What "Law and Order" is Teaching Me About Plotting

A couple of months ago, my family decided to change our cable provider. The one we’d had caused our cable and Internet to go out during high-wind situations (though, curiously, we kept both TV and Internet during Hurricane Sandy) or heavy rainstorms or just for the hell of it. So, when a new cable provider moved into town, we jumped.

Of course, this means that many of the cable channels we have are on differently numbered channels. The package we got with the new cable company is a little bit different to the one we had.

We’ve been watching a lot of Law & Order.

I mean, a LOT of Law & Order.

L&O is pretty much on every channel at any given time of day. My dad and I have noticed a plethora of funny stuff. Like how a lot of the criminals on L&O live in Queens. Or how you should never look in dumpsters in the city, apparently. Or under the stairs of brownstones, leading to basement apartments. Or in the woods in Central Park.

I’ve had a lot of trouble getting the whole how-to-plot-thing down. Characters come naturally to me, setting, premise, time period, dialogue–those are, for me, the easy things. Conflict doesn’t come as easily, which means that plot, which is basically all conflict, has been a bitch to figure out.

I’m sure everyone has seen the classic pyramid of storytelling, with the peak (climax) in the exact center. I’ve found that it doesn’t really work like that, so I like this graphic better:

From Tv Tropes: 3 Act Structure
For a Law & Order episode, it might go like this:
Act One:
Exposition: The opening scene. A woman walks down a Manhattan street. A garbage man makes his rounds. Whatever. The Inciting Incident (what kicks off the story) is always the discovery of that episode’s victim. 
Act One continues with the preliminary investigation: what does the Medical Examiner say? Who is the victim? Are there relatives who need to be notified? Who are the suspects? 
Plot Points differ based on the point of the episode. Maybe the initial suspect, who was let go, looks good. Or the victim is lying. Or the weapon is finally found. 
Act Two:
Rising Action: The investigation deepens. The lawyers are brought in. 
Setback: Ah, but the suspect’s confession was coerced/becomes inadmissible in court because he wasn’t Mirandized/and the police still can’t find the weapon/or a strong motive.
In most episodes, this is where the police part of the story fades and the district attorney’s office takes over. Sometimes they struggle with the case–lack of evidence or a really strong defense attorney or an unsympathetic judge. 
As they say on the kids’ show Gaspard and Lisa: “Catastrophe!”
Plot Point Two: once again, dependent on the episode. In a novel, our hero would be preparing for the climax. 
Act Three:
Courtroom dramatics, usually. The issue or case in the episode aids in the climax. 
Falling action: The jury returns a verdict. The suspect is sentenced. 
Denouement: The assistant district attorneys are at a bar after the trial ends, celebrating their victory. 
Now, go break down your favorite book in Three Acts. 
Also, something else L&O has taught me. 
Don’t shoe-horn in characters’ backstory because it will always, always come out awkward. The backstory has to be woven in just enough so that we gain insight into the character every so often. I don’t feel that L&O does characters moments that well. For instance…watch this one ’til the end guys. Keep in the mind that there were no (some people claim there were, but I didn’t see any) clues to this development in the character. 
In other words, don’t just spring random things into your novel. I’m guilty of this one. 

4 thoughts on “What "Law and Order" is Teaching Me About Plotting

  1. Hahaha, Serena's parting line, aka \”The ….BUH?! heard 'round the world\”. I do love Law & Order so very much. (Jerry Orbach once called me when I was in the hospital when I was 17, true story.) I also much prefer the location of the climax in the three-act structure. For me, it just doesn't feel right picturing the climax in the center of anything.


  2. Yes! I saw it a couple of weeks ago and basically fell into a massive giggle because it was like being side-swiped. Jerry Orbach called you once? That's awesome!And yeah, I was happy to see the graphic above because it made so much more sense to me that way. You can't climax in the middle of the second act! (Another lie my English teacher told me, but I won't mention that)


  3. Yes! Love the graphic. I mean…I get the pyramid, I just don't know why they drew it that way. I mean, do they think people are going to be confused if they just drew it right to begin with? People are weird. I'm sure I've seen Law & Order…I know I have. I switched my provider a few months ago and my television has pretty much been stuck on TBS. I have TWO TBS stations. East and West. It's great. Lol!


  4. Two TBS? Lol! I just figured out where our OnDemand is yesterday. Cable is so confusing sometimes. I was looking through that Periodic Table of Storytelling–have you seen it?–and clicked through on 3-Act Structure and saw that graphic. It's a perfect graphic, really.


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