Intrigue (any kind, really, but royal courts were particularly known for it) is a series of setups that lead to a pay-off. For example, a handkerchief moved from one room to another, a word whispered, a letter falsified, are setups that lead to, for example, one dead Desdemona.

When one is a plotter of stories, every step of the intrigue is laid out before one starts writing. But what if one is rather a discovery writer, and the story is not told from the POV of the main plotter? That is, what if a character is supposed to observe certain occurrences, the meaning of which is only revealed later? Does one write setups, and find out later what the pay-off is (and clean up those that do not pay off), or does one write first the pay-off, and then go back and set it up?

Both approaches seem confusing: if a character does something (setup), shouldn't I, the writer, know why (pay-off)? Or if I start with the pay-off of, for example, my MC being manipulated into killing his wife, shouldn't I have already written him being manipulated there? It feels like chicken and egg to me, I'm not sure how to solve it.

4 Answers 4


You don't have to PLOT, you just need to realize, as you discover the story, that you have somebody plotting against them. Then, as we write, this is something we keep in mind (and perhaps notes).

IRL, if somebody hates me or just needs me out of the way, and they are plotting against me, they too are discovering their plot as they go along. They want to make my spouse suspicious of me, so they look for opportunities to sow doubt or misunderstanding. That is what you do while writing: As you write your POV character, double check your scenes to see if there were opportunities for your villain to do something nefarious. Either by moving that handkerchief, or lying to somebody, or whatever.

Your villain, just like your hero, has some larger goal, and just like RL is feeling her way to it as situations develop. You don't have to write from the villain's POV, but you need to stop and think from her POV once in a while; what can she do to advance her interests? Then that is something that happens to the POV character (or if the POV character is not the target, something she sees happen or hears about).

The OTHER method I have used often is back-writing. Which requires some rewriting, but for things like court intrigue, it should not be too much, because the whole point of the intrigue is to be pretty under the radar. So where you need some dramatic reveal, you can go back and have your POV character experience the acts leading up to the reveal, without cluing in to the overall pattern (or the perpetrator) until the reveal. They blow things off as accidents, or their own absent-mindedness.

The reader won't know the difference, they read the book in order, they don't know what order you wrote it in.

For me discovery writing (the only kind I do) is discovering the characters and plot as I go, but that can still entail a lot of backtracking, rewriting, discarding, and other changes. It is the story we discover, and if the story needs some intrigue for a setback, once I "discover" what the intrigue is, I can go back and weave it in. If that demands changing the course of a character or direction of the story, then so be it.

As I have mentioned before, it is important to me to always have a workable ending in mind, and I have notes on that. I don't know exactly how I am going to get there, but I know it is one possible satisfying conclusion. So if I am weaving my intrigue into the story, and that somehow makes my possible ending impossible, then I need to either devise a better ending, or I have to do the intrigue differently or undo it altogether. (My system creates a dated backup of my new writing every night, so I can always revert to ANY previous day).


When one is a plotter of stories, every step of the intrigue is laid out before one starts writing.

Well…, no.

I sometimes think discovery writers imagine that plotters are passionless stone Easter Island heads who tonelessly drone about Destiny and the Immutability of Time. So it was outlined..., so mote it be!

Plotter-ing and discovery-ing are not mutually exclusive. I don't think they are actually "techniques", or "disciplines", but more like temperaments or personality types, like extrovert / introvert. You don't get to choose but you can work within your strengths.

You will have to plot out a court scene to some degree or it will become nonsense sensationalism and melodramic reactions. Each attorney plans ahead. They do not just show up at court and wing it. You will need a somewhat plausible baseline to establish the court situation is serious (not just a segue to "Guilty!" and then a prison fight). Most characters will walk in to court having planned to present certain evidence or fulfill their civic duty. These characters and their plot-crucial testimony will need to be plotted. Their sympathies and emotional reactions are left to discovery

You will also need to plot the course of the trial itself, so it can follow believable procedures and a logical progression of evidence over time. The good thing is your POV character doesn't understand the procedures and her confusion can cover you, but many people have a casual knowledge of court proceedings. Obvious errors will break credibility.

The testimony reveal vs delayed payoff sounds like plotting to me. I really don't see why you'd try to avoid it. Is there no middle ground where you have a working outline but are still free to make changes as you discover details along the way?

  • "Each attorney plans ahead." - wait, is the OP referring to courts as in royal courts, or to courts of law? Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 0:18
  • Does that really change the answer? Maybe ask the OP.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 2:12
  • 2
    @O.R.Mapper I was referring to royal courts, but maybe it doesn't make much of a difference to the answer. I mean intrigue is intrigue, wherever it takes place, right? Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 9:00

One way I've done this is to start with the middle. Start with something one character knows and the other does not, and figure out the consequences.

Once you figure out how the characters would respond to something, you can either figure out what in their backgrounds have caused this, and/or figure out what they would have tried to do or would do next.

If they don't want to tell people what they know, they have to have a reason. This means that you can flesh out the beginning of your story explaining why. Chances are, you'll introduce other characters who influenced them (possibly in ways no character planned). These characters will have plots of their own.

If they can't tell people, that means something is stopping them. This means that there's another character/entity acting. Figure out why they would do that. This also fills in the beginning.

Now, once you have some of the beginning, you can go forward and figure out what all of these people would do. Then, once you've gotten as far as you can with that, of if you figure out that you need more external factors, repeat this process.

For instance, here's roughly one train of thought for part of a sifi story I have been meaning to write down for a while.

First thoughts: Background character O is a doctor, who figured out the cure for a plague, but doesn't like the spotlight. Another character, call her J, is a genetically engineered alien, because cool factor of putting those words together. Also, there's something about the cure that O can't tell anyone about; let's focus on that because I don't want to go too into technical details.

So far, this is very thin. One character has a premise which is basically, "cool genetic things," another is a "reclusive genius" archetype defined entirely by work I'm going to refuse to specifically talk about.

Okay, where do I go from there?

  • J is a genetically engineered alien, what if that alien species that created her genetically engineered the plague as a weapon?

  • That has implications. Since the plague was devastating, that would imply that humanity would be seriously outmatched in a conflict.

  • But the intentionality could lead O to want revenge. That's an additional motivation for her, which is directly in conflict with her Hippocratic oath. Or is it? Does she think of the oath as human-specific? Let's say O's not deterred from revenge. That probably means that she's at least slightly xenophobic.

  • I had vague plans for other alien species--what if humanity isn't the first species these aliens have attacked with a plague? What if the cure O found came from adapting one they found? What if the hostile aliens don't want anyone else cooperating to take them down? That would explain at least additional reason why O wouldn't want the spotlight. Then it could be a matter of "you don't know we know." ... This is the definition of a conspiracy. Fun! But also what was the effect of plagues on their societies?

  • O getting revenge would then also be hampered by needing to prevent an inter-species war that humanity would loose badly. That also means she would act mostly alone and not shout what she knows from the rooftops. What would she prioritize? Let's say revenge at first.

  • So, what would O do to get revenge? Probably leave being an active doctor/researcher. Okay, that gives her an excuse to tag along with the main characters. Perfect! That means that the other main characters would have to be at least kinda unconcerned with rules, because she probably wouldn't want to work strictly within what was perfectly legal for a revenge mission. I'll work that into the rest of their stories.

  • This would mean that O would be in direct contact with J, who is with the main characters/one of the main characters. Biology is hard, so would J be well-adapted? And if O was there, wouldn't O be J's doctor? This is an opportunity for further character development for O. The two would probably have a lot of contact where J was simply uncomfortable and very non-threatening. What if O starts to view aliens as people too?

  • Sure she wants revenge, but what specifically did O lose during the plague? Since she is willing to risk everything to get revenge, she probably doesn't have many people she cares about. She probably had a family at one point; okay, they're dead now. Is the memory of the loss worth more to her than her possibly-developing friendship with J and with the other characters? Changing her mind about that could be the turning point in her story.

  • Does J know what happened? Let's say yes and no, yes but not all of it. What does that mean for her?

  • Very rarely is there a lone genius like Salk making a development. But I want this. That means that there was some serious mortality in the medical field, and that she's the only one who survived long enough to work on it. (Makes sense, considering what happened with the Black Death.) Okay. Why would O be immune? Back to backstory. Since it was genetically engineered, there might be an already-created vaccine created by the aliens. Why would she have been given that? This means further development for the aliens.

  • Why did the aliens make the plague in the first place? I don't want them to be cartoonish villains, doing evil for the evil. This means that they must have been threatened by something that humanity is doing. Did the plague succeed in its objective? Let's say no. Okay, what was that? What are they doing now? Is this related to why J is in the story?

And so on. This is abbreviated, but I think it illustrates the method. From a handful of somewhat varied character ideas, using this method of iterated development, I've managed to come up with a plot that I can't easily explain to anyone in under an hour, with at least five different government actors, upwards of twenty important characters all with their own individual arcs, three main plots, and multiple conspiracies, spanning a bit over 200 years. (Very little of which is described here.)

Caveats: I've been working on this particular story for about 4 years, on and off, and haven't written much of it down, though I have written down others I've structured using this method (this was just the first example that came to mind). Also, if you work at it long enough, you will probably find characters changing their motivations over time, particularly for the characters you didn't focus on at the beginning. (Additionally, you may find that the most natural place to start will be in medias res.)

In the stories I've written down, I have had to go back to the beginning chapters to update setting things I figured out later. But I think that might be inevitable if you're a discovery writer?

That said, I think this method is pretty effective at creating interesting plot, and it definitely doesn't require knowing anything about how it's going to end at the beginning.

  • Hi FlowersOfBermuda! Welcome to Writing.SE! Please take a look at our tour and help center pages, you might find them helpful. Thank you for your detailed answer! However, please note I'm asking specifically about how to approach the problem as a discovery writer, not as a writer who writes outlines and plans the plot first. Discovery writing is distinct in that you don't start with an outline and a set plan, but start writing, and go where the story takes you. Would your method be applicable to that? How? Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 9:01
  • So, I would generally call myself a discovery writer, though from what you've said I might be using the term wrong. I generally only firmly plan a scene or two in advance of the furthest scene I've written. I've never written an outline of any of my stories, and just have a general direction that I want to eventually go in, if that. Most of these questions came up as I started writing scenes down. (When I say I haven't written it, I mean not everything is written in prose because I haven't had time to write polished things.) Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 17:34
  • I feel like I am missing something obvious, but while I do plan things a bit out since I generally have to know what is going to happen in a scene before I know how to write it, I don't plan things out from the beginning to end at all. Because of this, I do not think that this method of creating plot is different from what a more pure discovery writer could use. Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 17:42
  • If it would help, I started writing scenes down at around bullet point 3 in the example, though the bullet points aren't precisely in the order I thought of them. Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 17:46
  • 1
    Ah, I understand better now. I took your statement that you haven't written much of it down to mean that you've got mostly an outline. My mistake. Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 18:43

I construe the court you refer to as a royal court with nobles of various ranks creating a veritable swirl of intrigue. Politics in a court setting is nothing less than lethal, the stakes are high and if it comes to light in the wrong way, could be construed as treason.

I love your premise. If I were doing something of the sort, I would need to create some of the main plotters, understanding that at times certain aims would align, creating temporary alliances between otherwise contending forces. Duke X might require the assistance of Marquis Y to bring about something mutually beneficial.

I would lay parts of the conspiracies out, overlapping at times and then ask myself what my innocent character, Count H might observe. I would then step back and start the story, only the occasional facet of conspiracy visible at any time.

The women are often as dangerous or more so, as they will have the ear of many and often be overlooked or seen by their fellow characters as pawns in the game, forgetting that the most powerful piece is the queen.

I think of my characters essentially as billiard balls, each encounter changes both and they, while changing direction, must remain on the table.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.