Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Law and Order at :13, :27 and :43

Tom Schreck, author of Getting Dunn, A Kindle July deal for $2.99

I've been studying plotting and after reading Alexander Sokoloff's book on screenwriting for novelists I started watching television more carefully.

In the Schreck household Law and Order is the default TV show--it's what we watch when we don't want to think about what to watch.

After studying ten or so episodes the formula has become very clear. It goes like this:

Opening-- We're dropped into the middle of the discovery of a crime. No backstory, no explanation. The cops come and we go to a commercial. For the next 12 minutes the investigation starts.

At :13 the first plot twist occurs sending the viewer in a different direction and we go to a commercial. When we come back we go for another 12 minutes of investigation.

At :27 the plot takes a more surprising twist taking us in yet a different and more dramatic direction. We go to commercial and when we come back the legal team starts their work.

At :43 the legal team faces a challenge and we are faced with another direction change and the crisis of how it will be resolved. We get sent off to commercial not knowing how it will be fixed.

We come back and at :57 Jack McCoy (or someone else) does something to wrap things up pretty neatly and leave us all feeling fulfilled.

Sometimes Jack dumps a bunch of exposition to tie things up in a bow for us but let's give him a break, he only has about 42 minutes to solve this mess.

Isn't this how mysteries should go? Beginning, middle and end, chase someone up a tree, figure out how to get 'em down, then get them down and all that crap?

The thing is this guarantees us no quality. The quality comes in the plot points, the believability of the turns and the nuance of the story.

Still, it is a worthy outline to study.

I bet you are humming the theme song, aren't you?


  1. I think that's the main reason I don't watch much crime-based TV shows: too predictable and unrealistic. Of course, most mystery novels follow that kind of formula, because readers like twists in a story. So I try to mix it up with different kinds of crimes and various character perspectives. And occasionally, I leave a few things uncertain, because that's realistic.

    But I do like Person of Interest...because it's unique. And I sometimes watch Major Crimes because it doesn't always follow that formula.

  2. Although I think as novelists we can learn from screen writing (Michael Hogue's Screenplay Mastery/Six Stage Plot Structure for example) we run the danger of creating formulaic books if we're not careful. And although the argument could be made about formulas for success, I'm not sure I'd have much fun...

  3. I think quality comes from character. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poiroit and Miss Marple, Harry Bosch and Rick Castle and Batman - the plots work because we care about the characters.

    I recently had a long conversation with a friend who's been in the graphic novel (comic) field for decades about the differences in the media. Basic structures do tell us a lot. If the plots of prose weren't inherently cinematic, we'd have no (successful) books to film.

    L.J., I suspect that the predictable and unrealistic shows have predictable and unrealistic characters as well. Chicken and egg.

  4. As I see it, the big problem with TV shows is that there's no element of actual danger. For example, you know, on formulaic TV, that whoosie-whatsis, Angie Harmon, isn't going to DIE. Neither is the other one. Nor is Bones or Seeley Booth (alas. I could really get back to liking that show if they'd kill off the Temperance Brennan character, AND her squalling kid, I had to stop watching it once they decided that birthing meant that her IQ dropped 100 points). There's absolutely no worry that someone will die, be killed off, permanently disfigured or crippled, etc. It's one of the reasons that Game of Thrones is enthralling--who dies next?

    As frustrating as its endless gynecological-exam cheap titillation is, GOT has got "cliff-hangers" so tight that you'd bite off your fingertips were you a nail-biter. Who saw all the deaths that have occurred coming?

    On the other hand, as much as people say that they want "something new," the success of TV series, series of novels, etc., proves that the opposite is precisely true: people want to know exactly what they're going to get. It's why L&O is so enormously successful--it delivers exactly what it promises, week after week. It's a lesson we should all remember, and a lesson that some authors whose trollies left the tracks (yeah, I'm talking to YOU, Laurell K. Hamilton and Patricia Cornwell!) should keep in mind. Just my $.02, though. ;-)



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.