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Mary Deal

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Forensic Evidence in Plots
by Mary Deal   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Posted: Friday, November 10, 2006

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This article first appeared in the Moondance International Film Festival newsletter. I decided to post it here since I am now aggressively shopping my two mystery/thriller manuscripts to find agency representation.


 


  

Forensic science could kill your story.


 

     With forensic evidence being able to convict a perpetrator on as little as a millimeter of hair fiber, for example, plots of stories and films could be brought to an end too abruptly. Too, explaining the forensic evidence and showing how it affects the outcome could take over any plot.


 

     When a subplot takes over and becomes the action, this is to lose control of your story. It is important that the main plot hold the most interesting, the most critical action. Then, no matter how contorted a subplot, it will only serve to enhance the main plot. True, too, any twist or turn in a subplot must enhance the main plot action. It cannot be included only to enhance the subplot. There is a risk here of having your subplot become a story unto itself and distract from the purpose it should serve. Any action in a subplot must feed into but not be greater than the main action.


 

     A good example of a subplot nearly taking over can be found in the movie, Witness, (1985). The good cop, John Book, discovers fellow officer, McFee, has committed a murder. When John Book discloses this to his boss, Schaeffer, he soon learns Schaeffer is just as corrupt. The bad cops are selling off confiscated drugs. Once found out, both Schaeffer and McFee want to kill John Book.


 

     This is a simple subplot that adds to and is intrinsic to complicating the action of the main plot. This subplot of clandestine activities within the police department blocks the hero from accomplishing his goal of bringing the perpetrator to justice and heightens tension in the story. So, too, does the fact that John Book needs to hide out and heal while yet another person turns him in.


 

     Considering Pamela Wallace won an Oscar for co-writing the script for Witness, how many times can such good cop—bad cop plots be done? If some cops are to be the bad guys in scripts, after the impact that Witness made in films, bad cop plots must take more drastic turns.


 

     In the first mystery I wrote a few years ago, soon after I completed the manuscript, an explosion in forensic science occurred and my story immediately became outdated. A year of work had to be shelved. But my plot is so unique! I kept saying. I had to find a way to save it. I did. To this day, it is still a unique story.


 

     The murders and arson I conjured in my original story could today be easily solved. How could I learn enough about forensic science in order to thwart its proving effects in my plot and still keep the action running?


 

     Then I read, You Can Write a Movie, also written by Pamela Wallace. Finally, I hit upon a way to get around forensic science without myself having to become a forensic scientist.


 

    

     In Witness, Wallace had crooked cops tampering with evidence. I have crooked cops in my mystery too. However, I could not be satisfied with simply adding crooked cops into the mix. It seemed all too convenient and way overdone in films. But not if you throw into the melee a mind-bending radical group who just happens to get their kicks from wrongdoing.



 

     In my story, I wanted to convolute the subplot way past the point of simplicity and yet not have it threaten to take over the main plot, as it almost does in Witness. My story has a subplot of not just crooked cops but a group of social renegades as well. But as I said, this was not enough for me. I have further complicated my plot with a hierarchy within the group of bad guys, all trying to out-do the kingpin in order to take his place. Then, so as not to distort from the main plot action, anything this group does enhances or thwarts the heroine from accomplishing her goal to help bring the proper person to justice.


 

     While a certain amount of evidence is a must in order to redirect the finger of guilt toward the real perpetrator, my plot becomes complicated when evidence disappears. People within the bad guy hierarchy fall from or rise to power dependent upon who loses and finds and uses said evidence to climb another rung on the ladder. While all this is going on, the innocent moves closer to a date with lethal injection till someone finally puts an end to the round of finding and losing and tampering with evidence.


 

     Ultimately, you cannot get away from using forensic evidence, but if there is no evidence to test, or if it is found and lost again, this heightens the excitement of your plot. If your story lacks excitement or is too easily solved, interrupt the pathway that connects the dots. Maybe kill off the only person who knows about the smoking gun. Let corroboration be found later on. There is no way to get around the fact that forensic science can solve most crimes these days, but only if there is evidentiary proof to test.


 

     While no forensic evidence was needed to solve the murder in Witness, the complications that arose and blocked John Book from accomplishing his goal made for an exciting story. However, you must complicate your story to delay the final scene that forensic science can prematurely bring about. Make your plot as contorted as possible. Because of the splash Witness made by using the simple subplot of good cop-bad cop, chances are, another serious story of this type won’t fly because the plot is simple and would have to be better than Witness. You must complicate your plot and learn something about the forensic information your story needs.


 

     The writer need not learn about all forensic science, only as much as must be used to enhance that one plot; enough to hide the true facts from being found too soon.

 

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Reviewed by Reginald Johnson 8/12/2007
A treasure-trove of ideas from a talented author. Anyone reading this article (from the novice to the expert) can benefit from its insightful and detailed explanations.



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