I never watched Law & Order when it first aired, and to this day I’ve only watched a handful of the original L&O episodes. But in 2005, after I quit my “day job” and started writing full-time, I used to watch re-runs late at night as I came down off my caffeine high. The spin-off that hooked me was SVU. The original L&O has many of the same elements as SVU, but SVU has–for me at least–the most interesting characters, both the series stars and one-show stars.
Anyone writing crime fiction, mysteries or thrillers should at least invest a couple hours watching L&O, though I think the lessons learned would benefit most commercial fiction writers. There are other shows that “teach” the same lessons (HEROES, for example) but L&O is the most obvious.
1) Enter Late, Leave Early
Most writers want to over-explain. They like hefty set-ups, establishing character and backstory, and “setting the scene.” If you watch L&O you’ll see they start each scene just after the beginning of the scene. They don’t show Olivia and Elliott driving to the scene of the crime, they show them AT the scene of the crime–often after the CSI team have gone through it to give them information they need.
Sometimes, you want to show the painstaking CSI investigation–to establish clues or a red herring. But most of the time, it’s unnecessary. L&O has done a great job in showing us the parts of the investigation we need to see to stay invested with the story, but keeping other parts off-scene in such a way that we know it’s going on, we can “almost” see it, but it’s not in front of us. We never think they aren’t covering all the bases even when we don’t see them working each piece of evidence. Truly, masterfully done.
Leaving early is just as important. I’m a big offender of this–sometimes, my characters think too damn much at the end of scene, prolonging the story. While it’s important to get inside your character’s head, it’s best to do it as much as possible during the action of the scene to avoid long narratives between scenes. Scenes should answer story questions as well as ask story questions–so going into the scene you give your reader information and/or answers; then raise more. Leaving a scene “early” provides a great venue of such story questions, as well as cliffhangers to get the reader to turn the page, start the next chapter, finish the book.
WARNING: Entering late and leaving early is a great way to keep your story moving at a brisk pace. But after reading hundreds of thrillers, I’ve noticed that some never let up. You’re worn out because there is NO downtime. Sometimes, you SHOULD move into a scene slowly or wrap up a scene more completely, or even offer a “quiet” chapter so that your reader isn’t overwhelmed with one action after another with no let-up. I’ve found that these less frantic scenes are well-suited for right before or right after major story turning points, such as crossing the first threshold, the mid-point, or before (or after) the black moment (all is lost.)
Strong pacing is important, but strong pacing isn’t non-stop, story-on-steroids pacing
2) Shades of Grey
I have always been fascinated by moral dilemmas. My first Lucy Kincaid book, which has been postponed to Spring 2011, deals with a complex moral dilemma. We in society often have sympathy for people who do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and often we have compassion for people who take the law into their own hands when they’ve played by the rules but were victimized.
Any one remember Dirty Harry? Wasn’t it MAGNUM FORCE that had cops killing criminals who’d beaten the system? On the one hand, it’s the worst betrayal of trust and duty to have cops kill in cold blood; on the other hand, many of us believe it’s unfair–and plain wrong–for violent offenders to beat the system and walk the streets, knowing that they’ll kill again.
We believe in the justice system because it is the most fair, but at the same time it is flawed. When I first learned decades ago that John Adams defended the British after the Boston Massacre, my gut feeling was how could someone fighting for Independence defend murderers? Yet, Adams believed so much in the system of a fair trial that I realized that his defense of the system was one of the backbones of our fight against British tyranny. If we denied them a trial, we were betraying the country we were trying to create.
Few situations are black-and-white. We all have opinions and values that are important to us, but rarely is there a case in which anything we believe is all-or-nothing. It’s the shades of grey that make a story compelling–because life is never simple, nor most of the decisions we make, nor our values which have taken a lifetime to develop.
L&O explores many of these shades of grey, which makes the stories “page-turning.” Tonight I watched an episode from a few weeks ago called HARDWIRED about a group of predators who believe that sex between adults and pre-pubescent minors can be “love” and “consensual.” During the trial of the leader of the organization that was similar to NAMBLA but different, they had a girl testify that when she had a sexual relationship with the leader (when she was 11 through 14) that she consented, that because of him and his love for her, she got out of her abusive family home, moved in with her grandmother, and ended up staying in school and getting her Masters. While we all would (hopefully) agree that a sexual “relationship” between an 11 year old girl and a 30 year old man is vile and wrong, we can’t help but think what might have happened to the girl had she stayed with her physically abusive father, that the school and her drunk mother failed her, and this sick pedophile helped her get out of the situation. Fiction, yes, but we all know that there are good people in bad situations. It doesn’t make the relationship right, but it makes us pause and wonder how we, as society and human beings, could fail in such an atrocious manner that an 11 year old girl sees sex with a 30 year old as her only way out of a miserable life.
This is just one example of the “shades of grey” that L&O explores so well–without over-explaining or being preachy–that I find intriguing, and speaks directly to the next, and perhaps most important point:
3) Characters Are People Too
In a one-hour drama, it’s hard to convey well-rounded, full characters who you believe really exist. In a series it’s easier, but every show runs the risk of two-dimensional stereotypes. CASTLE is my guilty pleasure, and it’s probably the worst at surface characterization. I just can’t help myself, I like the show. HEROES does a better job at creating characters who are neither all-good or all-bad, who are complex and flawed and sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reasons; or the wrong thing for the right reasons. But L&O is masterful at characterization. The series repeat characters have grown over the series, but in many ways they haven’t changed drastically. We understand them and how they will react in certain situations, and that is comforting even when they don’t act as we would. They are staying IN CHARACTER. The supporting cast provides just as much depth. They don’t agree on everything, they argue their points effectively, they are not all perfect or all flawed. And even more important, they don’t have to agree on everything and they can still work together effectively.
But it’s the guest stars, whether famous or not, who make the show. Some bad guys are just bad. Some are bad but you have sympathy. Some are more complex than others. Some lie, some don’t. They are REAL. You feel like you’ve really caught a snapshot, or a short video, of their life. If a one-hour (44 minute!) program can create REAL, complex characters on television, we as authors should be able to do the same in a 100,000 word novel–while adhering to point #1 above. They use stereotypes effectively to keep the story moving (not everyone needs a backstory shown, like the traffic cop who relays information, of the paramedic who has two lines) but smoothly, so you don’t *think* stereotype. But the characters important to the story have depth.
So what have you learned from your favorite TV shows?