Tips on Writing Believable Conspiracies for Thriller Fiction

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

www.cgpgrey.com

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

Conspiracy theories have captured our imaginations for many decades. With the advent of the Internet, such theories have proliferated from the comfort and anonymity of your cell phone with your fake handles. Rightly or wrongly, the anonymity of the Internet has spurred conspiracies and brought them into our homes, linked to our smart phones and other devices.

Some popular, long standing conspiracies involve:
• A secret world order that controls the globe – Illuminati/Knight Templar
• The government secrets from Area 51/Roswell/Alien Autopsy
• Reptilian aliens walk on two legs among us
• The JFK assassination – Oswald wasn’t alone
• The moon landing was fake
• The FDA is withholding the cure for cancer

“WHAT IF” questions can generate plot ideas. Many conspiracy theories revolve around big institutions like the church, educational institutions, big oil, rogue agents operating within the CIA, a secret government agency,Wall Street, big pharma or similar organizations that touch people’s lives and make them vulnerable. Your notion of conspiracy can be domestic or foreign, localized or global, political, religious, military or big corporations.

Here are some popular movies that were based on conspiracy theories:
Wag the Dog – White House officials and a Hollywood producer create a fake war to distract the public from a sex scandal involving the US President.(1997)
All the President’s Men – Based on Watergate and secret factions operating in our government.
Manchurian Candidate – An evil corporation brainwashes US soldiers into fighting in Iraq in order to create a perfect assassin capable of eliminating undesirable political rivals. (2004)
Syriana – An energy analyst, a CIA agent, a middle-eastern prince, and a corrupt lawyer become embroiled in a high-level assassination involving Big Oil. (2005)
Network – Upon learning of his dismissal, failing news anchor Howard Beale goes on hugely popular rants quickly angering the Powers That Be. (1976)
JFK – Oliver Stone’s masterpiece documenting District Attorney Jim Garrison’s struggle to prove the involvement of a conspiracy behind the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. (1991)
The Insider – A research chemist turns whistle blower (Jeffrey Wigand) and threatens to reveal to the world Big Tobacco’s cover up of the negative health effect of cigarette smoking. (1999)
They Live – A drifter accidentally discovers a pair of sunglasses which enables him to see Aliens among us, the true rulers of the world. (1988) (I can’t believe I actually saw this one.)

If you want to add a twist to your plot, consider combining multiple conspiracy theories that might not be related on the surface. I once combined a secret global human trafficking ring making illicit use of the dark web and combined it with a news story set in India where people were getting robbed on the street for their kidneys and other organs. I envisioned a contemptible shadowy organization that traded human flesh online and used my energy trading experience to visualize how such a group would conduct business across a network that resembled the control panels at large oil refineries (places I had seen many times).

Medical Conspiracies

Like telling a good ghost story, tap into fears people would believe. Not too far-fetched. Medical conspiracies are a great combination of personal vulnerability with a high stakes thriller plot. Think of the many ways we all accept certain medical procedures as normal. What if a covert group interferes with a “normal” procedure and hunts innocent victims without reason or a connection to the crimes? A great example of a medical thriller based on a believable fear is Michael Palmer – The 5th Vial.

Seemingly unrelated victims across the globe are targeted by a top secret cabal of medical specialists dealing in illegal organ donation. Standard blood work—and the 5th vial—put a target on their backs and seal their fate.

Robin Cook’s Coma is another classic medical thriller where certain victims are targeted and their bodies are harvested for illegal organ donation after the victims are suspended in a coma state. Innocent patients go in for standard and routine operations, only to become the latest addition to a body farm in a secret facility operated by wealthy patrons through the Jefferson Institute.

8 Key Ways to Writing Believable Conspiracies

1) Take advantage of paranoia. Mistrust and suspicion are keys to pulling off a believable conspiracy plot. Even if readers haven’t considered darker subversive motives at play during relatively routine activities, trigger their paranoia with your plot and a different way to look at it.

2) Write what you fear. If you fear it, chances are that readers will too. Convince them. Exploit common fears and highlight deeper ways that get readers thinking. In fiction, it works to grip readers in a personal way. The fears we all share—the things that wake us up in the middle of the night—can tap into a great plot.

3) Villainous motivation must feel real. You can be over the top but give your diabolical conspiracy a strong and plausible motivation. Don’t be vague. Drill down into your conspirators and justify their motives and existence from the foot soldiers on up the line.

4) Give your bad guys believable resources. Make it seem insurmountable to stop them. Think of the infrastructure it would take to plausibly pull off your thriller plot. Have them use believable technology, science and manpower to give them the appearance of Goliath when it comes to your hero/heroine fighting their diabolical acts.

5) Know organizations and your governmental jurisdictions to give your plot teeth. How do they operate in secret? Give them a plausible connection to organizations the reader may know about. Draw from organizations or systems readers will understand. If you’re too vague, readers will dismiss your plot as unlikely and a shadowy plot with no substance.

6) Make the risks personal for your hero and heroine. High stakes are important, but force your main character(s) to dig deep to fight through their fears and insurmountable odds. This is what will keep readers rooting for your characters. Make them worthy of their star role. A global phenomenon can put readers on edge, but bring the impact down to the personal stakes of real human beings for maximum impact.

7) Ripped from the headlines stories can add layers of credibility. The best fictional thrillers come from events or news that readers are familiar with.

a.) Re-imagine a well known historical event. Add your best twist to a conspiracy makes your work more interesting and forces readers to think.

b.) Or dig into a headline story for facts that are not readily known. Often that story will be deeper than most readers are aware of, especially if there are personal human stories within the big headline. I used the Mumbai terrorist attack to add bones to some of my stories. I’ve also used the National Geographic’s TV show Locked Up Abroad in my book The Echo of Violence and wrote my own version of those amazing events when a married couple (Christian missionaries) were abducted and held for ransom for a year by a small terrorist cell. It saddened me to realize that only one of the missionaries came back. They had gone to the Philippines for a second honeymoon to celebrate their wedding anniversary. I didn’t exploit their horrific story, but I re-imagined a “what if” scenario involving a nun.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What conspiracies can you imagine from today’s headlines? Get crazy. Add humor or scare the hell out of us.

2.) Do you have helpful resource links for writers interested in conspiracies?

3.) What book sticks in your mind that scared you with a plausible and frightening conspiracy?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

31 thoughts on “Tips on Writing Believable Conspiracies for Thriller Fiction

  1. 1. A couple of “What If’s” on my lengthy list:
    The Deep State + AI + medical research to live indefinitely = a shadow dictator who cannot be out-thought or die – sort of like Golden Eye meets Frankenstein…

    Big Foot / Sasquatch is a Wookiee… and direct descendant of Chewbacca… and the real reason behind the Star Wars movie “empire.”

    2. Sorry… perhaps someone can help me with a few… (unless they’re trying to foil my “what if” list…)

    3. Michael Creighton’s _Andromeda Strain_
    James Grady’s _Six Days of the Condor_ (made into the movie _Three Days of the Condor_ with Robert Redford which I saw first – and can’t believe, either – but liked the book better…)

    Both came at just the right “teenager-growing-up-during-post-Viet Nam-and-Watergate” moment… which, I think, keeps me conspiratorially minded…

    If I can add a question, though… How do the evil-doers convince SO MANY security types and science researchers to do such bad deeds and stay quiet about it? Unless it’s a government conspiracy, I don’t see how folks like Dr. No from James Bond got as big and away with it as long as they did…

    • On your question, I can imagine a scenario where well-meaning scientists believe they’re working for the good guys, when they aren’t. People can be duped into keeping secrets if they don’t know the truth.

      Good what ifs, George. Thanks for kicking everything off.

  2. Sorry… that should’ve been _Eagle Eye_ meets Frankenstein… (see, they’re trying to discredit me already….)

    • Ooooooo – commuting thought here…. what if the Deep State is a fiction of an even DEEPER State, created to keep us distracted… (I feel myself spiraling downward…)

      • I know someone who works for military cyber security. He talks about accessing the dark web. Lots of potential where a realm of predators could exist.

  3. Ooh! Under “Medical Conspiracies” witness what Stephen King did with The Stand. For weeks after reading that for the first time, every time I heard someone sneeze or cough, I flinched.

    • I LOVE it when books niggle at us after we’ve finished reading it. You have a fertile mind, Harvey. It’s why you’re a writer.

    • I KNOW!!! I heard that “write what you fear” line from Lee Child when he served as our ITW mentor for the International Thriller Writers organization. ITW has a great program for debut thriller authors that I was fortunate enough to be a part of. Our own Laura Benedict debuted the same year. It’s how we met in 2008. I’ve loved her writing ever since.

  4. Good list, Jordan. (Is this where I say I’ve only seen 2 of the movies listed?) I’ve used a fair number of these in my books, but they’re never the central focus. I don’t write “thrillers” per se, but my covert ops team has run into a lot of these situations, often while looking for something else.

    • I like peeling back the layers of a larger creepier conspiracy as the story goes on. My characters might start a desperate hunt for someone innocent but wind up involved in something darker & far reaching, bigger than themselves & they can’t ignore it. My book “Evil Without A Face” does something like this. I specifically wrote it as my first thriller. It’s book 1 to set up my Sweet Justice series.

    • You had me look back on my film list to confirm which movies I’ve seen. The only one I missed was Syriana. I recently rewatched ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN & was surprised how intense that movie was, considering it was about reporters & journalism. It’s held up well.

  5. “A global phenomenon can put readers on edge, but bring the impact down to the personal stakes of real human beings for maximum impact.”

    Wise words, Jordan! People feel powerless against a faceless Goliath harming millions. But when that Goliath steps on your best friend, it becomes personal.

    Another movie to add to your list is The Parallax View (1974). All the President’s Men overshadowed it but I thought PV was a better film. It echoed the assassinations of JFK and RFK.

    My memory may be faulty after 45 years but I believe at the end of Parallax View, there was a statistic of how many witnesses to the JFK assassination had died from other than natural causes. It then gave the odds of that many people dying unnaturally. It was in the trillions of trillions. Very sobering.

    A psychologist once told me a joke: The good news is you’re not paranoid. The bad news is they really *are* after you.

    At least, I think it was a joke….

    • The ending you described to the Parallax View gave me chills, Debbie. That’s the kind of ending we want in our books–an ending that prickles the skin with reality, nudges the imagination & becomes unforgettable.

  6. THE INSIDER is from true events. I’ve not seen the movie, but the book and events it was based on were true. The tobacco companies did some scary sh*t back then to deny that cigarettes were tiny death bombs. As an FYI, I live in what was the heart of the tobacco industry so I had an up-close and personal view of all this.

    If I can think of any resources, etc., I’ll come back later. Right now, I have to fight back the evil conspiracy that is grass and weeds intent on eating my house.

    • Ha! I’m battling the same landscaping conspiracies. With dogs, I needed a more earth-friendly means to fight weeds. After research, I found, concocted & have had success with a stronger vinegar solution. A garden variety weed fighter is 30% vinegar (the avg household vinegar is 5-7%). I tweak the 30% vinegar solution (bought from Amazon) by adding some DAWN dish detergent for its sticking properties and some water heavily laced with salt. This mix kills weeds (and other plants if exposed) within hours & will go deep into roots to get rid of the whole weed.. Good luck, Marilynn.

      • Even grocery store vinegar can do serious damage to small plants. A good organic pre-emergent aka something that keeps seeds from germinating is cornmeal gluten which is also high in nitrogen. A win win.

        My three acres of grass, etc., has no street frontage so I treat it like a natural meadow and let most of the wild flowers aka weeds do their thing for the bees, butterflies, and birds. I mow to keep back the ivy, honeysuckle, and other invasives.

        • That sounds beautiful, idyllic. Thanks for the tip.,

          I go Rambo on weeds. The tiered beds in my backyard are more natural with some nice shrubs rather than flowers everywhere. The tiered beds are easy for my dogs but not for me.

  7. I remember that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the general consensus was that the thriller was dead. If we didn’t have Russian spies to worry about, what could possibly compel thrilling fiction? Yeah.

    I think the trick in writing a convincing conspiracy thriller is to forget the notion of a conspiracy “theory” and embrace the conspiracy as fact, and then work backwards to establish the entirely logical reason why two or people conspired to do the Bad Thing (The McGuffin, really). The drama evolves from what the conspirators are willing to do to protect themselves from being exposed.

    Big conspiracies bore me because ultimately they are unsustainable in reality. I write about small conspiracies that have huge consequences. One leaker of classified information does enormous damage and costs lives. Aldrich Ames, Robert Hansen, Mark Felt, Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and others like them are able to do the damage they did specifically because they acted alone. They were beyond suspicion because they were accepted members of their own tribes. We trust the motives of people who play in our own sandbox, often in spite of obvious clues which become clear only after the dastardly deeds are uncovered. Then we are shocked–SHOCKED–that they were doing the obvious.

    For me, the most human drama to be harvested out of a conspiracy thriller comes from the fact that conspiracies amount to betrayals. The TV series THE AMERICANS comes to mind. BREAKING BAD, too. Ultimately, all good stories are about characters.

    • I ABSOLUTELY LOVE THIS, John. A great addendum. I was hoping you would add your esteemed thoughts. Thank you.

      Yes, I agree that a conspiracy is much more impactful when it starts with a personal angle with a domino falling escalation. I love how you flipped the thriller plot.

  8. I was thinking about current conspiracies while I was mowing. Some of the podcasters I listen to for ghost stories will post on the hottest conspiracy theories. Most theories are so dumb that they scare me only for the failure of education systems and common sense around the world. One was that the US caused the typhons in the Far East last year in retaliation for some minor slur to US policy. If the poor science behind that theory is so lame that a former English major can catch it, it is very lame, indeed. Not to mention the hurricanes hitting major cities in the US haven’t been stopped. I pity thriller writers trying to find subject matter if that’s all the new conspiracies they have to work with.

  9. I used to work for the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), which is part of the U.S, Dept. of Transportation. BTS publishes a number of free, useful statistical publications for writers, including an annual (since 1994) called “Transportation Statistics Annual Report (TSAR).”

    Here is a an intro of the contents of TSAR:
    Notable emphases in this year’s report include:

    • more treatment of automated transportation systems, e-commerce, and other information technology interactions affecting transportation

    • transportation system resilience in addressing natural disasters and human caused disruptions, such as cyber-attacks

    • the first national update on local travel since 2009 following the release of the 2017 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) by the Federal Highway Administration

    • national data from the Freight Analysis Framework, with projections to 2045 and a discussion of e-commerce

    • an updated and more comprehensive treatment of the economics of transportation

    • the latest safety statistics for all modes of transportation, updated through 2017

    • energy usage and environmental impacts of transportation.

    A link to BTS and the latest and archived copies of TSAR: https://www.bts.gov/tsar

    Do check the headings at the top of the home page for free products for various transportation statistics on different modes of transportation.

  10. As you know, I’m busy with a paranormal series about a petite All-American-girl-next-door who confronts, mostly by chance, paranormal experiences.

    Many of my ideas come from a magazine article I penned now 40-some years ago when I wrote for an entertainment magazine in Oklahoma City. In the midst of writing about singers and upcoming concerts and concert artists and so on, I met and wrote about a man–who became a good friend–who was the head of an international UFO organization. He has passed. I miss him a lot.

    Because of our friendship, we would run around together, and I would listen to his stories and tales about people who had contacted him about strange or paranormal experiences. (In our times together, I did encounter two strange experiences that I cannot explain.) But it was because of my friendship with him that my interest in strange things increased.

    So, without becoming emotionally or otherwise involved in those things, I have observed since those days much of the paranormal things on the air and on the internet. I would not advise people to become emotionally involved or addicted to these matters as they have a way of turning on you. The late Art Bell–not Jim Bell’s parent–mentioned this a number of times in his radio shows, to various guests who concurred with him that digging deeply into the UFO phenomenon can become a confusing and sometimes frightening thing. For example, are there such things as Men In Black? I have talked to people who say they were contacted and frightened by such beings.

    I have also corresponded with bigfoot hunters: bigfoot hunters seem to be divided into two different groups–those who believe the big guys are creatures, animals, some good, some bad, and those who believe that bigfoots are paranormal beings who are associated with lighted orbs, strange occurrences, and similar, unexplainable, things. There are those folks who insist there are, or they have encountered, both bigfoots and creatures called dogmen, the latter upright-walking animals full of fury and destruction. (I believe I have said elsewhere in these posts that my own family had frightening contacts with bigfoot-type creatures.)

    So–and this is my point–while it is fun to play around with conspiracies for our stories, it may not be healthy, or even dangerous, to get too involved with them. As for myself, I stand outside my story as I write and try to determine when I am getting too heavily involved in the paranormal. After all, another name for many, most, or virtually all paranormal encounters may well be satanic or demonic.

    And, such things may get entirely out of hand. No less an entertainer than Orson Welles aired his famous War of the Worlds broadcast with the disclaimer at the end of the show: “This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to
    be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden
    gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. . .it’s Hallowe’en.”

    Even with the disclaimer, Mr. Welles was forced to go on the air again and apologize nationally for the terror and panic unleashed on America.

    Again I warn: conspiracies are fun, but they can get out of hand. Even for those writing them.

      • When I was a special student at the University of Oklahoma–meaning, I was not working on a degree, not, you know, special–I was in Foster-Harris’ writing class with the wife of the president of Oklahoma Christian University. Fabulous lady. I can’t remember her name, but she was a source of wisdom and friendship.

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