Thursday, May 12, 2011

After Over 20 Years, Why Is Law & Order So Successful? By Guest Blogger Kate Carlisle

Kate Carlisle is the author of the Bibliophile Mysteries, featuring rare book expert (and lover of all things edible) Brooklyn Wainwright. The fourth Bibliophile Mystery, Murder Under Cover, is a May 2011 release. Brooklyn’s best friend Robin returns to San Francisco from a trip to India with a new man – and an exceedingly rare copy of the Kama Sutra for Brooklyn to restore. When the new boyfriend is murdered in Robyn’s bed, only Brooklyn and the handsome British security expert Derek Stone stand between her and life in prison.

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:]

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.

Raise questions.

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?

Sex sells.

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?


Booklady said...

I love your books and I love Law & Order. I've not gotten into Law & Order LA yet. I miss the original series. I loved Jerry Orbach. I guess my all time favorite is Law & Order SVU. I like that that all the main characters are good people who are not perfect. My non-fiction read right now is a biography of Ice-T. As I read it, I can't help but hear Finn's voice in my head.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I'm actually saving it to read again and again. And share much. I always wonder, when watching my favorite TV shows, what goes on with the writers. A story behind every story, I'm sure.

Kate Carlisle said...

Booklady, Oh, I miss Jerry Orbach! He was so great on Law & Order. And I loved the way they very slowly doled out details of his personal life, so that we got a sense that he had a life beyond his work.

Interesting that you're reading Ice-T's biography. Now you're making me curious to pick it up. I saw the biography of Sandra Bullock's ex at the bookstore yesterday, but that's one I don't think I'll ever read.

Thank you for saying you love my books! I'm having a lot of fun writing the Bibliophile Mysteries!

Kate Carlisle said...

PJ, thank you for stopping by! I believe you're right, that there's a story behind every story. Some more interesting than others, I'm sure. :)

signlady217 said...

I really loved Jerry Orbach, too. He was great. One of my other favorites was Chris Noth on L&O:CI. I wish they'd bring him back. I love trying to figure out the "whodunnit", and my husband laughs at me alot because I get so happy when I'm right about who did what.

Ellery Adams said...

I may be the only person on the planet who never watched L&W. My father adores it. Still, I think the ability for the writers to continue reinventing the show season after season shows how talented they are.

And speaking of talented, so glad you could be here today Kate! Congrats on the new release and we hope you sell tons of copies!

Aurian said...

Congratulations on the new book Kate! I hope to be reading it soon. I must admit, I have never watched Law & Order, though I believe my boyfriend does (while I am asleep).

Vickie said...

I think what I love the most is the theme music...especially the 'duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DUH!' beginning.
I don't watch the show as much these days but, back in the day, it was the orginal. Especially with Jerry Orbach. I don't know what it was about him, but he was the perfect partner.

Lover of Books said...

I only watched the original and once Jerry Orbach died. I was done. SVU caught my interest for awhile but too many shows so little time.

Lynn in Texas said...

Nice to see you here, Kate. I watch mostly reruns of L&O, esp. since the death of Jerry Orbach. (Loved him too as Harry on Murder She Wrote.)He was the quintessential detective. Of course I enjoyed looking at Chris Noth, and Benjamin Bratt is always easy on the eye. It's also interesting watching Det. Goren & Eames at work(Vincent D'Onofrio & Kathryn Erbe)on L&O:CI, because it focused more on the mindset and motives of the criminals but also had major interplay on the partners' personal, rather offbeat, lives.
Sometimes I switch off SVU as the topic can be a bit too gritty and depressing for my mood, but the characters are well-developed.

Vicki said...

I loved Chris Noth on the orignal L&O and then on CI and Jerry Orbach the show wasn't the same without them. They were my faves. I watch SVU and UK when I can catch it but never got into LA. Now I get my systery if not on pages from Mark Harmon, Bones or PBS.

Rochelle Staab said...

I love your series, Kate!

My affair with Law & Order started and ended with the original cast - Chris Noth was my favorite detective and I had an unaccountable crush on Michael Moriarity in the original DA office. When they left my interest faded but when I can't sleep, I turn on whichever Law & Order marathon is running on cable and let the chung-chung lull me.

Short trivia aside: Recently a Law & Order: SVU writer told the members of SinC-LA that the L&O producers and writers call the iconic opening notes the "chung-chung."

Lately, my mystery TV show menu covers the cute guys on Castle, Psych, Bones, Memphis Beat, and The Glades. I'm also loving The Killing, and will check in with The Mentalist (for Simon) occasionally.

Thanks for the fun post!

Harvee, Book Dilettante said...

As a lover of mysteries and books, this is a series I'd love!

Dru said...

I'm not a writer, but I like the early years of Law & those were plots.

One of my favorite series is The Closer and that show is definitely plot-driven.

Vickie said...

Huge fan of the show back in the day, but haven't really watched it much lately. There are so many iterations of it.
I am fascinated with the UK version if I could only remember to set my DVR for it.