Tag Archives: Mystery

Episodic Vs Sequential: TV Shows and Novel Series

TV storytelling has changed with the advent of VCRs, DVDs and streaming services.  In the golden age of TV, it was much more common for each episode of a TV show to be a self-contained story.

The reason is simple:  showrunners couldn’t presume that viewers had been able to watch the previous episodes.  If you were busy during the show’s airing time, then you missed the show.  So, it made sense for each episode to stand alone.  Title sequences introduced new viewers to the show’s characters, theme and mood.  Even if you’d never seen a show before, you could get a pretty good idea what it was about before the day’s episode started.  (And title sequences are getting shorter these days, or being left out entirely, now that most viewers no longer need them to learn about the show they’re about to see.)

The problem with episodic storytelling is that it’s more difficult to show long-term character development, or to give events permanent consequences.  In its purest form, the end of the episode presses the reset button, returning the characters to the status quo at the beginning of the next episode.  Still, some shows developed a certain sense of continuity:  origin episodes, introduction of new characters or departure of old ones, key events in season finales.

With the advent of the VCR, people could record shows and watch them later at their convenience.  And now, with streaming services, it’s become common for viewers to “binge” on a show and watch the entire season over the course of a few days.

(This is not to say that the golden age of TV didn’t have serials–soap operas, anyone?–or that there isn’t great episodic TV being made right now. )

But general trends changed when it became easier for people to keep up with their favourite shows.  When data suggested that people enjoyed viewing shows in a single sitting (or two or three), showrunners naturally made shows catering to those kind of viewing habits.  There’s now a strong trend towards “bingeable” shows – long running serials that tell a multi-thread story over the course of a season, and an even bigger story over the course of a series.  Actions have consequences, and characters grow and change – but it’s rare for a viewer to pick a random episode in the middle of a series just to “check it out,” now that it’s easier to start at the beginning.

When you’re writing a novel series, which model do you want to follow?

In part, it depends on genre.  For example, if you’re writing a category romance novel series, it’s often expected that a new reader should be able to pick up a book at any point in the series and enjoy the story.  Additionally, romance stories derive their tension from showing how the hero and heroine get together–tension that’s hard to show once they’re an established couple.   As a result, category romance series have developed a certain pattern.  Each book in the series takes place in the same world, but each book (usually) focuses on a new hero and heroine.  The supporting characters are often either the heroes/heroines of previous books, or future hero/heroines of upcoming stories.  As a result, fans are able to return to a world they love, while new readers won’t be lost if they aren’t familiar with the supporting characters from previous books, and the primary tension is still focused on watching a couple overcome their obstacles to be together.  However, this formula makes it difficult to show character relationships growing and changing beyond the book that the characters “star” in.

On the other hand, some series all but require you read them in order, or you’ll be lost continuity-wise.  For myself, I love a big, ongoing, developing story where characters’ actions have consequences, and the plot unfolds based on the choices the characters made previously.  But this technique makes it harder for new readers to “jump in” in the middle.

And some series walk a middle line.  Each book is a self-contained arc, but if you put them together, you’ll also see a series-long story arc developing.  For example, in some mystery series, a new mystery gets solved in each book, but as the series progresses, the main characters  change, develop, and grow, giving the series a sense of continuity and ongoing development.

In large part, it depends on what you as a writer want to do.  Do you want to write a series where each book focuses on a different character in the same universe?  Do you want the flexibility to add “new adventures” if the series takes off?

Or do you have a long-term vision for a story that’s too long for just one (or three, or more) books to hold?  Do you want to show a character growing and changing over the long term, and do you believe that you can convince audiences to care about this character, to choose to spend time in their company over and over again?

If the first book in a series hooks a reader, they’re likely to come back for more—particularly when they feel that the story is “going somewhere” and that each book “matters” because events have consequences.  But there’s also something to be said for a format that’s welcoming to new readers, and doesn’t require them to put Book 4 back on the shelf and go looking for Book 1 in order to understand what’s going on.  There’s audiences for both types of series (as well as the middle gorund) so choose what method best suits your genre and the story you want to tell.


About Mary: 

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.


Red Herrings and Other Fishy Thoughts

In literature, a red herring is an informal fallacy that typically uses extraneous or irrelevant information to mislead the audience. It’s used to give an astute reader several challenges during the telling of the tale.

In other words, they’re purposeful deceits the author employs to mislead the folks who read their stories.

Red herrings are actually dried fish that are kippered, or salted and smoked, which turns their meat a reddish color. In 1807, a writer named William Corbett wrote about using red herrings dragged along the ground to train hunting dogs. This wasn’t actually true, but the readers didn’t know and the concept of red herrings was born.

Red herrings are used extensively in mysteries and thrillers, and are a staple for noir detective stories. By employing these misdirections, the author can attempt to get the readers to believe something is the correct answer when it is not. The concept is to include little tidbits of irrelevant yet related information that helps to push the reader into thinking a particular way.

Agatha Christie was a genius at employing red herrings. In Murder on the Orient Express, almost everything is a red herring pushing one away from focusing on the killer until you realize everyone was the killer. In her novel And Then There Were None, there’s a list of how people are going to get bumped off. Victim number four doesn’t seem to be a red herring until you realize that she told you flat out they were in the poem.

Employing red herrings should always be logical in some ways, but the information that incriminates should be irrelevant to the final solution to the mystery. Always give your readers the information that can dismiss the new clue somewhere in the text without making it obvious. For example, discovering the killer must have used their left hand to kill the victim might seem to clear a woman who always uses her right hand. But what if she was actually ambidextrous? Half the readers will wander off on the path that clears the woman, while the others might not be fooled by the accurate but not complete information. That’s the fun behind reading a mystery!

So how do you incorporate red herrings into your work? I’m glad you asked. They should be blended into the overall information you give to your readers. If it’s too straight-forward, the readers are distracted by the fumbling attempt to mislead them. Focus on giving the reader a reason to believe that something is the correct answer using information that is related yet does not factually implicate. Try reading some of the older mysteries such as Poirot, Miss Marple, and Perry Mason. You can even see them in old mysteries and detective shows on classic television.

A fascinating red herring example is Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. He’s constantly shown as a bad person throughout seven books until the last few chapters, where we finally learn that he has been trying to help Harry survive. All the red herrings are cleared up as we learn the truth, and the readers discover that the person they despised the most was the bravest person of all. That’s why Snape and, by extension, actor Alan Rickman went from evil villain to beloved savior.



About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.


I Just Love a Good Mystery: The Mystique of the Genre


Strength of Spirit_Amanda FaithA guest post by Amanda Faith.

I love a good mystery. Being the detective, following the clues, and arriving at the logical conclusion to catch the bad guy has always held such fascination to me. Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, Inspector Clouseau, Nancy Drew…these are but just a few of my childhood sleuths that I followed. I couldn’t get enough.

One of the largest draws for me was the fact that I could become part of the story. If the author did their job right, I had to work along side the detective to uncover the clues. It made me work. No, strike that. It would make me want to work.

There are some key elements in a great mystery that should be followed:

  1. A detective that engages the reader. No one wants to be bored reading nor should the detective be a twit.
  2. A solvable puzzle.
  3. A well-done setting
  4. Interesting characters. More than likely, there are several in the book.

Reading mysteries, I discovered that a great mystery has more than one mystery in it. Yes, it contains the “big question.” However, a great mystery also contains several smaller ones to keep the reader engaged, to bring more tension, more problem-solving opportunities, and more ways to introduce red herrings. It also brings depth to the main character (and sometimes the villain). Solving a crime is never neat and pretty. There are twists and turns, wrong assumptions, and initial wrong answers that help the reader stay intrigued. Sometimes it’s good in seeking the truth by showing a lie to propel the story forward.

A mystery must have stakes. There has to be an important, life-changing reason that the unanswered question needs to be answered. The question has to have meaning and weight or there would be no reason to pursue the answer. The greater the problem, the more the tension can grow.

Creating a good mystery can be challenging. There are a few things to keep in mind while writing.

  1. Start with the ending. I have discovered that if you know what the crime, who was involved, and how the bad guy gets caught is important. It will make it easier to create the story to make sure you get to the end game.
  2. A lot of exposition will kill a good mystery. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary. There has to be some exposition to move the story along. However, a good mystery engages the reader. They are part of the story. They are part of the crew to catch the bad guy. If a writer feeds them all the information, a reader will just toss the book aside, bored and hurt you didn’t let them be a part of the takedown.
  3. Do not be unrealistic with the conclusion. The clues, although challenging, cannot be so difficult that a reader cannot solve the case. You don’t want clues to be easy, either. No one reads to the middle of a book and stops. You need to take it all the way home. The reader should be able to go back and trace how things happened to discover how the detective came to the right answer at the end.
  4. Don’t make the conclusion stupid. I say this will all kindness, but things like the assistant figuring it out for the detective, there was an unknown twin, or arbitrarily have a key piece of information appear out of thin air. You can’t hide information. There has to be a hint of a clue somewhere prior to the time the detective unveils it.
  5. Introduce the criminal soon, and the detective sooner. Let the reader know within the first third of the book who the bad guy is so they feel they have enough time to solve the case.

Someone once told me that building a mystery is like the game Jenga (I wish I could remember who). Reach in, grab a block, and pull. Does the story stand? Did you watch it fall apart? This is where the edits come in. You will find all kinds of holes in your story during editing if your Jenga falls down before you get to the end.

I have discovered my love for mysteries has taking me to read about all kinds of mysteries, including real ones. Take the Egyptian Pyrimads, the ruins of Chichen Itza and Puma Punku, or the Lost City of Atlantis. How about the real cases of Jack the Ripper? Amelia Earheart? All of these real-life areas hold a sense of mystery for me. I find that I become lost in the clues and read about what researchers discover.

There are a lot of wonderful authors that transport the reader down a road to uncover the clues and catch the bad guy. Maybe the mystery can be the reader discovering their next great book to help them escape…if only for a little while.

Guest Writer Bio:
Amanda FaithTeaching high school English by day, college English by night, writing, and doing paranormal investigations doesn’t slow her down from having a great time with a plethora of hobbies. Her published credits include short stories, poetry, several journal articles, her doctoral dissertation, and her award-winning book Strength of Spirit. She is a staff writer for The Daily Dragon at Dragon Con and an intern for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta at WordFire Press. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Masters in Education-English, and a Doctorate in Education-Teacher Leadership. Check out her website at www.amandafaith.net.

The Elements of a Good Mystery

Guest Post by Gail Bowen

Bowen pic3Aesop’s tale of the fox and the lion is often credited with being the first mystery.  Remember the story of the King of the Beasts summoning the lesser animals into his den?  All the animals trot in happily. Only the wily fox refuses.  When the Lion asks the fox why he fails to do what his fellow creatures have done, the fox says simply: “I see many footprints going into your den, but none coming out.”

In this simple tale we see many of the elements of the mystery.

l.   Mysteries are plot-driven. They give readers a story.  There’s a fair play rule in mysteries. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery, and that means the reader is engaged. There’s a reason mysteries are called “page turners’.

In a good mystery, there is always an “aha’ moment. When the Lion asks the fox why he doesn’t follow the example of theBowen cover 2 other animals, and the fox says, “I see many footprints going into your den, but none coming out,” that’s the fox’s and the reader’s “aha moment’.

2.  Mystery writers take the problem of good and evil seriously.  In the enduring popularity of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, we see good and evil personified in Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty.  When the two meet at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls and wrestle till they fall over the falls together, the arch villain plunging to his death and the detective miraculously escaping with his life, we see law triumphing over lawlessness and good triumphing over evil.

In mysteries, after a fair fight, good always wins and evil is punished.

3.  Mysteries are a very accommodating genre.  Mysteries offer something for everyone: police procedurals, forensics, cozies, character driven series; studies in aberrant psychology.  As long as the writer plays fair with the reader and some sort of rough justice is meted out at the end, the mystery writer can do pretty much what he or she wants.

4. People like series, and many mystery writers choose to create series.  

Peter Robinson and I were on Shelagh Rogers show last year talking about mysteries and whether we felt as a genre writers we were relegated to sit at the kids’ table at the great literary banquet. Peter and I have been writing for about the same amount of time -around twenty years-so we know something about publishing.  With a series, your backlist stays in print, your readers are loyal; they will forgive you a book that they don’t particularly care for and look forward eagerly to the next book.

The Gifted Gail Bowen book jacketThere’s also the fact that in a stand-alone book, a writer gets maybe 380 pages to create a world.  The Gifted, which will be published in August 2013 is my 14th book, and that means I’ve had 5,000 pages in which to develop my protagonist Joanne Kilbourn-Shreve’s character.  Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks has appeared in 19 novels. Rex Stout wrote 46 Nero Wolfe novels and an equal number of novellas. Conan Doyle wrote 4 Sherlock Holmes and 56 short stories. As you can see, writing a series is very rewarding for a writer.

5.  People are drawn to a protagonist and they become loyal to him or her.   Last year I had to write a piece about Buried Treasures in crime fiction for the Globe and Mail and I wrote about the Nero Wolfe cook-book. Nero Wolfe is my all-time favourite detective and I’m not alone in my affection for him. Not only is there a Nero Wolfe cookbook; there’s a brilliant biography of Nero Wolfe by the cultural historian Jacques Barzun and endless scholarly papers and squabbles.  The Nero Wolfe books are very well written.  In the Globe and Mail article I admitted to lusting after Nero Wolfe – “tireless talker endowed with a touch of Johnsonian genius”, a grower of orchids, a brilliant detective and a great and discerning expert on food.”

I’m not sure that anyone lusts after my protagonist Joanne Kilbourn-Shreve, but I do know that I get at least ten very nice emails a week from people who are reading and enjoying the series.

I didn’t set out to become a mystery writer. By training I’m an academic who spent her professional life teaching Canadian Literature and creative writing.   That said, I’m very glad the adventure of mystery writing came my way.


Gail Bowen’s mystery book series features Joanne Kilbourn, a university professor, sometime political columnist, and a wife, mother and grandmother. Her 14th Joanne Kilbourn novel will be released in August 2013.  In June 2008, Reader’s Digest named Bowen “Canada’s Best Mystery Novelist’. To learn more about Gail’s books and to read her blog, visit her website http://gailbowen.com/ .