Author’s Note following the last chapter. You can read more about the book at Amazon.com

  5. chuck cavanaugh

    A good column, thanks. Just a note – it seems quite logical why the government would cover up proof of aliens. People scare easily – one reason for the obsession with guns in our country. Observe how easily the news “scares” people into tuning in. The public wants to go to bed believing their government can protect them from any enemies, real or perceived. Proof of a life form more advanced than ours would cause massive fear, particularly without knowing the intentions of the alien presence.

  6. Tom Grisham

    Staton,

    Another great article. I am the first authorized screenwriter for Billie Sol Estes, the Texas Wheeler Dealer, and am currently unrepresented.

    Forgive the cliche, but several people smarter than I call it a page turner.

    This true story is rich on your topic. Would you care to have a look? You can get my email through the Webmaster at SCRIPT.

    Best regards,

    Tom Grisham

  7. Camus Scribe

    Mostly, a conspiracy movie must be comprehensible and “entertaining”. Just “interesting” doesn’t cut it. Ask me…I wrote the grandaddy conspiracy to collapse the world’s finances with a “secret weapon” that would be interesting to most computer enthusiasts, BUT my villain was more motivated and compelling than my Hero…does not work! I will keep the story and the plot…my hero has to GROW!

    CHARACTER + PLOT = ENTERTAINING MOVIE… BOTH MUST BE GREAT!
    DAN

  8. Bruno Beloff

    Thank you Staton Rabin, that’s straight to the point!

    My aunt Nora Beloff (1919 – 1997) was chief political correspondent of The Observer newspaper in London. She was credited with the catchphrase “Cock-up or Conspiracy?” When I was studying to be a journalist, she patiently explained to me how many of these things were cock-ups.

    It always seems to me that conspiracy theories tell us much more about the theorists than they do about the conspirators – something a lot of screenwriters underplay.

    All power to you.

    B

  9. Alfa-Betty Olsen

    Thrilled to read that someone was concerned about credibility.
    Not enough of it around these days. I see all kinds of preposterous moments in movies — events that would lead to the calling out of the National Guard and these events don’t even make the newspapers in the town in the movie. If it’s not credible how is the audience going to suspend disbelief? The audience doesn’t seem to care. Public figures get caught in lies all the time and no one cares. They’re supposed to lose credibility but no one cares. What has become of us?

  10. David

    That’s it? Make sure your characters have credible motives? Frankly, this column strikes me as being a little thin.

    However, I did appreciate your point about the government covering up contact with extraterrestrials to avoid “a panic.” I’ve always thought the same thing. What, exactly, would these panicking people do? Run through the streets screaming? Sell all their stock in General Electric? Stop attending church?

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