Diana Black: Want to Capture & Hold TV Viewers? Write a Mystery!

by Diana Black

Have you played the ‘mystery’ board game “Clue” or the code breaking “Master Mind? What of the ‘super sleuth’ created by the novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes – now a franchise with movies, TV shows and video games. What about the plethora of other computer games and television programs all associated with… you guessed it – solving mysteries?

Focusing on ‘the little screen’ – television and more broadly, the web, which now ‘delivers’ across a diverse array of media platforms, writing in this genre ensures you’ll always have an audience eager for more IF your writing delivers an excruciatingly intense mystery and the screenplay itself, being a ‘page-turner’.

In this the mystery genre more than any other, the viewer must pay close attention if they’re to unravel the mystery and solve the puzzle. So what are we to consider if we’re to write mysteries? Well, apart from leading with a very strong ‘hook’, which is a given, there’s the following…

The ‘Physical Setting’ can be pleasant, ambivalent or malevolent – the environment is a character. A drama set in this landscape can be either ‘contained’ such as the British mini-series adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel by Sarah Phelps, And Then There Were None, or ‘labyrinthine’ – in space, such as Sliders, or across time, such as Labyrinth.

Many characters are suspect, and all are unpredictable. Their modus operandi, singular or in combination,may include:

Lying
Cheating
Manipulating
Being naive
Murdering
Thieving
Tricking
Helping
And, of course, more.

There’s one character you would be wise to include, although they’re never really “in the frame,” the Viewer.

You want the Viewer paying attention and trying to solve the mystery just as if she or he were a character in the story. For viewers to invest their time and effort, either watching weekly or binging, they must be enticed to figure things out along with the other characters.

If you give the Viewer some special, privileged info, well, that’s gold designed to involve them so much that they will want to jump into the screen screaming, “No, you idiot, it’s…!”

The Plot – twisted, spiraling, or linear – must contain blind alleys and surprises. Clues can be real ‘breadcrumbs’ leading the way ‘out’, or ‘red herrings’ that lead nowhere or into dark places – not necessarily a physical place. ‘Dark places’ can include the mindset of the characters.

The stakes must be high so we’re forced to solve the mystery with challenges that on the surface seem inextricable but the real problem lies underneath. We can have multiple ‘solutions’ all of which except one of them ultimately fail…

For dialogue to be suspenseful, lace it with: innuendo, lies, truths, predictions, SUBTEXT, the withholding of information, and contradictions between characters.

Scene structure should have the Viewer coming in late, and forced to leave early. For a Pilot, the tension needs to escalate and end with a cliffhanger but within the series episodes… deliver on the set-ups you created in the Pilot, by paying- them off throughout the episodes.


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer who frequently contributes to TVWriter™. (She used to contribute more frequently, but then she moved to Hawaii. Go figure.)