by Diana Black
Think back to every detective story you’ve seen on screen – big or small. Even the briefest recollection makes it abundantly clear that detective stories follow a pattern. All stories do, hence the term ‘genre’ – a specific form or style associated with a narrative.
All of those detective stories you’ve recollected vary in some way, but the ‘structural arcs’ (of the good ones) contain specific scenes we’ve come to expect in this genre. Without them the reader will dump your master-piece in the trash can and if the project is miraculously green-lit, the viewer will channel-surf. So those scenes had better be there.
You’ll find lists of the essential – one might in fact say “obligatory” – scenes for almost every type of story (and much more) in TVWriter™ honcho Larry Brody’s Booklet, “Storytelling Patterns in Genre Films”. No, it isn’t available on the web or in stores. You can’t pay for it anywhere. But you can get it as a Free Bonus Gift when you enter the PEOPLE’S PILOT COMPETITION…which is worth entering for many more reasons as well. But here’s a sample scene listing from the booklet, which by no coincidence whatsoever is exactly what this article is about:
DETECTIVE STORY PLOTLINE/PARADIGM
1. Introduce the Detective—scene and character set style & tone for
the rest of the movie.
2. Meet the Client; if not the Femme Fatale, then Wife and/or
Daughter who is.
3. First deception uncovered, usually perpetrated by Client.
4. Detective hassled by cops.
5. Detective beat up by crooks.
6. Detective connects with Femme Fatale at night club, casino, her
7. Detective meets with Master Crook, MC tries to buy him off.
8. Detective confronts client/Femme Fatale about deception, learns
another slice of truth or told a better lie.
9. Gunfight—one or two.
10. Detective connects seemingly irrelevant information, arrives at
11. Final confrontation with Master Crook and/or Femme Fatale,
Detective makes hard choices.
From Storytelling Patterns in Genre Films by Larry Brody
Diana Black, uh, back now, with my suggestion for the best way to use LB’s above info:
If you’re just starting out as a new writer with a new concept, theme and dramatic question rarin’ to go, read those 11 short sentences, let them simmer away in the back of your brain, and then try the following exercise – a series of questions focused on the overall structure LB’s booklet suggests.
The answers to these questions need not figure within the scene but it can inform the scene and as Quentin Tarantino has been known to say, “You, the writer must know everything there is to know about each character and the world they inhabit, even if the viewing audience doesn’t.” And more importantly, you are the creator. You can do what you damn well like – these are simply suggestions…
A couple of things… Firstly, ask yourself whose POV (point-of-view) the narrative follows. While, it’s a given there’s a crime puzzle/mystery to be solved, detective stories can also be seen as a character study – often of the Detective, and I’m going to assume so here. Secondly, ensure that you have set-ups and later pay-offs to each of those set-ups within the narrative arc.
An example: “I sure as hell am never going there/doing that – again!” And sure enough the character does – inadvertently or by being forced into it. Think of it in terms of dramatic irony. There’s a way to ensure that you pay off the set-up and chart the energy dynamics in your narrative arc – by using a Timeline…but that’s another article.
#1. Introduce the Detective – the opening scene and how we introduce this character will set the style and tone for the rest of narrative.
- Q. Why is he/she the only detective on the planet worth hiring?
What makes him or her brilliant?
Q. Alternatively, is your detective on the way down – a penniless Private Investigator or Private Eye or Dick (I’m going with “Dick” because I’m a Dick Tracy fan, and that’s where Tracy’s name comes from) with the ‘bottom of the barrel’ looming in front of them?
Why? And why did the Client, who we assume has done their ‘homework’, hire them in the first place?
- Q. How long has he/she been at this ‘game’?
Is he/she a hard-bitten, tired old cynic who just happens to be brilliant or a ‘new-blood’ rookie wanting to play with the big boys?
- Q. What is it about this particular Dick that makes them useful (to the Client)?
Do they have a specialty?
I would suggest gifting them with an amazing talent/skill-set – deeply-hidden/almost forgotten or, one that’s embarrassing – one that doesn’t always work; especially for the down-and-almost-out Dick or Rookie Dick.
- Q. What unique character traits does this Dick have?
Are they greedy or bad – if so, average or diabolical?
Are they saintly? Be careful – they must also have a dark side or they’ll be boring.
Are they sweet, endearing or idealistic? Again be wary of sugar- coating for the same reason.
When ‘shit hits the fan’ are they courageous and determined or cowardly? If so, how do they overcome that cowardice? They must or the audience will dislike them.
What secrets and vulnerabilities are they hiding? They must surface at some point and compromise their ability to do their job.
For example, they may be claustrophobic, into ladies underwear (pardon the pun), a drug addict (been done but always watchable), a sucker for hard-luck/lost causes…etc. Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict – hence his long-time association with Dr. Holmes but whatever he was into, it gave him heightened observational and analytical skills – an ‘edge’ compared to other sleuths; especially the dumb police constables (PCs).
What wounds will they carry to their grave?
Did they fail on the job?
Did they lose a loved one (via a crime) or are they hopelessly in love. Whatever… how does it compromise their ability?
#2. Meet the Client: if not a femme fatale, the wife and/or daughter (who may be).
- Q. Is the Client directly/indirectly a victim of the crime? Are they playing ‘victim’ because they’re hiding their own guilt or are they pro-active and determined?
- Q. Is he/she setting-up the Dick as a scapegoat?
Are they feeding the Dick ‘red herrings’ in order to cover up their own guilt? If so, have you determined (for you – at least for now), what underlying agenda the Client is masking? What are they guilty of?
- Q. Is the Client the objectified femme fatale?
As such they’re a stereotype – generally drop-dead gorgeous (eye candy), but with a seriously dangerous ‘dark-side’ (sultry, seductive) – not the girl you’d take home to Mother. If so, give them depth – make them multi-dimensional – as you did with the Dick, because it’s possible that this character is the real Antagonist to the Protagonist (Dick) and they’re just as important – because through their own actions and responses to the Dick they reveal the character traits of the Dick. So flesh this person out fully with a comprehensive back-story – secrets, wounds, a skill-set that compliments or contrasts with the Dick’s.
- Q. Is the Client the seriously clueless, loyal and grieving wife – who’s in for a hell of a shock over subsequent revelations (courtesy of the Dick) about her naughty husband? Tee-hee…what if she’s even naughtier?
- Q. Is the Client the loving daughter whose steely determination to get to the bottom of it all and find her beloved father (possible sexual undertones here) able to inspire the ailing or clueless Dick, who might also be falling for her?
- Q. What connection do they have with the ‘Master Criminal’ (the alleged perpetrator of the crime under investigation)?
Are they in cahoots, an ex-lover?
- Q. Is the Client ultimately responsible (deliberately or inadvertently) for bringing the sequence of events that caused the crime?
- Q. How are you going to demonstrate (show/tell) via dialogue and action, the above for both the Dick and the Client (all principle characters)? Regarding the dialogue – it’s often more a matter of what they don’t say that ‘speaks volumes’. They often lie – what they’re saying is not
what they’re thinking and we can just get a sense of that and voila – you have subtext. The actors (the good ones) – even in the table-read, will be playing the subtext, not the dialogue on the page – there should always be an underlying agenda…so give the actors a break and enable
them to determine the subtext with ease (generally alluded to via action).
#2a Bring in the Criminal?
You could go either way with the Master Criminal – introduce them early or as Larry suggests, later (preferred). If introduced early, he/she is competing with the Dick and the Client – ‘too much information’ in the opening sequence. Or, if you insist, introduce them quickly and decisively – establishing them as a serious ‘bad-ass’.
If you’re going to do that – use them as a shock factor and then leave them out of the picture for a while – we know we’re going to have to face that ‘bad-ass’ at some point and if absent, their malevolence hangs over the narrative and when alluded to in the dialogue – their reputation builds. If we’ve created a cute, lovable Rookie Dick – all the more reason to be deeply concerned for him/her. Don’t forget all principle characters need to be lovable in some way, even the ones we love to hate.
In the opening scene – is there a minimum of exposition – we need action here that may include set-ups… it must be a ‘page turner’!
- Q. Is the setting unusual, stunning?
How does it relate to the history/back-story of this narrative?
Remember, ‘enter late and leave early’. Is the setting deceptively ordinary? If so, what is
underlying this scene that’s uncanny, potentially dangerous?
As LB has said in his classes, the opening scene and character introductions set the tone for the entire narrative – not just the plot. They have to be unique in comparison to whatever else is out there in TV, Movie or Storybook land.
You have, as a matter of course, given each of the principle characters physical attributes that in some way reflect their character – including speech patterns, mannerisms, how they walk, eat etc. so there’s no need to do that here.
Don’t despair. There’s more to come in Part 2 – tomorrow!