Three Things I’ve Learned From Law & Order

By Allison Brennan

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? 

21 thoughts on “Three Things I’ve Learned From Law & Order

  1. Paula R.

    Hi Allison, thank you for the great writing points. There is definitely a lot you can learn from tv shows. I love L&O:SVU. It is a must watch for me. I also watch Castle, because I just want to see Castle and Beckett finally show some sexual attraction for each other, manifested through a kiss or something. Okay, seriously, I love the characters because they are truly funny and it is a good way to wind down on a Monday night. SVU on the other hand, I watch because I have become invested in the characters. The storylines are more real to me too. The biggest thing I have learned is that characters are people too. I also understand the creative license most directors and screen writers take as well, but they are mostly believable. I remember the episode you speak of very well. It was a hard one to watch because it hit too close to home for me. Though my situation wasn’t as bad as the character of the little girl who got her Masters, I can see the positive aspect, there goes that shade of grey, of her situation. As usual, wonderful job.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  2. Susanne

    Hi Allison,

    You should write a book about writing. Seriously. When you explain something, it always resonates with me. This post was particularly timely because I was concerned about a scene in my book that was too "quiet", but now I realize it’s needed, and my instincts were right.

    I’ve learned from Dexter that someone can have redeeming qualities despite the fact that they are killers; that show constantly reminds us about the complexity of people. We can move our moral bar when there are valid reasons. Deadwood was the same.

    And Firefly showed the art of pacing — it always had quiet scenes to give us pause.

    I’m behind when it comes to TV shows (no cable) so I need to go to the store and see if Castle is available in DVD.

    Many thanks for your post.

    Enjoy the holidays.


  3. Dana King

    It’s been a while since I watched must Law and Order, but your comments are dead on.
    You added a caveat a lot of writers would do well to learn: slow down once in a while.

    L&O can get away with non-stop "arrive late-leave early" scenes because the show is only an hour log, and the commercial breaks give it natural breathing space. (We may differ about what we’re breathing at those times, but the story hitches up for a while.) A novel of 300+ pages needs to put those in. It amazes me how often we read of the importance of developing characters to maintain the reader’s interest and empathy, then have the same person advocate books that contain action sequence after action sequence that never show the characters as anything but the smartest badass in the room.

    Another good point in your post is not to get too bogged down with CSI. L&O acknowledges it, but, no matter what CSI and its spin-offs lead people to believe, most crimes are still solves the old-fashioned way. Forensics can often convict the criminal, but they’re results are often too late or too inclusive to identify a perpetrator until the cops have narrowed the field considerably, possibly to a small handful.

    Thanks for reminding me.

  4. Allison Brennan

    Hi Paula: Sometimes SVU is very hard to take. But it’s not a "binge" show–where I stock up episodes and watch 2 or 3 a night (CASTLE, HEROES are two shows I can watch one after another.) SVU makes you think and look at the world differently, and hope that you will be an everyday hero if you’re confronted with an awful or evil situation. The complexities and questions the show raises also stick with me. I do think that there is absolute right and absolute wrong in many situations, but understanding how those who don’t agree–whether criminal or not–helps me grow as a human being and confirm my values.

    Hi Susanne: I love all those shows!!! FIREFLY should never have been cancelled. That’s probably why I love CASTLE–I adore Nathan Fillian. DEXTER is a perfect example of a show based on moral conflict. We can’t help but like Dexter, even though we know he’s a killer. That is one of the few shows were character voice is so hugely important. We know what he’s doing is wrong, but he’s killing very, very bad guys so while we acknowledge it’s wrong, a teeny part of our psyche can support his mission.

    Hi Dana: I love incorporating forensics, but only if it’s related to the actual story and I don’t have to show every little detail–unless it’s important to the story. Sometimes, the cops can just get the information after the autopsy. Sometimes, however, you want to show the autopsy.

  5. Miri

    {Longtime lurker, etc.}

    First, thank you for an extremely timely post – the quagmire of revision is an important place to think about pacing and grey-shades of characterization…and everything else, I guess. All I can really do is echo Susanne’s comments – your explanation resonates, definitely.

    As for TV…Heroes, I think, does a wonderful job of creating complex characters (Samuel…I want so badly to like him…), but I think my favorite in terms of sheer storytelling is Fullmetal Alchemist. (I’m an avowed anime junkie and have been for years.) Episodic but tightly-plotted formats are a great teacher of pacing, including your reminder to slow down now and again, give the reader and cast time to breathe; the characters of Fullmetal in particular were real and grey and guilt-ridden and handled in a truly exemplary manner. It also taught me to keep track my worldbuilding, build it up by layers, include tiny references in the beginning that will mean something later, let it grow organically but with direction.

    Ahhh, I love TV, with its lessons and quirks. I need to go check if I have an episode of Castle recorded.

  6. JT Ellison

    Perfect, perfect, perfect advice. When I first started writing, my goal was to write quickly and visually that would be reminiscent of watching an episode of L&O. All of your points are exactly on – especially SVU. I save them up and watch them in marathon sessions of total immersion.

    DEXTER is possibly my favorite, though I really love CRIMINAL MINDS too – but I get a little squirmy because the writers and I are on a similar wavelength.

  7. Louise Ure

    I’m a L&O junkie so your post made perfect sense to me, Tess.

    And the best learning from TV? Right now it’s CASH CAB. It’s astounding how much character backstory can be gleaned by the body language and comments of the contestants in the back seat.

  8. pari noskin taichert

    Love this post and love L&O SVU. So thanks for that.

    One show I adored for ethics and questions about ethics was DEAD LIKE ME. I liked the ambiguity and the nonsensical-ness of some of the reaps the protag had to do. The characterization was also wonderful over time as George changed and became a more compassionate "human being" once she had to kill so many . . .

    Your post long ago about VERONICA MARS inspired our family to watch all three seasons. There’s another one with quite a bit of ethical ambiguity.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    Louise, I love Cash Cab. (And I am saddened by how much crap I just flat do not know without googling to be sure. argh.) But you’re right about that backstory being evident almost as soon as they get in the cab.

    Allison, great post. I love CASTLE, too, even though Lee Lofland has pointed out quite a few idiocies in the handling of crime scenes or investigative techniques. And L&O is just classic, it’s got such great writing and acting.

    I think one of the things that TV/film has reinforced is how effective misdirection can be when done well, how satisfying it is to see that the answer was really always there, but your attention was pulled elsewhere. I love double and triple crosses (a la THE STING or THE DEPARTED, or on tv, LEVERAGE (which has some good shows, and some barely average eps), but they only work if you completely set up the organic possibilities and yet, misdirect the viewer/reader’s attention to the the wrong answers, first. It’s like multi-layered chess.

  10. Fran

    I, too, am a Castle fan. What fun, love his daughter!

    But as a die-hard L&O fan, from the original through SVU and once in a while CI, one of the things I truly admire about the writing is that the good guys don’t always win. Sometimes they do their very best, and the system beats them.

    The same is true of Criminal Minds, and the situations there are so very gritty they’re sometimes hard to watch. But as with L&O, the characters frequently have to face their own demons — some of which are created by what they’ve had to experience — and sometimes the "bad guys" really do have what turns out to be an empathetic reasono for what they’ve done.

    Great post!

  11. Fran

    Bah, I need to proof better. "reasono"? My apologies! I blame the cat snuggled beside me. It’s all her fault! Not sure how, but it must be.

  12. Allison Brennan

    Pari, did you like VERONICA MARS? I found that it really opened up conversations between my two teenagers (then 11/12 and 13/14 while we were watching) and we can still talk about these complex issues now.

    JT, I’ve watched the first two seasons of CRIMINAL MINDS. My oldest loves that show. I do, too, but the first two seasons I thought didn’t handle in depth characters well. I found their villains compelling and multi-faceted, but their heroes were too . . . martyr-like. Shallow in the sense of everything was too easy, they touched on complexities but we didn’t see them. For example, in one episode Hatch talks to a killer who was abused as a kid and revealed that he, too, had been abused but didn’t turn into a killer. IT was one of my favorite episodes because we saw so much more about Hatch and it was hugely interesting and added depth to his character. Then . . . nothing. I’ve heard that they get better, but because it’s not available in iTunes (or wasn’t last time I checked) I haven’t watched more.

    Love THE DEPARTED. Another great movie for pacing–very fast, and when it’s "slow" it’s still twisty and interesting. Every scene was necessary.

    Hi Miri–glad you unlurked today! I learn by example, which is why I use examples heavily when I teach online workshops. I’m giving one for the Kiss of Death (RWA’s romantic suspense chapter) on breaking rules that I love giving, and I love using examples. It’s why I love Vogler over Campbell.

  13. Catherine Shipton

    I find the flip side of Castle having shallow characterisation, is that they do embrace the art of the glib humourous aside very well. I think the glib comments act as another pace device. I also see Castle as the irreverent little brother to the mature L&O approach. Sometimes obnoxious bratty behaviour is entertaining.

    I tend to analysis home grown Australian shows to see the point of difference between American shows. To see how the writers define us…and how the American writer’s define you, as a society. I do like how a good crime show airing over an hour can snapshot so many themes of what is happening right now on a multitude of levels.

    Thanks Allison for adding to my analysis arsenal.

  14. Catherine Shipton

    That would be analyse home grown Australian…etc…these are the words I spray around without coffee…which is my cue to find coffee and embrace it into my being.

  15. Pammy D


    Thanks for the great post. I’ve followed L&O SVU for years. Your description is spot-on. For me, Dexter pushes a lot of buttons. I am grateful to the writers and producers of that show for putting their noses to the grindstone to consistently create a series that is so smart, entertaining, and horrifying at the same time. Big kudos to the talented actors in Dexter, as well.

    I went to see THE LOVELY BONES. (NO SPOILERS). It’s not getting great reviews, but I thought it was a beautiful movie, considering the subject matter.

    Tx to all you Murderati bloggers who take the time out of your busy days to give us readers high quality, fascinating articles and discussions.

    Happy Holidays.

  16. Allison Brennan

    I’m glad you enjoyed VM, Pari. Making recommendations for families is always hard because we all have different comfort zones and how we like to share information and values with our kids. I thought VM handled difficult subject matter in an incredible way without glorifying sex, drinking, alcohol, etc. And I liked that while Veronica had a lot of freedom, her dad wasn’t a pushover and called her on the carpet when necessary.

  17. Alafair Burke

    So excited to know others still praise Veronica Mars. Outstanding character development.

    My newer favorite is Dexter. What I learned this season in particular is sometimes you have to take chances with series characters, even when the change might be unpleasant.


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