What I learned from Veronica Mars
by Elle Strauss
If you haven’t watched the first season of Veronica Mars, you really should. I’m saying this as a writer. Nothing like learning from those who got a lot of things right, and the writers of Veronica Mars got a lot of things right. Here’s a list:
1) Intriguing premise. (a high school girl turned sleuth who works for her disgraced sheriff father turned PI.)
2) A primary mystery (Who killed Lilly Kane?) Plus several smaller secondary mysteries.
3) Terrific characters. I especially love the genuine, caring father/daughter relationship
4) Great dialogue. Witty, clever and believable
5) Juicy romance.
6) A terrific romantic twist (oh my gosh). It doesn’t hit until well into the season and is unexpected but believable. (Important point on pacing.)
7) Well-placed and effective red-herrings. Everyone is a believable suspect at some point.
8) A well-disguised killer. We don’t even meet him until the 6th episode but his violent tendencies (and his flare for women) are gradually revealed as the season unfolds so that when he’s revealed, we totally believe it.
I watched Veronica Mars when I was working on Perception and it really helped me to build the mystery component of the story. First I watched the complete season, then I re-watched it taking notes on each episode. Then I created another document summarizing the notes. Thorough analysis would take more room than I have here. I could probably teach a course on it J
Here are my actual notes from the pilot to give you an example:
Ep 1 Pilot
Set up scene doesn’t talk about protag and back story – she’s giving her opinion on a current situation, the place she’s casing.
Into first bad/good guy, they don’t like each other (weevil) but no explanation of who he is or why he and his bike gang show up.
Scene cuts to 20 hrs earlier to high school where we learn a bit about ecosystem of the schoo . VM rescues the new boy (who becomes MC’s best friend).
She breaks down the who’s who in the circle she’s no longer part of (still don’t know why, creates sense of mystery)
The old boyfriend, Duncan, random others, and then the jerk wad/ guy who secretly has something for her, Logan, even though he won’t’ admit it to himself because she is a) his best friend’s old girlfriend and b) he blames her for something bad that happened—we don’t know this yet. The way he doesn’t ignore her like the rest of them do but disguises his interest by teasing her). She just despises him.
The new guy, Wallace, tries to friend her, she turns him away then invites him back.
Enter bad guy from opening scene- he’s the one who tied the new boy to the flagpole, not sure why yet, he did this. VM butts in, he turns on her. She smart mouths them until the principle shows up.
Wallace tells her why Weevil is after him (in flash back) This is the episode mystery, ( not cataloguing, only the overall story arc.)
Old boyfriend’s mom is talking with her dad the PI. She makes it clear that she doesn’t like them, but that she knows they are best for her job. We don’t know why- creates more questions.
Meet the Dad, Keith, for the first time. We don’t know it yet, but these two are a great father/daughter team.
VM mentions that her dad tried to send the woman’s husband , Jake Kane, to jail for life, raising more questions.
Back story on Jake Kane. And family. Hear about Lilly Kane, her best friend. She tells her she has a secret but doesn’t tell her what. Lilly is also Logan’s girlfriend.
Now we find out what the murder mystery is. Lilly Kane is dead. Who killed her? Find out that “bungling sheriff” who accused the wrong man- Jake Kane, is VM’s dad.
Logan, in flashback, confronts VM, accusing her dad of destroying the Kane family (she had to side with her friends or her dad—she chose her dad )
Another man is arrested for the crime, evidence of Lilly’s shoes and back pack on his houseboat. He was a former software designer who’d been fired from Kane Enterprises.
Now we’re back at opening scene, where Weevil and gang showed up. She makes them a deal to stop harassing Wallace if she helps them (part of ep arc)
He says something that reminds her of how she was drugged and date raped at a party and doesn’t know who did it. This is a secondary arc mystery.
Back to her surveillance, she sees Jack Kane at the motel but not the woman he’s with.
Logan teases inviting her to skip school, adds hurtful remarks about her and her mother, Duncan tells him to stop.
Find out mother left 8 mo. Earlier.
First mention of her hobby, photography, though we’ve seen her taking pictures during surveillance.
Dad gets home after nabbing a bail jumper “now we eat like the lower middle class to which we aspire.”
Keith knows something after V provides a pic of a car and license plate (later we find out it’s her mother’s car—he obviously knows this but wants to keep it from her) VM is upset and doesn’t understand why he suddenly wants to drop Mrs. Kane’s case.
To get back at Logan, V plants a bong in his locker and tips the principal. Logan knows it’s V but laughs and calls her cute. Threatens to get her for this.
V does her own license search and finds out it belongs to her mother (who’s been missing for 8 mo) when she asks her dad again why they’re dropping the Mrs. Kane case, he makes up a story.
On the beach with Wallace, Logan and gang show up. He banters while telling her his (millionaire movie star) dad took his car away. Logan smashes her car head lights. Still bantering with V.
Weevil shows up. He beats up Logan’s friend’s car, and makes him apologize. He refuses. Punches him out. V says she doesn’t want his apology.
So far Weevil owes her for recovering incriminating tape, Wallace for getting him back into the gang’s good graces.
She sneaks into her dad’s safe and sees that the Lilly Kane file is there and still being worked on even though he claims he’s not, including the picture of her mom’s car. Why is it there?
She wonders why her Dad lied, but concludes he’s just trying to protect. She’s determined to chase down her mother and bring the family back together.
End pilot: note, we didn’t meet the killer
My summary notes:
Open in the middle of something happening.
Establishes setting and hierarchy- Mc has history with the people we’re meeting but we don’t know what it is yet (their actions help to show who/what they are) Including ex-boyfriend and her nemesis/school jackass
Primary propelling question/mystery proposed (I have a secret, and it’s a good one)
Backstory on the jackass character, the situation that changed their friendship
Second mystery introduced
Bits of backstory on family and her hobbies, adding layers to the MC
More from nemesis (he has something against her, but we don’t know what)
Chapter ends, we don’t meet the villain.
I found this to be a great exercise for crafting story and working on structure, and I recommend taking time to do it.
Even if you’re not writing a genre mystery, all stories have to have effective knowledge gaps and continue to raise questions that make the reader want to keep reading in order to find out what happens.
How about you? Do you have a favorite TV series that has helped you to become a better writer?
Elle Strauss writes fun, lower YA fiction (time-travel and fantasy). She also writes upper YA/adult mixed genre romance as LEE Strauss. Her latest release is a contemporary romance called East of Eden. A married mother of four, Elle divides her time between BC, Canada and Dresden, Germany. She enjoys drinking coffee and eating chocolate in both places. Find her at www.ellestraussbooks.com