Bomb Under the Table

“Hello, Susan my wife and fulltime housewife who helps the local Daisy scouts bake cookies. I see you are coming in holding a cup of coffee.”
“Hello, Brian my husband of five years who watches football on TV in his underpants and leaves his dirty socks on the floor. How was your day at the law firm where you work as an associate attorney for a female boss who disrespects you?”

Most books on script writing teach you not to write this way. It is clumsy and dull and uninventive. Having all the explanations spelled out in the conversations is just lazy scriptwriting.

This is why I have little respect for the celebrated Japanese animated movie Ghost in the Shell. Although the movie is visually awesome and the plot twists are interesting, the movie proceeds with characters either explaining things to each other or shooting at each other. They do nothing else.

But that is just an animated movie. What about the popular TV program Criminal Minds? This program is strangely entertaining in spite of the fact that the format always involves FBI agents explaining things to each other. Visuals of ghastly criminal acts periodically break the monotony of the constant explaining. And I have recently been wondering how they do it.

The plot typically involves a serial killer who is discovered only because some clue, perhaps a body or a burial site, is found. The killer is still on the loose and is looking for the next victim or already has the next victim captive. It is the job of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit to find the killer by analyzing his patterns and motives before the next victim is killed. Since most of the deduction and profiling involves brainy theorizing, the cast is constantly throwing their theories at each other.

Not surprisingly, the three Emmys the series have been nominated for are all for stunt work and not for script writing. The viewer is taken in because of the concern for the next victim in distress and the ghastly fate that is clearly waiting for them. We do not want the poor attractive girl to turn into that bloody mess we witnessed in the opening scene. Then we get irritated at the BAU team, all of whom wear dour, stony faces, fumbling with the wrong theory about the perpetrator.

And that is their secret. They spend most of the show explaining things to each other, but the stuff they explain are almost always wrong at first. They usually switch theories three times before they finally get it right. We the viewer who have already seen the murder take place, already have some insight into what is going on. The behavioral profilers, on the other hand, must fumble through wrong leads and do quick turnarounds as new evidence become available.

The key words you hear most often is “what if”. What if we were wrong about this case all along? What if the killer is not a violent schizophrenic but a victim of an abusive childhood or vice versa? What if this is not a crime of passion but a murder of a methodical nature? The “what ifs” redirects the investigation in the right path, at least by the second try. This is one of the things that make Criminal Minds bearable. In spite of the constant explaining, the story is based on the traditional crime mystery format in which information is stingily provided drop by drop. We find a new clue here and another one there. Add them together and see if they fit.

The structure of the show is what is called the “bomb under the table” method. The audience can see the bomb ticking but the cast cannot. We nervously watch the cast wander about as the bomb keeps ticking. Criminal Minds demonstrates that a simple gimmick like “bomb under the table” can pretty much mask an inherent flaw like the constant cross explaining. The show is helped by the presence of relatable characters and realistic emotions. It also takes advantage of common fears of modern society like child abductions. The graphic imagery, the car chases and the shootouts do not hurt either.

The bottom line is that having a fixed story structure works, and that working within its confines can keep the viewers coming back to the brand because they know what to expect and they get a consistent quality in the show. That may be something to keep in mind in this age of serial genre fiction.

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