Now, I’d be the first to admit this isn’t a particularly original trope at all. In fact, long, long before author Dan Brown employed ‘The Priory of Sion’ in his runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code, writers and other paranoid people have muttered darkly in their beer for millennia about secret organizations responsible for manipulating governments --- and entire populations --- for their own nefarious purposes.
(I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code as a story, but like many other readers, was highly annoyed, first by Brown’s distortion and outright misrepresentation of historical fact, then his attempt to present the resultant nonsense as truth. It reminds me of Gandalf’s comment to Saruman: “I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.” In other words, if you’re going to construct fictional history, I say, fine, go ahead and have fun storming the castle --- after all, I do that in my own work. But unlike Mr. B, I place my writing squarely in the fantasy genre, and wouldn’t dream of trying to pass it off as reality.)
Except… here’s the thing about tropes/clichés, folks: yes, there are times we roll our eyes at them; yes, we decry them as tired and unoriginal; yes, they’re stereotyped up the wazoo. BUT… they work. Because, Constant Reader, the unpalatable truth about humans is: we’re walking tropes/clichés. And we enact tropes/clichés. All the time. Humans are not nearly as original as we like to think we are.
So the upshot is… yeah, I’m using the Shadowy-Organization-Conspiracy trope in my writing. Because, as I said, it works. And it’s fun to write. Particularly if you keep things understated --- no need to have villains dressed in black, twirling mustaches and swirling capes, cackling maniacally while tying nubile heroines to railway tracks. (I mean, sure, Darth Vader was fun and all, but you’ve got to admit, he was a little over the top. Okay, waaaaaay over the top.)
However, there’s a couple of problems with conspiracies writers need to be careful of, tip-toeing around them like one would a minefield… because they can also blow up in your face while you’re busy gleefully writing them. These problems exist in the real world, too, which is why intelligent people roll their eyes every time we hear the newest conspiracy theory. (The Covid pandemic in particular has been a rich lode from which to mine all sorts of loony conspiracy theories. For example… no, Covidiots, wearing a little piece of cloth over the lower half of your face has not been an underhanded attempt to stifle your political freedoms… nor have shadowy groups included microchips in vaccines to track your every movement --- and they actually don’t need to, because you’ve been providing 24/7 tracking data on yourself ever since you bought your first cell phone.) I could go on almost endlessly… the JFK assassination… 9/11… faking the manned lunar landings… 45’s loss-which-was-really-a-win… but I won’t, because there’s really no point. The conspiracy-addicted/addled mind possesses some uniquely bizarre ability to ignore the sane and rational, reveling and wallowing in the sensational, improbable details of their favourite conspiracy. Conspiracy nuts don’t want to listen to the voice of reason. Being crazy is, apparently, much more fun.
(Although I do think we can all at least understand the sweet siren call of conspiracies. In a dark and oft-inexplicable world, conspiracy theories do provide explanations comforting the ignorant, the bewildered, and the terrified. Pointing at shadowy bogey-men as culprits to our woes feels better than pointing at nameless hissings in the murk.)
The first problem with conspiracy theories is people must be far more competent --- on a large scale --- than humans almost ever are. Again, we can look at the recent pandemic: most governments and NGOs around the planet instituted mitigation responses ranging from barely adequate to abysmally incompetent. And that’s against a clearly defined foe, with clearly defined necessary steps needing to be implemented. Thank God Covid wasn’t either as transmissible or nearly as lethal as Stephen King’s superflu in his book The Stand.
The second problem is most conspiracies require large numbers of people to be involved --- sometimes hundreds or even thousands --- and the scale of the necessary coverup is unimaginable. Every last freaking participant must keep their mouth shut. Forever. And folks, here’s another little truism regarding human nature: people just can’t do that. What’s a guaranteed way of spreading a secret? Tell the person you’re revealing it to that it is a secret --- a big-ass, deep, dark secret --- and they mustn’t tell anyone. Ever. People have this weird, obsessive-compulsive need to share secrets, bless their black little arrogant hearts.
So, as a writer, you need to make sure your chosen shadowy group responsible for carrying out the story’s dark little conspiracy is almost superhuman in both core competencies and collective ability to Keep Their Frickin’ Mouths Shut. If you can solve those two thorny little issues and make the reader believe the conspirators are still mere mortals like the rest of us… well, then, congratulations. I’m currently working on those things with The Commanderie of Light, and when I’ve finished, they should be a really nasty, ruthless, efficient little group of people.