Perfect potboiler plots? Rely on centuries-old Ecclesiastical Conspiracies
So… you want to write a runaway bestseller in 2012? Hoping to fill the cabin luggage of air-travellers the world over? Well, here is just thing… it’s guaranteed to hit the headlines at the same time and thus rake in the cash. An ecclesiastical conspiracy theory novel, ‘based’ on matters of ‘historical’ record and archaeological ‘certainties’. It offers the lot: corruption, scheming, sexual deviancy, hypocrisy, ancient history, power, scandals, and above all, the unveiling of secrets.
You hooked yet? I was. And it seems that the book-buying travelling public never tire of a new conspiracy thriller. So… you’ve got it made.
Of course, despite any more outlandish elements you might want to inject into your fiction, you need to give it at least a degree of plausibility. There must be aspects of the tale which cohere with what people really think. For often the best fiction has its roots in fact. So as the narrator in Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, says of those creating conspiracy theories:
This led me to think, even then, that if I wanted to sell the story of a conspiracy, I didn’t have to offer the buyer anything original, but simply something he already knew or could have found out more easily in other ways. People only believe what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy. (p78)
So it seems to me that in writing your best-seller religious conspiracy thriller, you must create a wire frame of plausibility for it, rather as one might for a papier-mâché model. You can then clothe it with whatever frills you like just so long as the foundations are convincing.
How To Write A Winner
So what sort of plausibility structure might your blockbuster need? Well here are a few suggestions:
- Root the conspiracy in some ancient historical event so that the full details have obviously been lost in the mists of time. It makes coming up with alternative interpretations of scanty-evidence much more convincing.
- Ensure that the truth of this key or secret shockingly overturns everyone’s assumptions about the way the world is. If we knew it or had access to it, the world would be a far better place.
- But you will need to come up with an explanation of why it has been suppressed. The most obvious culprit, then, is the group with most to lose from the secret leaking. It’s then easy to lay the blame for suppressing those alternative interpretations at the feet of the ancient church. For it is not a matter of truth that is at stake. It is about power.
- Draw frequently from moments in church history that appear to epitomise everything that is wrong with religion: e.g. the horrors of the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition (not to mention the scandal of pervasive priestly child abuse). Because such things happened once, it is therefore safe to assume that they have always happened and continue to happen. After all, those at risk of losing power and prestige have always resorted to extreme measures to preserve their positions… whether they by ecclesiastical or not.
- Add in some male chauvinism to the mix, if not downright misogyny – especially if the secret contains some deep-seated appreciation of the so-called feminine elements of the nature of the universe.
- Assume that the Bible is of course full of distortions (well obviously) – but the very distortions can be used to expose precisely what is being hidden by those who compiled it. (For it is axiomatic that what we call the bible has been tampered with, distorted, generally exploited for dishonest gain). This means you can quote the Bible to your heart’s content to give your conspiracy a whiff of authenticity without having to worry too much about what it actually says or might mean.
- Depict ordinary, good-natured people living in thrall to the church, just as they have done over the centuries, cowed by fears of what the hereafter holds for those who run into conflict with God’s earthly agency – and this means that the suppress any doubts or concerns they feel about what they are being commanded to do or ignore.
- Finally, make sure that your heroes are plucky, attractive and driven (sympathetically so, because of various past grievances or suffering) – they can play the courageous Valiants-for-truth, who will do whatever they need to do to liberate the world from this menace of power by exposing its true reality to all.
Sound good to you? Well, I’d say it’s a winner, wouldn’t you? And so it has proved. For all of these suggestions, at one point or another, bear some semblance of truth.x
The funny thing is, you probably think I’m talking about Dan Brown’s page-turner, The Da Vinci Code. I certainly could have done. I suspect he has more or less used this entire wireframe. But I’m not. Instead, this wire-frame is used by another writer – and I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the next big thing. This is Simon Toyne and his book Sanctus, which is being touted as the first of a trilogy. I can just see the film contracts being drawn up already. The book’s promotional website already has a gritty and visceral cinematic feel.
I picked it up in Heathrow en route to Bosnia before Christmas because it caught my eye. Well it couldn’t fail to really – WHSmith’s was giving it a huge push. I read it over the Christmas break, and enjoyed it. It does everything you want in a holiday book. Gripping, intriguing, provocative. As the cliché goes, I really couldn’t put it down. So far so good. It’s a great story. Toyne sets everything around an ancient mountain in southern Turkey known as the Citadel (in which an ancient monastic community has lived for centuries). The monks of this elite order (the so-called Sancti) do all in their considerable the can to protect “the Sacrament”. It keeps you guessing to the last pages – I won’t plot-spoil – but the secret has a nice, clever twist, even though it is even more far-fetched than I anticipated.
But I was infuriated too. Of course, it’s just a story. It’s just a novel. I shouldn’t take it too seriously. Of course not. That is the ultimate novelist’s defence. And they’re right. I just need to relax.
The problem is… it’s that wretched wireframe. For in so many people’s minds, it represents the whole truth and nothing but the truth about religion in general (and Christianity in particular). Whereas, there are so many aspects of the wireframe that are partial, half-true, or total distortions. Sure there is MASSES of which the church must be ashamed and repentant. But it is not all that one can say. And Toyne weaves his plot round it with breathless ease – and throwing in a few hopelessly incorrect historical details for good measure.
The point for mentioning it here is that we much face up to some of the critiques of this wireframe. We need to assess where they have weight; and rebut them gently but clearly when they do not. For too many people don’t regard them as fiction at all. It is frame around which they build their entire worldview and understanding of Christianity.