I see you clicked on the show more button in the description. Excellent. Just as I planned. Intrigue plots need a few things to work. No, not a perfect synergy of mystery, tension, great characterization and exciting action. All intrigue needs is a bunch of hooded dudes spouting cryptic nonsense at a screen showing the protagonists as they struggle in vain to figure out what is going on. What is really going on? What is the truth? The audience doesn’t know, but the greatest truth is neither does the author.
My Honest Thoughts on Intrigue Plots
Intrigue plots are dangerous things. While a lot of plots can fall flat if executed poorly, a shoddily planned out intrigue plot can easily become a disaster if mishandled. Mostly this is because intrigue plots usually have a lot of moving parts and thus more places where things can go wrong. One of the intrigue plot’s main strengths is its sense of mystery. That same mystery is also its weakness. Foreshadow too much and the intrigue looses its edge. Foreshadow too little and the audience will assume the writers are just making it up as they go along.
I suspect that discovery writers (AKA pansters) in particular struggle with intrigue plots as they tend to write off the cuff. Discovery writers often have great characters, but struggle when it comes to having an explosive finale in terms of plot. It requires foresight to pull off an exciting climax which runs against the discovery writer’s instincts.
For the intrigue to pay off, it greatly helps if the groundwork is laid out early in the story. A lot of people like puzzles and letting the audience put one together out of the plot can be very rewarding for some people and create a natural sense of progression. This is much less effective if the writer is just throwing out random bits that don’t really fit together.
An example of this done wrong would be the almost all of the conspiracy episodes of the older X-Files episodes. The series constantly alluded to the existence of an overarching meta-plot and sinister conspiracy, but the whole thing went nowhere. As a plot grinds on without any clear direction audience trust quickly erodes.
Intrigue doesn’t have to be all focused on mystery though. Game of Thrones does intrigue well by keeping it grounded in excellent characterization. [SPOILER WARNING] Strangely enough, one of my favorite parts in the first book is when Eddard Stark is killed. The whole thing is just beautiful. Eddard was going to be a bargaining chip. It was a great political maneuver that would have put the Lannisters in an excellent position and adverted the worst of a civil war. Then Joffrey has to be a little turd and kills Eddard, flushing everyone’s web of plans within plans down the toilet. [END SPOILER]
Watching a bit of intrigue unravel can be rewarding, especially if it fits with consistent characterization. The internal betrayal of a lot of conspiracies at the moment of their victory falls flat because they never really bothered to back-stab each other before. Having a bunch of hyper-competent conspirators suddenly turn into greedy idiots reeks too much of a deus-ex machina and a ‘get the protagonists out of trouble free’ card.
This is the weakness that a lot of plotter writers have. They plan out their intrigue well, but forget that humans are humans and will tend to human things up at the worst possible times. No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy and the same is true with any plot or scheme. I think a good question writers should ask themselves is “can my plan be undone by a bunch of D&D players?” No I’m not just referencing X-Files again. I’ve run a number of table top role playing games as the dungeon master and my players never act like I expect them to. Sometimes they kill the final villain during his introduction. Sometimes they stupidly wander into a bounty hunter’s office even though they should have known their characters had bounties on their heads. Sometimes they find a brilliant way to shortcut my plot and render hours of careful preparation useless. I’ve learned from those sessions that the best plans are flexible and while it is possible to anticipate likely reactions, human beings are far too creative and complex to predict with precision.
Nitpick time! I hate super soldier plots! Again, X-Files introduced super soldiers when it was scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas. I hated when they introduced super soldiers in Stargate SG-1 as well. Super soldiers are one of those tropes that writers tend to throw in when they are running out of ideas to actually challenge the heroes. Video games are kind of bad about this too. They also suffer from the same problem any kind of superior being created by science or magic would have; why would they serve those who created them?
Even Dune has this problem. While Dune is an excellent example of an intrigue plot, why exactly was the Bene Gesserit so convinced they could control the super being they were trying so hard to create? How do you control something better than you in every way? That would be like a chicken creating a human being. “With our creation’s opposable thumbs, tool use and problem solving prowess, we will totally defeat our turkey rivals and not get turned into delicious sandwiches by our own creation because we will control these humans!”
And don’t get me started on how dumb Weyland Yutani is. The alien is a worthless weapon because if your mad scientists found a way to control them, so could your rivals. To be honest, I’m not even sold on the idea of them being effective weapons at all. The alien queen got beaten by a futuristic fork lift after all. Weyland Yutani is deep into sunk cost fallacy territory at this point.
The lesson here is to make sure the schemers have a sensible end goal. I think a lot of intrigue plots would be more engaging if the conspiracy had some kind of legitimate point or noble goal even if they had to wade through a sea of blood to get there. Or at least make the conspirators characters and not mysterious hooded guys who spout empty, foreboding dialog at a screen showing the protagonists. The Harkonnens in Dune are all monsters, but I was impressed when I re-read the first book when I got older because I noticed a few slivers of humanity each had. Just a few humanizing traits can really ground an intrigue plot and make it so much more real. And when everyone is throwing super soldiers, hijacked WMDs and convoluted plans within plans at one another, the audience needs a bit genuine characterization to keep things sane.