As the creator of the Bibliophile Mysteries, it’s my job to write mystery novels that readers love, and I consider myself a perpetual student of the storytelling craft.
Recently, while watching a rerun of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, I marveled at the fact that the Law & Order franchise is still successful after more than 20 years on the air. With four million babies born in the US each year, 80 million Americans have never known a world without Law & Order.
Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Los Angeles, UK… There’s even been a Sesame Street parody called Law and Order: Missing Letters Unit, though I hope it will go over kids’ heads. It’s disturbing to think children would recognize the characters from the sex crimes unit. [Embed Law & Order: Missing Letters Unit video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5121VjLwqZM]
What lessons can I, a mystery writer, take from the decades of success of Law & Order?
Find inspiration everywhere.
Some of my favorite episodes of Law & Order are those that take a story from the news and put a fresh, imaginative spin on it. As I’m writing this, Crazy Sheen is making the headlines every day. I imagine the writers of Law & Order: Los Angeles are watching the story closely, playing “what if” games to turn the true story into something vaguely recognizable but different enough to avoid a lawsuit. In real life, producer Chuck Lorre actually included this statement in the closing credits of the show: "If Charlie Sheen outlives me, I'm gonna be really pissed."
Oh come on, now. Can’t you imagine Sheen wanting to kill the producer after that public insult?!
Strive for the unexpected.
Many times, episodes start by focusing on unknown characters in intriguing situations. We catch just enough to whet our appetites. Then – BAM! The murder. Either the method or the victim is completely unexpected. Often, those intriguing characters are mere witnesses, never seen again.
Readers want to be surprised, so we writers must stretch ourselves. We need to find ways to lead readers to believe they know where the story is heading, and then veer in another direction.
This lesson is closely tied with the previous one. The reason we’re intrigued by those characters in the opening scene is because the writers give us just enough information about these strangers to make us curious. They raise questions. Why are these two people fighting? What is going to happen to the woman distracted by a text message when she steps into the dark alley? How will the pizza boy’s and the prostitute’s worlds collide?
Okay, that was just an excuse to post Christopher Meloni’s picture.
Keep the focus on the plot, not the characters’ personal lives.
Readers have gotten to know facets of Brooklyn Wainwright through the first three Bibliophile Mysteries: HOMICIDE IN HARDCOVER, IF BOOKS COULD KILL, and THE LIES THAT BIND, and I hope they will get to know her a little bit better in the fourth installment, MURDER UNDER COVER. “A little bit” being the key phrase here.
With a series like this, one of the most important lessons I can take from Law & Order is to keep the focus on the plot, the mystery. Readers will get to know the characters slowly, over time. So yes, you will catch glimpses into Brooklyn’s personal life, but your attention should be right where it belongs – on who killed Robyn’s new boyfriend in her bed, and how did they do it without waking her up?
What other lessons can a writer take from Law & Order? If you’re not a writer, then tell us what you love or don’t love about the show? Which series is your favorite and why? Which of the regular characters intrigues you the most?