Friday, September 19, 2008

Sssssh! My show is on!

Everything I need to know about writing mysteries, I learned from TV: Ten lessons in high definition.

Yes, it's true. I know that it is fashionable to bash the boob tube, but I'll go on record as saying that I love me some tv. It is SO educational. Don't believe me? Yes, I've learned everything from secrets of an awesome souffle to sacrifical rituals of the Moche. Plus some other stuff. I've even learned a lot about writing mysteries. Yes, the lessons are there if you only pay attention. Missed them? You must be watching the wrong shows.

1. Six Feet Under: Beginnings count. Oh, yes they do. This show was the master of the spell-binding opening sequence that dared you to look away. It was impossible. I would try not to get sucked in, but somehow--even though you KNEW someone was about to bite it--I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen. Someone was about to die. Who? How? Why? If only I could master this art, I would be a happy woman. I guess the most important thing is that something always happened in these openings. They weren't static. There was no thoughtful rumination on life and everything, no extended periods of examining the weather. It wasn't always a bomb or something going off, but it was always something. You don't have to kill somebody on the first page, but you had better do it soon. Conflict begins with the first paragraph.

2. The Sopranos: Endings count too. This show had probably the worse WTF ending ever. Seriously. Nothing happened. No resolution. No answers. Nothing. They went inside. W. T. F. Don't do this. Even if your novel is part of a series, you must resolve the murder and provide some closure or readers will hunt you down and string you up by your toenails while they pummel you into unconsciousness with an organic carrot. M'kay, maybe not, but they will be pissed at you and that isn't what you want. It doesn't have to be a sappy, perfect, everybody-now-poops-rainbows sort of ending and it's okay to leave some questions and allow for a multi-book story arc, but you must actually reach some sort of resolution or risk losing your audience. {bonus lesson: most heartbreaking ending ever? Quantum Leap. What do you mean he never returned home? :cries:}

3. Quantum Leap: Keep your settings interesting. We never knew where Sam would end up next, but you can bet he wouldn't be sitting around the table sipping tea and discussing the weather--at least not unless he were in the body of a woman and there was a man with a gun or a bomb under the table or a rabid bat attack or SOMETHING. Static is boring. Sitting in the car is boring. The breakfast table is boring. Looking out the window is boring. Any scene can be improved by a unique location. Take the rabid bat attack and move it from the kitchen to the windswept plains of outter Mongolia. It's even better.

4. Seinfeld: A show about nothing. This won't work in a book and it really didn't work in Seinfeld. It wasn't about "nothing." It was about conflict. There is no story without conflict. Will George's boss catch him sleeping under the desk? Who will Jerry choose, Schmoopie or the Soup Nazi? Conflict! Every single scene, no matter how small needs the push and pull of opposing forces. Remember: static is boring. Movement is interesting. Without that push and pull there can be no movement. Kramer wants something. So does Newman. The race is on and only one can prevail. Conflict.

5. Survivor: Torture is fun. At least it is when it happens to other people. You've heard the old addage. Run your characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them until they fall and break something. Yes, don't be ashamed to torment your characters. No one wants to read your version of Mary Sue's Perfect Life. Everyone needs flaws and they need bad shit to happen to them or why else would we care. And the bigger the stakes, the more serious the risks, the more interesting the conflict. Give them a no win dilemma. Who will they save from the burning building, their child or their spouse? Either way, it sucks to be them. Yay! So enjoy creating your fascinating, defective characters. Fall in love with them. Dream about them. Talk to them when no one else is around. And make their lives hell. Your audience will thank you for it.

Okay, that is my first five. Next blog will be the final five lessons from TV Land. Stay tuned until tomorrow (or maybe Sunday.) Same bat time. Same bat channel.


Melanie Avila said...

I love this! I'm knee-deep in writing books (er... reading books about writing) and this just reinforces what I'm reading. I may link this on my blog so it has SOME writing content this week. :)

Great show picks! Can't wait to see the next five.

Anonymous said...

This is a really fun list! I was sad about the Quantum Leap ending also. Tear-jerker!