Talking about Law & Order yesterday rekindled a continuing curiosity in my mind. It is a miniscule issue at best, which, as is my wont, I shall now blow out of proportion to its importance by addressing it.
I have this gift for inflating nonentical concerns – valuable for a blog writer; perhaps less so for a blog reader. But when you have a talent, however inconsequential, it seems advisable to exploit it, as it is impossible to exploit a talent you do not have, and you have to exploit something, don’t you?
Okay. So let’s begin with some indisputable common ground: Every story has an ending.
Otherwise, you’re listening to a story for twenty years and it’s like, “Come…onnnnnn!!!”
All stories end sometimes. The question then for the writer to address is:
Let’s break this down a little.
First, a story – especially a mystery – doesn’t just have to end. “The End” is the minimum… so you can go on to other things. A grade “up” from the minimum: The story has to end satisfactorily. Not just “The End”, but a “The End” that makes the effort of reading (or watching) that story meaningful, enjoyable and rewarding. Time well spent, rather than “Reading (or watching) it made me older, but that’s it.”
An essential component in a satisfying conclusion – You see how I am building this argument? It’s like I’m constructing an edifice! – is that the story’s ending is somehow inherent in the narrative, rather than hurriedly tacked on to the last page (or scene), as if the publisher (or producer) said, “You have exactly two hundred and fifty pages (or two hours) to complete this story, and when you get there, that’s it!”
No. The most respected storytellers sew the seeds of the resolution into the fabric of their narratives. Think: Agatha Christie. You are surprised when the murderer is climactically revealed, but you also exclaim – slapping your palm to your forehead being optional – “Of course!”
A great fictional detective has ferreted out the truth. And, if the reader were themselves a great detective, they could have ferreted it out as well. Because the evidence was all there. Not screamingly obvious – except, perhaps, in retrospect – but there had been nothing held back, revealed only at the last minute when the suspects are all assembled in the “Drawing Room”, awaiting the denouement. That’s what bad mysteries do.
“For a long while, I was confused as to the identity of the murderer. But then one night, I passed their open bedroom door, and they confessed to it in their sleep.”
That is not a good mystery.
“Have you forgotten about Law & Order?”
I was just getting to it.
“Good. Because we have lives, you know.”
Okay. The “Question of the Day” relates indeed to Law & Order, but, more specifically, to my shamefully “Guilty Pleasure”, Law & Order: SVU. More on that later. But first…
Both Law & Order incarnations are mysteries. Although, in the original Law & Order, the real mystery is not necessarily, “Whodunit”, but, especially in the cases where the defendant admits to their guilt but has, their attorney believes, an exculpatory explanation,
“How is the jury is going to decide?”
My question in that regard is…
Okay, lemme say this first.
The Law & Order franchise is respectably written. (Especially the earlier episodes before they run out of stories but keep telling them anyway.) Being respectably written, the episode’s uncertain outcome is maintained to the very end.
In the original Law & Order, you have no idea how the jury is going to vote: “Guilty.” “Not guilty.” “Guilty, but of a lesser charge”, diminishing the penalty. “Or “Your Honor, the jury is hopelessly deadlocked”, leading to a mistrial, which has the general consequence of “Not Guilty.”
My question in that regard is, given that, in order to hold our interest and attention, the episode’s resolution must be assiduously camouflaged, meaning it could reasonably resolve in favor of the prosecution or against them…
How do the writers decide, on a weekly basis, how that particular case is going to resolve?
I mean, it’s not Perry Mason, who always won. On the other hand, who’s going to watch a show where the protagonist always loses?
“That guy is one terrible attorney.”
The determination must lie be somewhere in the middle, as in, “Sometimes, you win; sometimes, you lose.” The question is, “How often do you do which? And when?”
“He lost last week. Let’s let him win this week.”
“So he wins every other week?”
“You’re right. It’s too predictable. Okay, he loses again.”
“So the guy’s a loser?”
“No. Man, this is a tough job!”
It seems to me that, if the show is meticulously constructed so that the determination can reasonably go either way, the decision concerning the ultimate outcome is entirely arbitrary.
How do they decide? It is not,
LAW & ORDER WRITERS: “We leave it up to the jury.”
(TO THE LAW & ORDER WRITERS): “You’re the jury.”
The writers literally “telling” the jury how to decide.
And with SVU, that decision comes with extenuating circumstances.
“Special Victims” stories invariably hinge on whether the accuser in a sexual assault case is telling the truth, or, for some ultimately revealed reason, they’re lying. The thing is, if they are always telling the truth, there goes the suspense. It’s simply…
Clank-Clank! – “They did it!”
However – and, despite its storytelling limitations, I cannot imagine the writers not taking this into consideration – every time an accuser in an episode turns out to be lying, it sends the message that, at least sometimes, accusers in sexual assault cases are lying. Which, considering the pressures against “coming forward” in real life… you can see where I’m going with that.
You’re a Law & Order writer. But you are also a responsible citizen. What do you do? Do you insist on telling the story whatever way you want to? Or do you jigger the resolution in the name of “sending the appropriate message” to the public?
Who knows? Maybe they just flip a coin.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a Law & Order writer out there who could actually tell me?