Sh! Intrigue…

On May 20, 2019, Katie W. wrote, Any tips on writing a political conspiracy? In (one of) my WIPs, the queen is a commoner from the poorest part of the country, and the nobles want to get rid of her so the king will remarry. They try enlisting a dragon to steal the crown princess (creating a Rumpelstiltskin retelling), and eventually they poison the king and drive out the king and princess, but I have no idea what goes in the middle. 

Christie V Powell had questions and suggestions: Hmm… what’s the POV? Is it the queen? Your explanation here focuses more on the nobles, so is the main character(s) a noble? If so, you can list out the steps that they will have to take to reach the queen (step 1: find dragon. Step 2: convince dragon to help… etc.). If it’s the queen, you can use the same list, but then brainstorm how she finds out about it, how much she finds out about it, and how this impacts her character. What does she want? Is she happy being queen, or does she find herself missing a simpler life? That will impact how she reacts to the conspiracy.

Here’s an example of how you might plot it out using a list: Step 1: find dragon. What queen knows: some people don’t like her, but not what they plan to do about it. How that affects queen: frustrated because she’s doing her best to be a good ruler. Step 2: convince dragon to help. What queen knows: glimpses a dragon in the distance but assumes it is wild. How that affects queen: annoyed that yet another (apparently separate) problem has emerged…

Katie W. answered, Actually, it’s from Rumpelstiltskin’s perspective. I wrote a short story of the kidnapping attempt alternating between his perspective and the dragon’s. So I have a pretty good idea how that part is going to play out. What I’m stuck on is what happens after the attempt fails. The nobles don’t give up, but what do they try next? Something happens during the fifteen years between the kidnapping attempt and the king’s death, but I have no idea what it should be.

I agree with Christie V Powell that POV is important here and whenever we’re dealing with a conspiracy, because conspiracy means secrets, and how does the POV character find out what’s going on? (Of course, POV is important in every story.)

Conspiracy is wonderful, because it brings in an obstacle for our MC and the characters the reader is rooting for. So we don’t want to make the secrets easy for Rumpelstiltskin or the royals to penetrate, and we don’t want to make them impossible. We need to start thinking about Rumpelstiltskin’s powers and also the kinds of access to information that the royals have, like their spy network, and who’s loyal and who isn’t. We’ll have to work out a lot about the royals, too. How vulnerable is the king? The queen? The princess? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

In my opinion, it’s nice to give our villains, in this case the conspiring nobles, complexity. What’s their side of the story? Is there one particular noble who leads the pack, someone we can focus on? Is there anything in the king’s rule that’s genuinely problematic? Does the queen have a role in the kingdom’s woes? And what’s good about their rule? What positive contributions have they made? How is the queen a good monarch? How can we reveal all this? Is there a council? A parliament? Does the king have advisers? Does he hear from his subjects? Is Rumpelstiltskin himself at court, so it’s easy for him to observe?

Obviously, I’ve learned a lot about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain lately. My sympathies, of course, are with the Jews, but I’ve made discoveries about the monarchs, too, and the reasons they believed the expulsion was right. For example, the Jews, by their presence and because of popular opinion against them (made worse by some clerics), caused unrest among the majority Christian population. Another example: the monarchs thought that almost all the Jews would convert (roughly half actually did), and they believed their souls would be saved.

Political upheavals don’t come out of nowhere. Maybe the nobles believe that commoners are inferior by nature and unfit to rule. If the queen wears a gown that to them seems unsuitable, for instance, they regard her fashion choice as emblematic of the wrongness of a commoner in such an elevated position. If the king issues a decree they disagree with, they regard it as an example of her bad influence. We want to show all this.

So what else will fill in Katie W.’s middle? Here are two strategies, and both can be used in the same story.

The first is along the lines suggested by Christie V Powell: What’s the desired outcome, and what are the steps to achieving it and the obstacles along the way?

The second concerns the characters. Who is Rumpelstiltskin? Why does he care about the kingdom, the monarchs, the nobility? Does he have another story that dovetails with this one? His story will fill in the middle and carry the story to the end.

Fifteen years are a lot. Maybe Rumpelstiltskin is a young gnome at the beginning and he has to grow up a bit before he can take on this challenge. Some of the middle can go to his growth: the challenges he faces, the conclusions he draws, and how both make him the right–or wrong–gnome for this job.

Let’s assume that he’s an outcast, as the fairy tale suggests, but he craves acceptance and understanding. In his eagerness to help, he makes mistakes, which reinforce the reasons that he’s ostracized. Also, his attempts to help, even when he does nothing wrong, are misinterpreted. If the reader cares about him, his progress toward acceptance will be the most important thread, and his success or failure will determine whether the ending is happy or sad.

Say he makes the safety of the king and queen his top priority. Then he’s spending a lot of the fifteen years infiltrating the nobles, finding out what they’re up to, foiling their attempts. Might he find himself at one point sympathizing with them? And then shifting back. Does he want the dragon to succeed, or does he want to save the family himself, unaided? How does he feel about dragons?

Say he meets the princess and she’s kind to him. What are the consequences of that? Or she might be cruel, and he’s still trying to save her miserable life.

Or the king is cruel.

Or just by watching these humans, he forms opinions of all of them, from the royal family to the nobles to the people in the queen’s hometown to the dragon. How does all that influence his actions?

The same goes for the other characters. What do they want? How do their goals intersect with Rumpelstiltskin’s?

Going back to what I said before, that fifteen years is a big chunk of time to cover–it’s hard to make so much time tight. If we can’t shorten the time span, we can use telling to get the reader through. In a paragraph or a page or two, we can summarize the years, stopping now and then to show the most important moments. When we’re up to date, we return to showing and start the play-by-play action again.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Rumpelstiltskin, held in contempt by everyone, knows he’s a good gnome. His goal is to be one of the king’s councilors in the Kingdom of the Peaceful Valley, where there are more disputes than there are water droplets in the River of Harmony, which runs through the kingdom. Write his first attempt to interest the king in his qualifications and his virtues. If you like, keep going to write the whole story.

∙ The dragon, who happens to be a genius at playing parties against one another, attends a castle ball and mingles (he’s quite a dancer!), sowing resentment and mistrust among the nobility. Write the scene.

∙ The princess, who cares most about her mom and who recently heard about the circumstances of mom’s marriage to daddy, the king ( the whole turn-straw-into-gold-or-be-executed thing). The princess loves her father, too, but thinks he needs a lesson in empathy. Write how she delivers the lesson and how it goes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been working on this for a while, and I think I might have come up with a solution. This particular WIP is the beginning of a series, so I’m going to try having most of the fifteen years pass between books, possibly as a prologue. I’ll certainly keep these questions in mind. It’s so interesting to see how different your prompts are from my story, but that’s a good thing. Yet another example of how no two people can write the same story.

  2. Ideas, please! In my WIP, my MC has been badly hurt by the young princess of another race. He’s a high-ranking military officer who has been invited to help with a long-term problem largely irrelevant to the story. The whole thing was an accident, but it needs to almost start a war. How do I make the response to the situation that bad?

    • That sounds like an interesting story! My advice would be to have this incident be the latest of a bunch of other incidents. That’s how wars start, usually, with one big thing that tips everything over the edge. And even if it was an accident, probably not everyone will believe that. There could be a conspiracy that the princess really did mean to hurt your MC, and people will latch onto that conspiracy because it makes sense with the escalating tensions between her people and your MC’s people. Sometimes people just believe what they want to believe, or what is easiest for them to believe. If something bad happened and it’s just an accident, then you have no one to blame, and people want to have someone to blame. So if you have a lot of tension before this incident, and then have things spiral out of control afterwards, I think it’ll be believable for it to almost cause a war. Hope I helped!

        • Missed or inadequate communication is a major cause of conflict, or reason for conflict to escalate. It goes back and forth and gets worse the longer it goes. Differences in background and values and culture can also lead to one person to vastly misunderstand what the other one intended.

          • Essentially, I’m trying to get as close to a war as possible without actually starting one. To do that, I need to figure out how a war could start, ideally without either side doing something that is clearly wrong.

        • Kit Kat Kitty says:

          I think it would help to look at wars throughout history. Why did they start? Was it a small reason? Did anyone do something wrong, or was it a war fought for no reason? What might’ve prevented the war from happening? Some suggestions for wars: (Most of these are going to involve America, sorry) The Revolutionary War, World War I, World War II, the Civil War, and although it’s not considered a war, the French Revolution. All of these Wars were started for reasons, big or small, and they could have all been prevented (In my opinion) if minor things had changed, though it would have had to be several minor things that caused a rippling effect. If life in colonial America had been fairer for the citizens, the revolutionary war might not have started, etc. Things like that.

  3. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    So, I’m a Pantser. I don’t (usually) plot before I start writing, but I’ve run into a problem. I was watching a video about writing good first pages, so I decided to do it. I didn’t have a plot or a world, but I decided it was only one page, and it would be fun anyway.
    Now I’m about three chapters in, and I’ve run into a wall. I know some scenes I want to have in the story, and I know who the villain is, but I’m stuck on the plot. My main character is a Princess who agreed to marry a King she doesn’t love (She’s not forced, but it’s a sense of duty) But the moment she basically decides it okay, she gets kidnapped by an elf, who needs her help to save his people.
    But I don’t know why she’s so special, the plan is for her to fall in love with the guy who kidnapped her (It’s a lot less creepy then it sounds, trust me.) I love the story, and I’ve even put other ideas on the back burner just so I can finish it. Does anyone have any advice? I know it’s pretty vague, but I’d be happy to give further information if it’s needed.

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        The villain is the King, but the Princess doesn’t know that at first. He’s a REALLY good liar, so she is fully convinced that not only is he a good person, but that he loves her. So the problem I’m running into is convincing to side with the elves if she doesn’t hate the king. However, she doesn’t hate the elves and feels honor-bound to do the right thing, but ever since she was a child she was told what the right thing to do was. But if she was told to marry the king, is it reasonable to have her decide (For perhaps the first time) on her own that she should help the elves? That’s a big decision.
        (And beyond that I still don’t have much of a plot)

        • What you could do is have the elves tell her helping them is the right thing to do. Then, she has to decide whether it’s the right thing to help the elves or marry the king, You could also give her the thought that she’s just helping the elves first, and that once she’s done with that, she’ll go back and marry the king,

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            I suggest some lists. What’s special about the princess? would be one. What does she want most? would be another.

            And I’d put on the first list as a possibility, based on what you’ve told us, that she’s special because of her exquisite moral compass. The king wants her because she’ll make him seem upstanding, and the elves want her because they admire her goodness.

            And at least nine other possibilities on your list.

  4. Writing Ballerina says:

    Hi, Mrs. Levine!

    I just finished reading TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE for the fourth time and I had some questions about how the magic in the book works.


    Did Meryl automatically know how to wield all the magic when she became a fairy or did she have to learn it?
    What sorts of spells do the fairies use to fight?
    How many specters are there?
    Do some fairies specialize in one type of magic or do all of them use all sorts of magic?
    Do Addie and Rhys’ children have sorcerer magic?

    These were just questions I had as I was reading the story.

    Also, I like to think Addie became a fairy when she died so she could be with Meryl again. 🙂 What do you think?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Hi, Writing Ballerina!

      I don’t generally figure out more than I need for my story, so the answer to all of your questions except one is that I don’t know. The only one I know is that there isn’t magic specialization, though I assume that some fairies would be better at one thing and others better at something else. This answer comes from the thinking I put into the prequel, THE LOST KINGDOM OF BAMARRE. Sorry!

      • future_famous_author says:

        It seems kind of magical to me that even the author, who knows most of the story before it’s written, and ends up knowing the characters like the back of their hand, may not even know the answer to every question. It just seems to make the story more than a story, because even the writer doesn’t know everything. The person controlling every movement made and every word said, and they don’t know it all. Doesn’t that just make books seem more real? More magical? Because in real stories, not every question is answered, because there isn’t enough evidence.

        • And then there are the times where the author doesn’t know the answer, so they make it incomprehensible to their characters, too. In my WIP, there are about five million things where I’ve just said “It works. The characters have no reason to know why, so the readers don’t either.” Saves me a LOT of time trying to figure stuff out.

  5. I’ve read Two Princesses of Bamarre at least three times and I’ve enjoyed it a lot each time! On my last reading, I decided that, next to Char, Rhys was my favorite love interest. He reminds me of Howl, from my favorite anime movie Howl’s Moving Castle. Technically, HMC was a book first, (Book Howl is nothing like Ryhs by the way). Movie Howl and Rhys are both dark-haired, blue-eyed, flamboyant, magicians, with flying abilities and some kind of fire as their source of power. However, HMC the Movie came out a few years AFTER Two Princesses did, so maybe Howl reminds me of Rhys instead of the other way around…I read the book for the first time many years before seeing the movie; )
    Sorry if the post is long-winded!

  6. Any tips on how to describe people’s skin color? Most of my characters in my sci-fi WIP are at least partly Hispanic/Asian/African, but I’m not sure how to say that they don’t look white without making a huge fuss about it. (Case in point. I rewrote that last sentence at least five times.) One of my MC’s is white, and she’s really sensitive about how pale she is, so I can bring it up some in her POV. But the other MC is a normal-looking guy, and I really don’t see him noticing people’s skin color a lot, so in his POV, I’m kind of stuck. Any advice?

      • It’s useful, yes, but my problem lies not only in describing them, but describing them without drawing too much attention to their skin tone. Basically, I need something to go in the single sentence description of them. (i.e., something shorter than “She had dark brown hair and eyes, warmly complimented by her skin, which was several shades lighter.”) Another issue is that most of the characters we meet are varying degrees of non-white, so having distinctly brown skin is normal, and being white isn’t, so most people don’t pay attention to skin color, but I have to describe it anyway. Does that make sense?

  7. I’m working on an over-the-top kind of comedy, and in one scene the co-MC has to break his best friend out of jail, but I can’t figure out how it does that. Any suggestions?

    • Brainstorm! What sort of a jail is it? Do either of your MCs have special characteristics that would make this easier or harder? The more convoluted or over-the-top the better, it sounds like. How soon does he need to attempt the jailbreak? The longer the better, but it has to work with the story. I hope some of this is helpful,

  8. Writing Cat Lover says:

    To Katie W:
    You could try describing your character’s skin color by comparing it to
    something like “Her skin was as white as snow” or “Her skin was as black as the night” or you could use an object to make a color like “olive brown”. Just a suggestion, it might not work.

    To newtothis:
    Maybe the best friend can knock out the guards, or do something else really funny. You could think about what things are funny and maybe try and work that into your MC’s escape? I’m no comedy writer, so I’m not sure if this will help since you might already thought of this.

    • The main problem with that is that most of my characters have skin that’s an in-between color, not white, but not super dark, either. The other tricky part is that I don’t want to use the same word over and over again, and I don’t want to make a huge fuss over skin color. Really, it’s only important because one of my MC’s is very pale and I want to make it clear that she’s unusual.

  9. Katie W.

    The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin has characters that are predominately middle-eastern/African skin tones. Only one of the main characters is white, and she is very unusual for that, among other reasons. The series is worth checking out, especially for your question on how to refer to skin color.
    Another book that comes to mind is “The Goose Girl” by Shannon Hale. The main character is a foreigner and she is affectionately called “Yellow Lady” because of her blond hair. In your white MC’s case, you can have a nickname for her from her non-white peers so that whenever the nickname is used, the reader will know who the characters are talking about.
    Since “Brown” seems to be the color for most of your characters, I would refer to what color the characters are very early on, when they’re first being introduced, with a reminder or two in the story. That way the readers will picture the characters in their mind, but they’re not beaten over the head with it. Lastly, if the characters act like it’s normal, the readers will buy it’s normal.
    Hope I was able to help!

    • Yes, that is very helpful. Thank you so much to everyone that has helped me with this. My WIP seems to be a Whack-A-Mole game. Every time I fix one thing, another problem pops up. Hopefully, this is the last one, but I rather doubt it. Stay tuned for updates! 😉

  10. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Thanks to everyone who helped me with my first question. It really helped, and I’ve gotten a lot farther than I ever thought I would/could. But I’ve run into another problem. I showed some of what I’ve written so far to a friend who’s a fellow writer, and she said she really liked it, but the Main Character (The Princess) got on her nerves. We both figured out it’s because she’s a Mary Sue. (I know, I know. How could this happen?) I guess it’s because I tried so hard to make her a good, likable person, I never took the time to give her flaws. And, in attempting to show, not tell, I didn’t really mention any of her motivation to marry Alex (The King) or make the choices she’s made. I didn’t even mention that her people are descended from warrior tribes, so she’s an elite warrior because she’s been trained as a child to lead her people into war. Now I’m worried I can’t fix the problem because she’s the POV character. I almost want to abandon her and choose someone else to be the POV character, but she makes the most sense. Everything that makes her such a Mary Sue is an important part of her character. Any and all advice is welcome.

    • I think for characters where them being a Mary Sue is so important, a good way is to make their thoughts different. Give her a reason for thinking differently than she acts, but have her act perfect. She could be self-conscious about it. She could be a rebel on the inside but not courageous on the outside. She could secretly long for adventure and excitement. Hope this helps!

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        Thank you! I’m very worried about her being a passive character as well, too. If she hates whats she’s doing, then why is she letting all this stuff happen to her? Is it being a good person if she marries for the greater good if no one’s making her, or just pathetic? If she’s kidnapped and kind of “forced” into helping people, isn’t that what we would all do? If she’s only merciful enough to not execute children (like her forefathers) is that really something that should be celebrated, or expected? (Not saying that’s the only thing she did, but it’s one of the things that was more personal to her, given one of her friends was executed as a child)

        • She could not know how to be better about it and hate how she lets people tell her what to do. Maybe she has parents who tell her what to do and she thinks that she can’t stand up for herself. I’d she recognizes is about herself and gets frustrated about it too, the reader is there with her and cares.

  11. So, I entered a poetry contest a few months ago, and I’m one of the winners! My poem, along with about 99 others, will be made into an anthology coming out in late October. It’s my first time being published and I’m just a “little” excited. You might be able to tell. 😉

      • It’s a rhyming poem, iambic pentameter, sixteen lines, and it’s basically an eloquent way of saying “Go away and let me read my book.”

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      CONGRATS!! That’s so exciting!!!

      Iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s preferred meter, is so cool and fun (but hard) to write in! You’re the next Shakespeare, maybe! 😛

      • Would you believe me if I said it happened by accident? Of course, I’d been reading some medieval/Renaissance poetry just before I thought of the poem, which might explain it. And I’m probably the weird one on here. I actually prefer rhyming poetry, especially metered rhyming poetry, to free verse.

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