How I Write Mysteries

Today, I’m not. My arm is killing me, my back is sore… and I’m taking care of my daughter today. But the work is certainly still on my mind (How can it not be with a MISSING script to finish and DIAGNOSIS MURDER book due in 12 weeks?).

I’m often asked “how do you write a mystery?” Here’s an article I wrote to answer that question. It originally appeared in, I think, an issue of Mystery Readers Journal and several other publications in one form or another, before ending up in our book Successful Television Writing.

Writing Diagnosis Murder

Every week on “Diagnosis Murder,” Dr. Mark Sloan is able to unravel a puzzling murder by using clever deductions and good medicine to unmask the killer.

I wish I could say that he’s able to do that because of my astonishing knowledge of medicine, but it’s not.
I’m just a writer.

I know as much about being a doctor as I do about being a private eye, a lifeguard, a submarine Captain, or a werewolf… and I’ve written and produced TV shows about all of them, too.

What I do is tell stories. And what I don’t know, I usually make up…or call an expert to tell me.
Writing mysteries is, by far, the hardest writing I’ve had to do in television. Writing a medical mystery is even harder. On most TV shows, you can just tell a good story. With mysteries, a good story isn’t enough, you also need a challenging puzzle. It’s twice as much work for the same money.

We always begin developing an episode the same way – we come up with an “arena,” the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once we have the arena, we talk about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters.

And then we ask ourselves the big questions – who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? How we solve that murder depends on whether we are writing an open or closed mystery.

Whether the murder is “open,” meaning the audience knows whodunit from the start, or whether it is “closed,” meaning we find out who the killer is the same time that the hero does, is dictated by the series concept. “Columbo” mysteries are always open, “Murder She Wrote” was always closed, and “Diagnosis Murder” mixes both. An open mystery works when both the murderer, and the audience, think the perfect crime has been committed. The pleasure is watched the detective unravel the crime, and find the flaws you didn’t see. A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it.

In plotting the episode, the actual murder is the last thing we explore, once we’ve settled on the arena and devised some interesting characters. Once we figure out who to kill and how, then we start asking ourselves what the killer did wrong. We need a number of clues, some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and clues which point to our murderer. The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as well call it, the “ah-ha!,” the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve the crime – but still leaves the audience in the dark.

The finish clue is the hardest part of writing a “Diagnosis Murder” episode – because it has to be something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to everybody, but definitive enough that the audience will be satisfied when we nail the murderer with it.

A “Diagnosis Murder” episode is a manipulation of information, a game that’s played on the audience. Once you have the rigid frame of the puzzle, you have to hide the puzzle so the audience isn’t aware they are being manipulated. It’s less about concealment than it is about distraction. If you do it right, the audience is so caught up in the conflict and drama of the story, they aren’t aware that they are being constantly misdirected.

The difficulty, the sheer, agonizing torture, of writing “Diagnosis Murder” is telling a good story while, at the same time, constructing a challenging puzzle. To me, the story is more important than the puzzle — the show should be driven by character conflict, not our need to reveal clues. The revelations should come naturally out of character, because people watch television to see interesting people in interesting situations…not to solve puzzles. A mystery, without the character and story, isn’t very entertaining.

In my experience, the best “ah-ha!” clues come from character, not from mere forensics – for instance, we discover Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean freak, should couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew.

But this is a series about a doctor who solves crimes. Medicine has to be as important as character-based clues. So we try to mix them together. The medical clue comes out of character.

So how do we come up with that clever bit of medicine?

First, we decide what function or purpose the medical clue has to serve, and how it is linked to our killer, then we make a call to an expert to help us find us the right malady, drug, or condition that fits our story needs. If one of our paid, medical consultants doesn’t know the answer, we go to the source. If it’s an episode about infectious diseases, for instance, we might call the Centers for Disease Control. If it’s a forensic question, we might call the medical examiner. If it’s a drug question, we’ll call a pharmaceutical company. It all depends on the story. And more often than not, whoever we find is glad to answer our questions.

For instance, in one episode there’s a terrible bus accident and the passengers are trapped inside. Once they are freed, paramedics discover one of the passengers is dead. What Dr. Mark Sloan discovers is that the accident didn’t kill the passenger… the man was murdered. The killer had to be one of the passengers, since they were all trapped inside after the accident. So someone killed the person in the five minutes after the accident and before the paramedics arrived and hoped the death would be blamed on the crash.
We knew we needed a medical clue that Dr. Sloan could find that would reveal the man’s death was actually murder, not a result of the bus crash. So we called our medical consultant, Dr. Gus Silva, and gave him the details. He called some of his fellow doctors and got back to us an hour later with the forensic clues we needed.

One of the paramedics in the episode is cocky, self-confident, and studying for med school entrance exams. Dr. Sloan, to help her out, gives her a pop quiz, asking her four questions. She gets one of them wrong, but Dr. Sloan won’t tell her which one because he wants her to figure it out for herself.

We thought it would be clever if Dr. Sloan realizes she’s the killer because she made the same mistake committing the murder that she makes in his pop quiz… in other words, her mistake comes from the same cockiness and over-confidence she demonstrates in her zeal to become a doctor. We went ahead and plotted the story, but relied on Dr. Silva to get back to us with just the right, subtle medical mistake that would trip the paramedic up.

The viewer enjoys the game as long as you play fair…as long as they feel they had the chance to solve the mystery, too. Even if they do solve it ahead of your detective, if it was a difficult and challenging mystery, they feel smart and don’t feel cheated. They are satisfied, even if they aren’t surprised.

If Dr. Sloan catches the killer because of some arcane medical fact you’d have to be an expert to catch, then we’ve failed and you won’t watch the show again.

The medical clue has to be clever, but it can’t be so obscure that you don’t have a chance to notice it for yourself, even if you aren’t an M.D. And it has to come out of character, so even if you do miss the clue, it’s consistent with, and arises from, a character’s behavior you can identify.

To play fair, all the clues and discoveries have to be shared with the audience at the same time that the hero finds them. There’s nothing worse than with-holding clues from the audience – and the sad thing is, most mysteries on television do it all the time. The writers do it because playing fair is much, much harder than cheating. If you have the hero get the vital information off screen, during a commercial, the story is a lot easier to plot and the writing staff can eat out for lunch instead of having pizza delivered again…and being stuck in a story conference for six more hours.

But when “Diagnosis Murder” episode works, when the mystery is tight, and the audience is fairly and honestly fooled, it makes all the hours of painful plotting worthwhile.

That, and the residual check.

1 thought on “How I Write Mysteries”

  1. No wonder I love your books so much. I could have written this from the perspective of what I like to read in a mystery. And this applies to books just as much as TV.


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