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Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries

Great mystery thriller scripts depend on characters, not clues.

If you saw the season-ending episode of The Mentalist, do you remember the clue that helped catch the killer?

Me, neither.

In the movie version of The Lincoln Lawyer, what was the mistake Ryan Phillippe made that proved he was guilty?

You got me.

In the more recent film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, what led Blomkvist to identify the serial killer?

Who remembers? I'm just glad Lisbeth Salander got there in time to save Mikael!

My point, and I do have one, is that often TV and film writers think the most important aspect of a good mystery is the the ingenuity of the crime, the unraveling of the clues. Which is why many Hollywood writers are scared to death of even trying to write a mystery or thriller.

Fear no more.

Yes, viewers of mysteries and thrillers like tightly-plotted narratives, clever red herrings, and a certain element of surprise. And you should always strive to weave as many of these aspects into your whodunnit or crime script as possible.

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But these factors are not what makes an onscreen mystery memorable. Think of TV's Castle, or The Closer. Or a classic series like The Rockford Files. Think of films like Chinatown and Silence of the Lambs. Or iconic Hitchcock films like Rear Window or North By Northwest. As best-selling crime author Michael Connelly wrote, "The best mysteries are about the mystery of character."

But what does that mean?

Let's start with the basics: What is a mystery? In simplest terms, it's a story about the disruption of the social order. A crime against society is committed: A man is murdered, a bank is robbed, whatever. We, the viewer, want to know two things: Who did it, and why.

At least that's what we think we want.

What do we really want? We want order restored. We want the violator of the social compact—the killer, the thief, the blackmailer—to be caught, so that things in our world are set right once more. And who do we want to do this? Our surrogate, that's who—the smarter, wittier, and more doggedly determined version of ourselves: the detective hero.

Whether a street-wise cop like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, an obsessive-compulsive homicide detective like TV's Monk, or a tea-drinking, sweater-knitting old lady like Miss Marple (in innumerable BBC reboots), we want this one thing from our mystery protagonist above all others: we want order restored.

But not just social order. The best mysteries, whether TV's Prime Suspect (with Helen Mirren) or cinema's Anatomy of a Murder, are also about the exploration and resolution of psychological tension. In other words, how do the characters interact? What do they want?

For example, in most mysteries, whether a suspect is guilty of the crime or not, he or she invariably has a secret. A clandestine relationship, a trauma from the past that haunts them still, perhaps even a connection with the killer (or the victim) that helps complete an entire mosaic of possible motives, entanglements and intrigue.

Henry James famously said: "Plot is characters under stress." Well, nothing ramps up the stress level of a group of characters like the murder of one among them. A further "turn of the screw" results when the murder comes under investigation by an outside agent—the hero or heroine, the cop or private eye—determined to ferret out the truth.

How does that apply to the mystery screenplay or TV pilot you're trying to write? A reasonable question.

Remember what it felt like when some kid broke a window at school and the principal gathered you and all your classmates together? Remember the mounting tension as the principal went down the line, interrogating each of you, sometimes even feigning humor or sympathy, but always with the relentless, eagle-eyed determination of a predator searching for his prey?

Well, do the characters in your mystery or thriller script feel that way? How do they show it—to the camera, to each other, and to the detective? Or, perhaps more importantly, how do they attempt to conceal it?

In most memorable mysteries, or in the best thrillers, this context of mutual suspicion and misdirection of motives is pivotal. It's what keeps the suspense mounting for the viewer. Moreover, it's the crucial element that keeps the laying-in of necessary clues from seeming like a mere litany of exposition. By the time we're halfway through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (both the British miniseries and the recent feature), the lies told and attitudes expressed by the suspects has us convinced that pretty much anyone could be the culprit. Which is exactly what you, the mystery writer, wants most of all.

Another important aspect of these types of films, as vital as that of the deceptive nature of the suspects, is the world the story inhabits. All renowned cinematic mysteries, from Laura to Diabolique to Witness for the Prosecution, take place in a specific arena of life. The cutthroat design industry, a private boarding school, the be-wigged world of British courtrooms. Whatever.

If you consider a film like All the President's Men a mystery—and I do, since it meets all the criteria—then the roiling turmoil of Washington politics is the backdrop. As is the economic resurgence of Japan in Rising Sun. As is the sequestered life of the Amish in Witness.

Recall, too, how the key to success for TV's Columbo was the interaction of our rumpled hero with the nuances of the various worlds into which he ventured, from that of classical music to computer science, from Hollywood studios to military schools. His comfortable, familiar character was our vehicle of entry into the specifics of each of these very particular ways of life.

But what does all the above have to do with you, and the film or TV script you're writing? Let's see if we can break it down.

First, let's look at your protagonist. And here's where many new mystery writers get discouraged, and for a very understandable reason. When it comes to the hero—whether hard-boiled private eye or spinster librarian, cop-turned-lawyer or criminal-turned-cop—they've all been done. How do you make your sleuth unique?

For me, there's only one answer: ask yourself, what makes you unique? What scares you, interests you, makes you angry? What do you yearn for, or wish to avoid? What are your hobbies, passions? What's the aspect of your own character about which you're most conflicted, unhappy, even embarrassed? Believe it or not, this is where the seeds of an interesting, unusual protagonist are first sewn.

For example, my friend Earlene Fowler likes to make quilts. As does her amateur sleuth, Benni Harper, now on her 12th or 13th novel in a hugely successful series. I cite this mostly to prove that you don't have to be a forensics pathologist in your day job to create a popular or believable hero.

In my own case, the hero/narrator of my series of crime thrillers, Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, is a therapist, as I am. And while I currently live in Los Angeles, Rinaldi's adventures take place in Pittsburgh, my home town. In both the debut novel, Mirror Image, and its sequel, Fever Dream, I weave aspects of my personal biography, my clinical training, and my views about the current state of the mental health field into the narrative.

This concept operates as well for TV and film as for prose. Many writers of popular TV crime shows and recent film thrillers are patients in my private practice, and I've witnessed first-hand how their own issues, prejudices and concerns are woven into their on-screen characters.

The point is, the closer the hero or heroine of your mystery script is to you, the more vivid and engaging he or she will be to the viewer. After all, as Emerson said, "To know that what is true for you in your private heart is true for everyone—that is genius."

Next, let's look at the "world" of your mystery story. What is the world you inhabit? Suburban soccer mom or single father? Former football coach, magazine editor, or Rhodes scholar? Travel agent, computer specialist, or kindergarten teacher?

After all, you know the details of your particular world so clearly. You know the ins and outs, what goes on "behind the curtain." It's those details that create the backdrop for the crime, that make possible the intrigue, the collision of misleading, back-stabbing, or painfully naïve characters. Think of the casino gambling background in the movie Ocean's 11. Or that of the legal profession in The Firm. Or that of a police precinct in Internal Affairs.

Why is the background so important? Aside from being crucial to our sense of the reality of the story, and presenting us with a view of a world with which we may be unfamiliar (or that we think we know, but in fact really don't), a particular arena provides valuable help to the script writer when it comes to building narrative and planting clues.

How? To put it simply, the best clues in a classic mystery involve misdirection. A clue usually seems to point in one direction, when actually, looked at from a different angle, it reveals something else. A typical example is the clue that appears to confirm a certain character's guilt, when in fact it's been planted to frame that person.

For the writer, trying to develop the narrative and plant significant clues along the way, it's much easier (and, I think, more organic) if the clues emerge from the world of the story. For example, if the bad guy uses some antique pistol to commit the crime, I'm much more likely to believe it in a mystery script set behind the scenes at Colonial Williamsburg.

In fact, one of the smartest things a crime writer can do is develop the clues and red herrings out of the world in which the story is set. Case in point: Most used car salesmen don't know where to get their hands on lethal yet undetectable poisons. But they may know how to cut the brake lines of a car. (Or, failing that, how to blackmail a mechanic to do it for them.)

I'm stressing the use of a vivid background and the investment in character development for two reasons. First, because without these two crucial aspects, no viewer will really care how clever or intricate the plot is. (For example, as much as I admire the plotting in the film The Last of Sheila, I don't love the movie because I don't care about anyone in it.) And second, because of the happy fact that most good mysteries only have two or three pertinent clues in them anyway.

This is really important. Most new writers of mysteries seem to think the plot has to be filled with clues. It doesn't. One or two gems—the misleading planted evidence, the comment a suspect makes that belies his alibi—are all you need to put the villain away. Or all your hero or heroine needs.

Remember, too, that many clues are just as likely to indicate something that's missing as they are to reveal something that's present: the unfound murder weapon, the missing wedding ring on the victim's finger. Remember this classic exchange from Conan Doyle's story Silver Blaze:

Sherlock Holmes to the Inspector: "I refer, of course, to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

The Inspector: "But, Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That is the curious incident."

Okay, let's wrap this up. The three things to keep in mind when writing mysteries are: 1) establishing the unique character of the protagonist, 2) making narrative use of the world in which the story takes place, and 3) planting clues (remember, only a few) that derive from the particular aspects of that world.

One final hint, to spark your creativity when thinking about writing a mystery or thriller script: is there a little-known fact, an oddity of history or natural science, that you were taught or stumbled upon and has always intrigued you?

For example, I was blown away years ago when I learned that after famed psychologist Carl Jung broke with his mentor Sigmund Freud, Jung founded a clinical journal devoted to "non-Jewish" psychoanalysis. I'm still trying to figure out a way to weave that painful chapter in the history of psychoanalysis into a mystery story.

What's in your background that you can use? What's filed away in that mental Rolodex in your head that might serve as the germ of an idea for a mystery or thriller? Maybe your grandfather was the first guy in his town to own a car. Or the guy who bought the last Edsel. Maybe your cousin ran a betting pool in the seminary while studying for the priesthood. Maybe your mother tells the story of getting hit on by some dorky guy at a bar who went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Everybody has some story, some incident, unique to them and them alone. All a writer has to do is "twist" that story a little bit—the "what-if" that inspires all storytelling—and a terrific new movie thriller or TV mystery series emerges.

The recipe is simple: all crime stems from conflict, and conflict stems from strong emotions. Kind of like life.

Because, in the end, that's where all the best stories come from. Life itself. The greatest mystery of all.

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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