Writing Excuses 14.24: Political Intrigue
Key points: Political intrigue? The fun of not knowing all the answers and having a character who doesn’t know who they can trust. Shifting the dynamics or balance of power. Am I looking for the answer (aka mystery) or am I trying to find out why this is happening (aka thriller)? A heist of information! Why are people doing things, what are their motivations? Who has informational advantage? Beware of boredom! Give us a reason to care, make sure we understand the stakes. Scheming leads to actions, and actions lead to complications and ramifications. There must be change, not just scheming. Build rooting interest and sympathy for a character before you dive into political string pulling. The machinations of your villain should be smart, not just insanely convoluted. Secrets and informational advantage are the keys to political intrigue.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 24.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Political Intrigue.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Margaret] I’m Margaret.
[Howard] Or are you? [Dum, duh, dummmm!]
[Margaret] Last I checked. I hope so.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about political intrigue. So, can we define this? What do we mean by this? I’ll give you a little starter, primer. When I was pitching books, back when I had no idea how to pitch books, right?
[Brandon] I was just wondering around the World Fantasy convention, trying to pitch my book to anybody who was standing by looking bored.
[This potted plant…]
[Brandon] I pitched to somebody, I think it was an editor at Delray or something. I pitched my book as a political book about such and such. They listened and like, “Oh. You mean political intrigue. Not political book. Make sure you add that word intrigue on when you do this pitch in the future…”
[Howard] To somebody else. To somebody who is not me.
[Margaret] But solid advice for a free sound rejection.
[Brandon] Yeah. I always thought, oh, I was presenting… Because what I really did mean was a political intrigue book. I was not writing a book about politics, it was about the fun of not knowing all the answers and having a character who doesn’t know who they can trust.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think… I mean, the word intrigue, it is intriguing, it is engaging, the curiosity of it, the quest for answers. I sometimes joke that… And it’s not really a joke… That the third book in the Glamorous Histories, Without a Summer, is a political intrigue disguised as a Regency romance. It is all about the way things are shaped in court, and although my characters wind up being somewhat peripheral to it, it is all about shifting those dynamics.
[Brandon] I can…
[Howard] It’s worth pointing out that in Season 11, when we talked about the Elemental Genres, we drew a distinction between mystery and thriller. Re-listening to those episodes as we talk about political intrigue might be useful, because in some cases, the mystery is I want to answer the question. In thrillers, often it’s I already kind of know what the answer to the question is, but I don’t know why this is happening. There’s looking for the answer, and then there’s looking for a way out.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I sometimes think about political intrigues as a heist of information.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think that that’s a…
[Howard] Info heist.
[Brandon] That’s a great way to put it. When I’m looking at this, it’s often you don’t know other people’s motivations. The main character is trying to figure out where does this person lie, where do their allegiances lie? What are their actual goals? And these sorts of things. As I was thinking about political intrigue, I realized a lot of what I write is political intrigue. Because, if you want to have fast-paced intense fantasy, one way is people always fighting, but that kind of gets boring to me very quickly. So the next step for that is trying to figure out people’s motivations, and the plots they’re pulling, and things like that.
[Mary Robinette] It is ultimately about trying… There is a character who’s trying to shift a balance of power.
[Mary Robinette] That is a key element to a political intrigue, is that shift of power.
[Margaret] I think… Because sometimes the political intrigue can definitely be the informational heist of trying to obtain information. But that doesn’t mean that necessarily it’s a quest for something, like that is a part of the guise of I am trying to accomplish my goal of X, and it is made difficult by the fact of the shifting sands that are all around me.
[Howard] It’s worth looking at a couple of terms here. The term political. It’s easy to get bogged down in current politics, or current events. Really, what’s meant here is balances of power. Who has power over who else? How are these powers related? How is this power expressed? This group has power because they control the military. This group has power because they control the making of laws. Understanding that when you’re thinking of the word political is critically important. As is just politics at like the university level or the family level. On the intrigue side of things, the term that I fall back on is informational advantage. Which is something that comes up all the time in sociology. The idea that one group has informational advantages over somebody else, and that gives them power that cannot be disrupted until, coming back to Mary’s heist of information, until the information has flowed the other way and the advantage doesn’t exist anymore.
[Margaret] What you were saying reminded me of the idea that power can take many different forms. One of the classes that I teach fairly frequently is one in adaptation. Where we ask students to take a piece of literature in the public domain and change it somehow. I had one student, he was adapting Macbeth. But he adapt… He set it in a junior high school classroom.
[Margaret] So you had all of the political machinations of Macbeth, but it was all revolving around, it’s not the crown of Scotland, it’s who’s got social and political capital inside this group of tween’s. So it doesn’t necessarily have to deal with kings or presidents or government, if you’re talking about political intrigue.
[Brandon] Absolutely. I mean, the number of times that a Shakespearean political intrigue story has been re-done as a teen high school drama… I think you would be shocked to see how many times they’ve done that and how well it translates.
[Margaret] Or as a motorcycle gang.
[Mary Robinette] The thing is that… That’s important about this is that when we’re talking about this shift of power and capital, we’re not talking about the shift of physical power. Which is why Avengers: Civil War is not a political intrigue at all. Even though it is very much about a shift of power.
[Brandon] Right. Whereas…
[Mary Robinette] Winter Soldier kind of is, though.
[Brandon] Winter Soldier kind of is. Yes. Exactly. That’s a very good way to put it. So my question to you is, and this is coming from the professor mind where… I get a lot of students who obviously are trying to do this, and it is b o r i n g…
[Brandon] So boring. How do you keep this from being boring, and highlight what makes it interesting?
[Mary Robinette] The same way you do it with everything. Stakes. And giving us a reason to care. What happens if the character fails to accomplish this thing? Why do we care that they’re going after this information? If we don’t care, we’re not… It doesn’t matter how compelling you make breaking into some place, it doesn’t matter, any of that, if we don’t care. That means telling us about their motivations, that means telling us about the physical visceral sensations that they have when they’re trying to hack into a database, or use their mystical powers, whatever it is. If we aren’t getting those things, it doesn’t matter what set piece you’ve got, it’s going to be dull.
[Margaret] To me, it’s that machinations have to result in actions, and actions have to result in complications and ramifications. Things that change… The shifting status quo has to actually be shifting. You don’t want a bunch of people sitting around scheming, but nobody ever actually does anything.
[Brandon] I think that’s part of the problem my students run into. I think part of the other problem is that they assume just like action, that political intrigue is naturally interesting. So you get these chapters where they forget they need to establish rooting interest and sympathy for a character, and then just immediately dump the political situation on us. They start, this is a young prince at court, and here’s the politics of what this person’s behind the throne and all that. You’re like, I don’t care yet. So since I don’t care yet, I don’t want to know who’s trying to secretly pull the strings. I want to see this character and see the impact on their immediate life, and make sure that I’m interested, and then start layering this on.
[Howard] If I need to know who is motivated to kill the CEO, then it’s useful for me to know a little bit about the lines of succession to being the CEO or what happens if there is no CEO. But relaying that information to me organically through the story versus narrating to me the constitution of the corporation of the book that you are writing…
[Mary Robinette] I’m getting bored…
[Howard] Are two completely different things.
[Mary Robinette] Just listening to you.
[Margaret] I think there’s an assumption sometimes that in order to understand or be interested in a chess game, you have to see the entire board.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah.
[Margaret] In terms… For chess, yes, that is literally true. But for metaphorical chess, often you want to, as you say, reveal things more organically. Stick to your point of view and let this get discovered…
[Howard] Position the camera right over the bishop’s shoulder at what the bishop is aiming at diagonally, and suddenly we’re invested in the direction that the bishop can go.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. I’m going to make the argument that you have to see the entire board to play chess. You don’t have to see it to watch chess.
[Brandon] Well, I also would make the point that playing chess when somebody else can see the entire board but you can’t is part of what a lot of political intrigue stories are about.
[Mary Robinette] That’s true.
[Margaret] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] Right. Somebody is moving all these pieces, but you can only move this little one.
[Margaret] Well, how long of a driver in Game of Thrones is it that… The Starks arrive in King’s Landing and all of this stuff is going on, and it’s Ned blundering around in the dark trying to figure out what’s actually happening.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. I’m going to pitch at you The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Choshki. This is a fantastic book. I love this book. You probably don’t need me to tell you that. I mean, it was a finalist for the Locus Award and various other major awards. It is a really cool political intrigue story that starts in the political intrigue of a secondary fantastical world based on Indian history and mythologies, where the main character is part of a harem. She’s grown up in the harem. She’s the daughter of the king. We start to inch into political intrigue, until it turns about-face and turns into political intrigue in the world of Faerie from Indian mythology. That happens very naturally, but also very surprisingly in a very cool way very early in the story. From then on, you’re like, “Oh. She was having to play 2D chess where she didn’t know all the pieces, and now she’s playing 7D chess and she doesn’t even know what kinds of creatures are playing on the playing field with her.” It is written beautifully. The language is beautiful. The intrigue is interesting. The mythology is fascinating. It is just a really well done book. So that is The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Choshki.
[Brandon] So let me bring it back to you guys. One of the questions that I have is when you’re doing political intrigue, and when you’re reading it, often times you will eventually find out the machinations of the villain, who was behind the scenes, and it is the most convoluted…
[Brandon] They were… Their method of winning this chess game was to have like 17 different things that don’t mean anything, and at the end, they’re like, “Ha Ha! I’ve won this.” It just… It really bothers me when the brilliant machinations come to fruition and they’re kind of dumb.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. I have a lot of problems with that, where you’re like, “There are really a lot easier ways to accomplish that. Why didn’t you…”
[Howard] One of my favorite lines… It’s from one of the Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan books is, from somebody who’s doing this political chicanery, and she says, “I don’t plan a path to victory. I plan so that all paths lead to victory.”
[Mary Robinette] Interesting.
[Howard] As you unravel what this character is doing, you see, yes, it was convoluted, but it was convoluted because depending on the things other people do, you put me on a different path that leads to me winning. That’s super interesting. But when it’s super convoluted because all of these things need to work exactly right for me to cross the finish line, suspension of disbelief fails.
[Margaret] I will say for… I was going to comment, on the flipside, so I don’t know if you want to duck in first?
[Margaret] The first television show I ever worked on was called The Middleman, and the catchphrase of all of the villains on that show was, “My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity.” The plan was never simple. Ever. I believe if we had had Season Two, it would have become, “My plan is sheer elegance in its draconian complexity.”
[Margaret] You can use that to great comic effect. Phineas and Ferb does this really well. Dr. Doofenschmirtz has a very simple problem with a very simple solution, which he decides to solve in arcane ways that don’t work.
[Howard] It’s Pinky and the Brain.
[Howard] The Brain… Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] So a lot of times these plots are in fact a Rube Goldberg machine. The way I handle it is that I actually plot my villain like a hero story, so that they pick the simplest solution possible. All of the plot complications are them compensating for things going wrong.
[Howard] Well, when we come back to the idea of intrigue, and the term informational advantage, the complexities for political intrigue plots are often I have a very straightforward path and it remains straightforward if I have kept secrets from the following people. If I have informational advantage at all of these stages, then I will win. Now, once you as a writer have plotted that out, you switch sides to your heroes, and you now have a big list of obstacles that they need to clear in order to succeed, and they don’t even know what the obstacles are.
[Mary Robinette] I think, again, highlighting the fact that secrets are really important in political intrigue.
[Brandon] All right. Well, let’s go ahead and go to our homework.
[Margaret] Yes. The homework this week is to take a classic fairytale, something like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Little Mermaid, whatever floats your particular boat. Take that story. Now assume the story we know is only a cover. What was actually going on? Incorporate as many details from the original story as you would like. If baby bear had the smallest serving of porridge, why wasn’t it the coldest? Why did they leave their breakfast on the table when they went out walking, anyway? Come up with the undercurrents that explains what we see on the surface.
[Howard] Goldilocks and Three Russian Bears.
[Brandon] This is my favorite one we’ve come up with, so I’m really looking forward to what you guys come up with. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.