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College 101: Getting Into the Mystery Genre

I’m earning my BFA in Screenwriting. I’ve always loved movies and TV shows, ever since I was little, and right now I am pursuing my dream. I like all kinds of movies, but my favorites are mysteries, and I want to write them. An artist has to know his art, right? So I try to watch everything. I fell in love with noirs like “Chinatown,” “LA Confidential,” and even “The Big Sleep.” Now, I have gotten into TV. I’m thinking seriously about writing for television. I’ve watched the classics like “X-Files” and newer masterpieces like “Stranger Things” and “True Detective.” But now, I am looking to branch out. What mysteries would you recommend that are a little off the beaten path, that might have flown under the radar of even a film-nut like myself?

We live in the Golden Age of Television, with shows to suit every taste available in any place. Even a celluloid junky, to use an anachronism, can’t be expected to know every show. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, or brain cells in the head, even if you are only interested in one genre such as mystery. Fortunately, we pared down the great forest of television to a few suggestions, which can help lead you on the path to becoming a better screenwriter.

British TV has boomed in popularity in the United States, with shows like Sherlock reaching audiences of millions. But if you dig under the surface, some of the best work includes historical mysteries in dialogue with England’s past. Shows like Grandchester, set in a Cambridgeshire village in the 1950’s, and Ripper Street, set in the Whitechapel District of London in 1888, weave together real and historical events to create engaging drama. This side of the Atlantic is also rich with history, and by watching this work you can learn how to work that type of rich source material into your storytelling.

And don’t overlook animated works. There are plenty of animated TV shows, which include both western-style and anime, that can be considered mysteries. Western-style animated shows tend to have a funnier slant, and include for-kids-but-not-really shows like Gravity Falls. Anime has an especially strong mystery tradition, with many anime mysteries having supernatural or horror elements tied in to them. If you research what anime to watch, you’ll turn up a surfeit of shows from supernatural thrillers like Another to comical historical mysteries like Baccano! to procedural dramas like Monster. Animated work might not be the first thing you think of if you want to write mysteries, but you would be remiss to skip the experimentation that happens when the actors become lines on a page.

Finally, the genre of “mystery” is broad, and there are many shows that may not be considered mysteries but have mystery elements to them which can aid you in your writing. One famous pseudo-mystery is the cult-classic Twin Peaks, a show created by psychological horror maestro David Lynch which ran for just two seasons in the early 90’s (although it recently got a revival). True crime has also become a popular genre over the past few years, and true crime shows often incorporate elements of mystery to keep the audience engaged. True crime spans shows from the drama-documentary Murder Maps, which reenacts the most surprising murders in history, to more purely documentary true crime shows like Making a Murder and Evil Genius. The aspect of these shows that keeps us engaged is not only the horrific nature of the crimes — although we certainly watch for the rubbernecking aspect — but the ways in which these shows utilize elements of storytelling to make crimes from years ago seem fresh, new, and utterly captivating. A great screenwriter needs to learn the art of storytelling, and a great storyteller will find stories everywhere they look.


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