The Sunday Magazine: How to Make a Whodunit

When we are watching the form of entertainment known as a whodunit the audience wants to play along. Some of the biggest television phenomena have revolved around the identity of a killer amongst us. When every poster before the release of “Twin Peaks” in 1990 had the tag line “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” we went along for the ride. It continues until today. I was thinking about how satisfying the resolution of the series “Mare of Easttown” was. Which got me thinking about what makes a good ending versus a bad ending.

I think the cardinal rule to this kind of storytelling is not to cheat. Which means the resolution can’t come from out of nowhere. The killer can’t show up in the final episode without having been mentioned. It also can’t be a plot twist for the sake of shock value. Another recent series ‘The Undoing” learned this lesson the hard way. The reason for the enduring popularity is we want to feel like we are discovering our own clues as each episode unfolds.

The second rule is the resolution can’t be too simple. The corollary is it can’t be so complicated either. The best fun is considering and discarding suspects from our sofa. As an audience we often get more information than the protagonists. The best writers use that extra information to send us down our own blind alleys. I’ll write more about this when I review the series but as the penultimate episode of Mare of Easttown ended there were at least four viable suspects. Each of them had done things which made it possible to think they had done the crime. The final episode made it clear the eventual killer came from what came before. The writers of “Sharp Objects” also did that extremely well. Even including a few clips during the credits showing how the killer had committed the crimes.

The third rule is the detective must be cut from the cloth of Sherlock Holmes. We don’t want to follow around Inspector Clouseau in a dramatic show. They can be flawed human beings, but they must be outstanding investigators. The competence of the lead character is what gives us belief in the clues we find. It also allows us to feel their emotions when the cases become personal to them. The first season of Broadchurch did that magnificently. The second season was all about the fallout of the events of the first season.

If I’m going to spend some time trying to figure out whodunit these three rules better be followed.

Mark Behnke