Friday, February 12, 2010

Plot Your Crime Story Like "Jeopardy"

Yes, the TV game show. No, I'm not kidding.

"Jeopardy," the classic answers-and-questions game has a three-act structure that's perfectly suited for crime fiction.

Think about it.

The show opens, revealing three players at podiums. The player on our left is the champion, having won the most money on the prior show. An off-stage announcer introduces them by name, occupation, and home city. The host, Alex Trebek, announces, "Let's start the Jeopardy round!" Then they play until the first commercial break.

What have we learned? We are presented with a set of characters about whom we know little beyond our first impressions. We see the contestants in action right away. We form opinions. That one is aggressive on the ringing-in button. This one is too timid to make it to the end. Will our first impressions be turned on their heads? All the while, we're playing along, trying to outwit the contestants.

If the chapters of your novel are the same length as mine, this will take you through about chapter five.

After the first commercial break, Alex Trebek formally introduces the contestants and chats with each about a humorous or unusual aspect of the contestant's life. Now armed with new information, we continue the game until and the next commercial break.

The drama is in full play. The first act concludes. We're up to chapters ten through fifteen.

We begin Double Jeopardy. The second act. The money riding on each response is doubled. The stakes are higher. The plot thickens. We've developed firm opinions about the players, but they continue to surprise us.

After another commercial, the contestants race to the end of Double Jeopardy, well into the third act. Fates are cast. Maybe there's room for a stunning victory or a contestant might be kicked to the curb.

Then, Final Jeopardy--the thrilling conclusion. The close games are the most exciting, when everything hinges on a final response and how wisely the contestant has wagered. You applaud some contestants for their wisdom, scorn others for their timidity or stupidity. If someone wins largely on luck, we're less inclined to root for that champion going forward. We like our champions to have brains, skill, and pluck--and like them to be a bit flawed. If they are too assured, too perfect, we admire them but are more engaged if we see their human foibles. At the end, everyone applauds.

And we're primed to do it all again tomorrow.


  1. Pretty slick. Jeopardy is a "mystery" itself and has all the elements of storytelling critical to good writing.

  2. You just started this blog, DE? Good! I thought I had overlooked listing it my blogroll.

    Just remember: Blogging is Hard Work. Not just for non-writers like me. Quality posting over quantity.

  3. Thanks, Cafe! Yes, I just launched this blog last week. Thanks for the tip. I'm adding you to my blogroll.