Part 2 of Everything I Need to Know about Writing Mysteries I Learned from my Television: Ten Lessons in High Definition
6. Stargate: It's all in how you tell the story. Let's face it, there are only so many plots to go around. The important thing is to keep it fresh. A cool idea will only take you so far. You go through the gate into another world and something happens that you have to set right in 1 hr (2 hours if you've got a continuing story). You can take the story and twist it. Add compelling characters and torture them. Yes, the story is important, but it's in how you tell it. The great storytellers of our time know how to hook you and keep you absorb. They make you care with their art. I'm convinced that this part of writing, more than any other, is a natural gift. I think part of the knack is simply paying attention. Look at a great story and break it down. What appeals to you? How does the teller build the tension and hold your interest? Old can become new and shiny if it is done well, but the more familiar the trope, the better job you had better do in execution. The little black dress is a staple. Everyone sells one. But the perfectly tailored little black dress from the right fabric? Magic. Your locked door mystery or village cozy had better shine.
7. CSI: Plant your clues with care. A mystery can be as twisted and complicated as you like, but you must play fair with the audience. I'll say that one again. YOU MUST PLAY FAIR WITH YOUR AUDIENCE. There is a sort of pact between mystery authors and their readers. The mystery must be something solveable. If you do it well enough, they will be surprised but in an "Of course! Why didn't I see it?" sort of way and not in an "OMG! WTF BBQ on top! You have got to be kidding me!" sort of way. One should be able to work backwards through the book after reading it once and spot the clues. The evidence must be there. If you drop in the solution that no one could possibly predict and solve your mystery with a flourish of deus ex machina, you will end up with some pissed off readers and we know where that leads. (Toe nail stringing and the pummeling, remember? Stay with me!) The villian should make sense, not be some tacked on element, but an integral part of the story.
8. The Ghost Whisperer: Pay attention to the dead guy. He needs to be more than just a body in the library. This was a person and his death is your catalyst. He needs to be a fully fleshed human being. We need to know him intimately and understand how he relates to all the people in your story. The same goes for the villian. Please don't let him be the guest star of the week (Murder, She Wrote, I'm looking at you!) I could do another show on this, but I've already devoted an entire blog post to the cardboard villian. It isn't a murder mystery without a murder. Make yours count.
9. Sex in the City: Everything tastes sweeter with a little romance. And it isn't just romance that sweetens things. It's relationships. What makes genres like romance and mystery so enduringly popular are the characters and their relationships. Monk is just Monk, but when he's paired with Sharona as a foil, he's funny. The show isn't just about some weird guy. It's about his relationships with his dead wife, his earthy streetsmart caretaker, his former boss, etc... We need to feel the relationships. Murders should involve passion, greed, betrayal, something to provoke enough emotion to kill. Think of these as more than just "detective", "killer", "love interest", "dead guy". It's all in how they relate to one another that makes the story compelling.
10. Lost: Don't be that guy. You know the one. He corners you at the cocktail party and proceeds to tell you his life story. The info dump: fear it! Just when you get embroiled in events on the island, suddenly the story shifts and you learn allllllllllll you ever wanted to know about a character's back story. This is tough to do well and even harder in a novel. Obviously, a mystery is going to be about a past event and these people will have motivations and histories that are crucial. You have to dole it out in bites. Don't try to cram an entire steak down the readers' throats in a single sitting. They'll gag. (Then pursue you for more pummeling.)
11. Project Runway: Shut your face. Did I say ten lessons? This is a bonus. I adore PR and if you've ever seen the runway critiques at the end, you know where I'm going with this. Invariably there is a contestant or two who becomes unhinged when the judges say unflattering things about their precious creation. Those loser judges just didn't appreciate the creativity and the staggering genius of his work and besides it wasn't his fault because his partner was a slacker and the model didn't do things correctly and someone sabotaged his sewing machine, and blah, blah, blah. This never goes well. Sometimes we just have to learn to turn a critical eye on ourselves and try to see what others do. Shut up. Listen. Maybe we can learn something. Maybe not. But you never know if you don't listen. It's better to simply say : okay, thanks. And then digest.
Okay, this was fun for me. How about you? What lessons have you learned from TV?