We all know the expression, “tried and true” – something that has been shown over time to be reliable. As a writer, it is easy to fall back on the same thing you have written before: plot devices, characters, twists for the readers, structure of chapters and stories. We LIKE these things and it is easy to become convinced that since it worked once it will always work the same way in the future. We must be careful, though, that “tried” doesn’t become “tired” or even “trite.”
Let me give you an example: my wife likes mysteries. We own every season of Monk, every season of Columbo, a season or two of Murder: She Wrote and the first season of the British mystery series Poirot from the 1980s (based on the fictional 1930s detective Hercule Poirot created by Agatha Christie). We received the first season as a gift and found that it was quirky and moderately entertaining. Someone loaned us the second season. We have watched seven of the ten episodes and I can conclusively declare (***spoiler alert here***) that every one of the second season episodes is built upon the same basic premise: the alleged victim of the crime is actually the guilty party.
- Episode 1-2 (a two parter) has someone pretending to be the target of a murder plot so that when they murder someone nearby it might be viewed as a failed attempt on them.
- Episode 3 has someone claiming to be the victim of a blackmail scheme so they can get Poirot to break into someone else’s house and steal something for them.
- Episode 4 has a banker who might potentially suffer great loss because a man has died actually being responsible for his death.
- Episode 5 has the alleged victim of a stalking (target of unwanted attention) actually being the person who pursued a relationship to kill the “stalker” and profit. (this one is furthest from the concept but still somewhat fits the pattern)
- Episode 6 has a man who disappeared as a suspected victim of foul play turn out to be a swindler who has faked his own disappearance in an attempt to evade responsibility for his actions and frame a financial rival.
- Episode 7 has the victims of a theft actually involved in a complicated scheme to steal from themselves so that they can pocket the money and the valuables.
See what I mean? Every episode uses a rather similar “guilty victim” premise. I’m sure the writers thought that the framework they built around each of the episodes was enough to disguise the fact that they were all at their heart the same narrative twist, but it wasn’t. The episodes come across (to me) as lazy and formulaic. I am striving to keep my writing from becoming tired or repetitive, and watching these over the past week has driven this home in a way that no advice ever could.