Why Murder Is More Difficult Than You’d Think

Here’s why murder mysteries are hard to write.

In any other kind of story, we come in at the inciting incident – the point at which the action of the story begins, the point at which the hero’s world is turned upside and she has to take action to save the day. Then we follow her through a gradual process of learning, changing and growing, up to the final decision where she triumphs over adversity/ her enemies and gets what she wants (or more likely, what she needs).

Murder mysteries do not work like this.

A murder mystery has an inciting incident: a body is found, or a person reported missing. They have a denouement: the murderer is caught and the detective’s theory vindicated. But that process of learning, changing and growing, the second act of your story, is missing – because all the significant events in the story have already happened. The victim is already dead, the clues have already been accidentally left or deliberately concealed, the various suspects’ have already done and said most of the things that will make them suspects or eliminate them from the enquiry.

The detective spends the second act finding out about things that are in the past – the dead man’s brother hated him, he’d changed his will, he had an illegitimate daughter, there was a diamond ring missing from the body… So I suppose he’s learning, in the strict sense of the word, but not in the self-revelatory sense in which we use the word when we’re talking about character. The detective can’t change and grow (and neither can anyone else) because nothing is happening to him. He’s just discovering information about historic events, all of which are beyond his ability to influence.

Put another way, a normal drama is like showing a football match from beginning to end. A murder mystery is like explaining why the two teams have to play each other (they’re both finalists in the FA cup, say), showing some flashbacks to previous matches to explain their rivalry, and then showing the last five minutes of the match to establish who wins.

This would explain why many murder mysteries have a second or even third murder during the course of the action, or interweave a subplot about the detective’s work life or home life. It’s current action. Something is actually happening to the character, allowing some level of character development. Because without that, it’s really difficult to sustain a story.

Undoubtedly there are writers who are brilliant at this. They manage to involve us intellectually with the puzzle of the story, and engage us with characters despite the fact that they’re not changing and growing. That’s a real skill, and if you’ve got it, congratulations!

But if you’re having difficulty structuring a detective-style story, as I so often do, perhaps bearing all this in mind will help…

Things I Learned From… Jack Reacher

There’s no doubt that Jack Reacher has been a disappointment at the box office. The big question, as always, is why. With a solid fan base for Lee Child’s novels and Tom Cruise in the lead role, this should have been a solid earner with sequel potential. So what went wrong?
There are probably a lot of contributing factors. Maybe Tom Cruise isn’t the star he once was, at least not without an established franchise. Maybe the marketplace was too crowded over the Christmas period, with higher profile movies mopping up Reacher’s potential audience.
But I do wonder if part of the problem is the nature of the story.
Jack Reacher is adapted from the novel One Shot, which has an intriguing enough premise: an ex-military sniper guns down five random people, leaving a trail of evidence any idiot cop could follow, and when arrested, says only one thing. “Get Jack Reacher.” And when former military policeman Reacher begins investigating, the situation turns out to be a lot more complicated than it appears…
So what’s wrong with that? Compelling central character, a mystery to solve, a man going to jail for something he may not have done, a conspiracy headed up by an interesting villain…
Here’s what I think. Human beings are drawn to the unique. We all remember the one time it snowed at Christmas, the one time we missed the train home, the one time we witnessed a terrible, newsworthy event in person.
Movies appeal directly to that urge by giving us storylines that appear unique, memorable, even startling. The one summer a man-eating shark prowled the seas around a holiday resort. The one Christmas terrorists took over an office building in LA, not knowing a NY cop was inside. The one time the alien ’invading’ Earth was actually just a lost child who just wanted to phone home.
It’s one reason why biopics and true stories always sell well. They have that element of uniqueness. Most people will never have to escape the Iranian Hostage Crisis, or survive a tsunami – but here are some people who did. Or they have the “one guy” factor: here’s the story of the one guy who stood up to racism, the one girl who took on the establishment, the one family who defied the law.
These are not everyday occurrences. They’re not even the most memorable or eye-catching of a series of everyday events, like a cop or a firefighter recounting the stories he remembers best, but which in the end are no more or less dramatic than the rest of his career. They’re game-changers. They’re historic. They’re genuinely unique.
And Jack Reacher isn’t.
Viewed objectively, it’s the story of some cops and lawyers untangling a difficult case, with help from an unusual source. Next week, they’ll probably have an equally difficult case, with different complicating factors.
Even viewed from the protagonist’s point of view, these events are pretty much business as usual for Reacher. The movie goes out of its way to suggest Reacher is a man who can’t turn his back on trouble, whether it’s large-scale injustice or a man beating his wife. Even if you weren’t aware of the other novels, it would be easy to surmise that Reacher spends a lot of time getting caught up in things that ’don’t concern him’. This one may be a little larger in scale, but it’s business as usual for Reacher –
And “business as usual” is television, not film. Why may explain a lot…

Stand Back, I’m The Hero! or Three Rules For Television Characters

The central characters in television shows are the hardest characters to write. They’ve got to have enough depth to sustain an audience’s interest for multiple episodes, potentially for years, and yet be strong and eye-catching enough to create immediate empathy.

So here are three things to bear in mind when creating your TV hero.

–  Always keep your main character active.  They must be the ones driving the plot, making the discoveries, saving the day and learning the lessons. Just like the hero of a film, they need to lead the story, not follow orders or contribute from a desk somewhere away from the action.

This means that, if they work for someone else, they need to have a high degree of freedom to act, or be a maverick who disobeys orders and does as they please.  You’d think it would be wiser to make them top dog, so they have the freedom to take action –  but actually, that can be a really bad idea. A character who can do whatever they like without reprimand faces no significant forces of conflict – and there have to be obstacles of some kind if the audience is to stay interested.

In order to be active, your character often needs to have a dog in the race: personal stakes. If they don’t solve the case/steal the money/find out who they drunk texted last night, they will suffer in some way.

A character who’s simply waiting for something to happen, or who has nothing at stake in what’s happening around him, is passive, and we have nothing to root for.  The stronger your character’s motivation for getting involved in the action of the series, the better.

– Always keep your main character hungry for something.  It might be financial success, career progression, the perfect relationship, but there’s a hole of some kind in this character’s life and they’re taking action to fill that hole.

We suggested just now that a character waiting for something to happen is uninteresting –  but even worse is a character who knows what they want but takes no action to achieve it.  Someone waiting for a fortune to drop into their lap is a worthless dreamer – if they can’t be bothered to make any effort, why should we bother to watch?  But someone like Del Boy Trotter, who works and schemes every day to realise his doomed dream of becoming a millionaire, immediately elicits our sympathy.

– Always keep your main character slightly off-balance or slightly out of their depth.  A character totally at ease with his life and the situations he finds himself in feels no challenges, has to make no effort.  But the expert detective who’s working the one case he can’t crack, or the lothario who finds the one girl who won’t fall into his arms –  they’re characters who are going to have to make an effort, to expose their weakness and become vulnerable.  And vulnerable is always interesting. (Look at how Carrie’s vulnerability drives Homeland, for example.)

Often, the vulnerability is written into the concept of the series, confronting a confident character with the one person or situation they find most difficult.  Think about all those shows about people forced to work with their former wife or husband.  Having to work with someone who knows them so intimately exposes their inner character as no other working partner could.

Then there’s the “fish out of water” show;  Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Someone perfectly adapted to one situation or community is suddenly dumped into the exact opposite, forcing them to be resourceful and change in response to these new challenges. What these concepts are doing is keeping their central character off balance, forcing them to chase equilibrium (keeping them active) and to expose their vulnerability.

Active, Hungry, Vulnerable. Three traits for great characters.

You Say Complicated, I Say Complex

I’ve been grappling with the planning stages of a couple of new projects, and I’m starting to grasp the difference between complex and complicated. And here’s what I’m starting to think.

A complicated story is complicated because bits of it don’t make sense yet. A complicated story is welded together by chunks of exposition, flashbacks, backstory and coincidences.  Every now and then, everything stops so one of the characters can ease us over an expositional speedbump by telling us why this shit is happening and what we can expect next.

A complex story is made up of interlocking simplicities, every one of which is so simple and primal that it can’t help but make sense. Each of those simple desires, obstacles and emotions is in conflict with everything around it, which creates a complexity of plot and character – but the central drive of the story is simple and obvious. Luke Skywalker wants to save the princess, and then the rebellion. He goes here and there across the galaxy, flies fighter ships, infiltrates an enemy space station, gathers allies, loses his mentor and even gets into a bar fight – but it’s all in pursuit of that simple goal.

The key thing is, every complex story starts off complicated. It’s complicated because you haven’t worked on it enough yet. So don’t settle for complicated. Keep putting in the prep time and the rewrites. It will be worth it.