Three Sneaky Ways To Reduce Reader Frustration

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago is that I’ve started to notice things like story structure a lot more than I used to. Of course, this also means that I also tend to notice things like flaws, various pet peeves and poor planning/design choices a lot more too.

Still, I’ve also seen stories that contain things that should annoy me but somehow don’t because of clever writing. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for how to reduce some of the more common types of story problems.

1) Cliffhangers – Less Is More!: Yes, if you’re writing a continuous series, then a dramatic cliffhanger ending can be a good way to keep your readers excited for the next instalment.

However, from the reader’s perspective, there is nothing more frustrating than reading a dramatic story only for it to suddenly end on a cliffhanger. Not only can it feel disappointing, but it can also feel slightly manipulative too (eg: your readers feel like they’re being forced into reading the next book).

So, how can you include the dramatic suspense of a cliffhanger ending without leaving your readers feeling cheated or manipulated? Well, it is all to do with scale.

Simply put, the best cliffhanger endings I’ve seen (such as in some instalments of Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” series) will often be relatively small in scale, whilst also offering some sense of resolution too.

In other words, the main plot of the novel will be resolved – but the tantalising beginning of another plot will appear in the final chapter. Or, if you want to do something a bit more sophisticated, the main plot of the novel should be resolved, but the background story arc of the series can still be left unresolved.

By keeping the cliffhanger relatively small and/or in the background, the reader still gets the satisfaction of a resolved storyline in addition to an intriguing, but less overbearing, cliffhanger ending.

Likewise, another thing that helps to soften the blow of a cliffhanger ending is good signposting. In other words, label your story as “part one of…” or whatever, so that the reader doesn’t go into the story expecting a full, self-contained story. After all, a lot of cliffhanger-based frustration happens when readers are led to expect a full story, only to suddenly discover that they’ve only got part of a longer story.

2) Perspective changes – Consistency And Signposting!: Usually, there is nothing more jarring and disorientating than stories that switch between multiple first-person narrators or stories that switch between first and third person perspective.

However, the novel I’m reading at the time of writing (“Patient Zero” by Jonathan Maberry) actually manages to handle frequent switches between first and third person perspective reasonably well, in a mostly non-frustrating way.

But, how does Maberry do it? First of all, the title of each chapter includes a small segment that tells you where the events of the chapter take place (which also tells you which character or characters it will involve). Although this might seem like it’s stating the obvious, the fact that the reader doesn’t have to spend the first few paragraphs of each chapter working out what is going on keeps the story flowing reasonably well despite the frequent changes between first and third person narration.

Secondly, and most importantly, the narrative voice in both the first and third person segments of the novel is reasonably consistent too.

In other words, there aren’t huge stylistic changes between the two types of narration. Although this might seem like it would make the story bland, it actually makes it much more readable – for the simple reason that it doesn’t break the “flow” of the story too much. The switches between first and third person narration are reasonably seamless, since the writing style in both is fairly similar.

But, of course, it’s usually a good idea to stick to just using third-person narration if you want to focus on multiple main characters in multiple locations.

3) Slow Pacing – Distinctiveness And Interest!: Not every novel has to be an ultra-fast unputdownable page-turner. Sometimes there are valid reasons for a writer to do things a bit more slowly. And, whilst it goes without saying that slow pacing should only be used when it is actually a necessary part of the story, how can you keep your reader’s attention during the slower parts of your story?

First of all, give them a reason to keep reading! Whether it is an intriguingly strange or mysterious premise, or possibly even a feeling of suspense or curiosity, you need to make sure that your reader has a good reason to keep reading a slower story. In other words, there has to be some kind of dramatic payoff for all of the slow storytelling and/or something to hold the reader’s interest when your story slows to a crawl.

Secondly, make your story distinctive. If you include things like an interesting narrative voice, atmospheric settings, fascinating characters, clever descriptions, a sense of humour etc.. then your readers won’t care too much about the slow pacing for the simple reason that they’ll be too busy enjoying your writing. In other words, if a story is well-written enough, then a slow pace will actually give the reader more time to enjoy the good writing. So, make sure that the slow-paced parts of your story are well-written!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂


Three Tips For Basing Lots Of Stories Around A Single Theme

As regular readers of this site know, I’m going through a bit of a Clive Cussler phase at the moment. If you’ve never heard of him before, he writes thriller novels that almost always seem to revolve around the sea, sailing and/or diving in some way or another. Or, to put it another way, the Clive Cussler novel I’m reading at the time of writing is literally called “Sahara” – and it still includes lots of nautical stuff. In a story about a desert!

So, this made me think about writing stories based around a theme. Although I don’t have nearly as much experience with themed storytelling as Cussler does, I’ve had some experience. For example, the short story collections I’ve written for this blog will have a theme – like last year’s “Retro Sci-Fi” Halloween stories – and I also somehow manage to make most of these blog articles about the subject of creating things, even when talking about seemingly unrelated subjects.

So, how can you come up with lots of different stories that still involve a single theme?

1) Know your theme: Simply put, you need to have a fairly good knowledge of the theme in question before using it in multiple stories. In other words, you need both research and (if possible) experience. So, choose a theme that you know a lot about. And, more importantly, one that interests you in some way or another.

And, this isn’t as difficult as you might think. After all, you almost certainly have interests and/or experiences you can draw upon. Even if your life has been fairly “ordinary”, there’s probably something interesting in there if you look hard enough. Whether it’s your encyclopedic knowledge of a particular type of music, or a hobby that you have, or some life experience that is “ordinary” to you but would be interesting to someone else etc…

And this doesn’t even have to be something ultra-dramatic in order to be interesting. If the author is really interested in the theme and can communicate that interest to the reader, then you can write interesting stories about any theme.

For example, when I was a teenager, I read about half of Jeffrey Archer’s “Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less” – which is a novel about the stock market. The stock market. And it was somehow still interesting enough to make my teenage self read half of it (and interesting enough that, for a very short while, I actually thought that stockbrokers were “cool”).

So, yes, knowing your theme really well and being genuinely interested in it is pretty much a requirement.

2) Challenge and compatibility: If you’re writing lots of stories about a single theme, then you need to keep it interesting. And you can do this by trying to make your “compatible” with seemingly unrelated things. Not only does this intrigue the reader, but it also provides an interesting “can I do this?” challenge to you too.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Clive Cussler’s “Sahara” – which I’m reading at the time of writing. This is a nautical thriller novel that revolves around the Sahara Desert. But, how does Clive Cussler do this seemingly “impossible” thing?

Well, part of the story is set on a large river that leads to the Sahara. Likewise, the main premise of the story revolves around stopping a dangerous source of water-borne contamination that has the potential to spread to the sea. Likewise, scenes where characters are stranded in the desert read a bit like descriptions of people adrift at sea etc…

So, yes, it’s possible to write a nautical novel about a desert. And I’d bet that Clive Cussler had a lot of fun when working out how to tell this seemingly “impossible” type of story.

So, trying to make your theme compatible with seemingly unrelated things can be both an interesting creative challenge and a way to make your story more interesting to your readers. At the very least, even if you mess it up, your story will still be a brilliant source of unintentional comedy.

3) The characters: Simply put, if your characters are interested in and/or experts about a particular subject, then you can include a theme in your stories reasonably easily – even in stories that seem to be totally unrelated to that theme.

The detective genre is the perfect example of this. If a character is a detective, then pretty much any story that they appear in will usually be a detective story of some kind of another. After all, they see the world from the perspective of a detective, so they’ll still be interested in solving mysteries or working out why things have happened – even if the story doesn’t involve them solving any crimes.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Don’t Show Your Audience Everything – A Ramble

Although this is an article about a technique that will make your stories, comics etc.. more intriguing and realistic, I’m going to have to spend the next few paragraphs talking about 1990s videogame nostalgia. There’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later in the article.

A couple of days before I prepared the first draft of this article, I happened to watch two online videos about the history of videogames. One made me feel old and one made me feel like I’d been part of something special. Both made me feel like I’d only seen part of something important from a distance.

One of them was this video about the fact that a survival horror game called “Resident Evil 2” was 20 years old. 20 years! Needless to say, this fact was surreal to say the least. I remember reading pre-release previews of this game in magazines, for heaven’s sake!

Even though I didn’t play this game until about three years after it was released (due to price, platform etc.. reasons), this game has had a significant role in my life history (eg: in various highly indirect ways, it played a crucial role in my current musical tastes, my tastes in fiction, my decision to be a creative person etc.. If the game hadn’t existed, I’d be a very different person). And the fact that it was 20 years old just made me feel absolutely ancient.

The other video was a retrospective of the history of the first-person shooter genre. This video contained footage from videogames from my childhood (including some SNES and N64 games), in a montage about how games evolved. As I watched this, I was filled with conflicting emotions.

I felt proud that I’d been lucky enough to grow up during a critical part of the emergence a new cultural medium. But then, I realised that my nostalgia about this montage was time-shifted somewhat. When I was playing SNES games during my 1990s childhood, the next consoles had already come out. When I was playing the Nintendo 64, the next consoles had already come out etc.. Likewise, all of the PC games in the montage were things I played at least 1-3 years after they were new.

In both cases, there was a sense that I hadn’t seen everything. That I’d only glimpsed part of something great from a distance. I hadn’t played “Resident Evil 2” when it was a new game (but I’d read about it in magazines at the time). I’d only played a few key games in the history of gaming, a few years after they were new etc.. Yes, I felt glad to have grown up around these things but there was a sense that I hadn’t seen everything.

Although this initially felt depressing, I suddenly realised that it wasn’t a bad thing. It was simply just a part of being human. No-one can see literally everything that happens.

And, if you’re telling a story, it’s important to bear this in mind. Yes, it can be tempting to give the audience an omniscient view of literally everything and to make sure that they are present during literally every significant event in your story. But, this isn’t realistic.

By occasionally leaving a few things at a distance (eg: your characters hear about something happening after it has happened, or only see the after-effects of an important story event) or showing your characters discovering something important later than you would expect, not only do you leave more to your audience’s imaginations but you also add an extra degree of realism to your story. After all, in real life, this happens all of the time. No-one can be everywhere at once, or completely “up to date” with literally everything.

Yes, this probably has to be handled carefully in fiction (eg: yes, you should still show your audience some significant events) but it can be a way to add a bit of interest or “realism” to a story or comic.

For example, in stories, games, film etc… in the fantasy genre, some of the most significant events in a story will often be relegated to the backstory. They will be the “legends” or “myths” of a particular story, which the main characters only encounter many years after they have happened. So, this technique can be used without getting in the way of the main story too much.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Bringing Old Genres Up To Date

Whilst reading the book I reviewed a couple of days ago, I realised something. It was a book from 2013 that was basically a 1990s-style action movie in disguise 🙂 It surprised me that the type of films that I really wish Hollywood still made still existed… but in book form.

Not only that, the novel had also brought this old genre (eg: 1990s-style action movies) into the present day in a way that didn’t really seem too nostalgic or old-fashioned. It felt totally fresh and new, yet it was undeniably a 1990s action movie in book form.

So, this made me think about how to bring old genres up to date – and I thought that I’d offer a few tips:

1) Timeless elements: The best way to bring an old genre up to date is to look at the basic underlying elements that make the genre so distinctive. The qualities that can be quickly summed up in ten words or less. In other words, the timeless parts of the genre.

For example, with 1990s-style action movies, this would include things like: Ludicrous villain plots, non-topical drama, teams of main characters (instead of a lone hero), an optimistic attitude, interesting location choices, a friendly atmosphere, light-hearted romance, a sense of humour, making mundane things thrilling etc…

With 1980s-style cyberpunk novels, this would include things like: Information overload, jargon-heavy narration, gloomy weather, morally-ambiguous protagonists, alternative worlds (eg: cyberspace), cynicism, hyper-capitalist dystopias, fast-paced storytelling etc…

With 1980s-style splatterpunk horror novels, this would include things like: Poetic descriptions of ugly things, gory violence, the mundane mixed with the horrific, a dark sense of humour, a grim sense of poetic justice, complex background characters who die soon after they appear, lurid titillation etc..

Once you’ve found the timeless elements of an old genre (by studying it), then it’s just a simple case of writing a modern story that includes these elements. Even if your story is set in the present day and has a few differences, if you include lots of the timeless elements from an old genre, then your story will remind people of it.

2) Nostalgia: This is a bit of a complicated one. On the one hand, nostalgia is absolutely amazing. On the other hand, it can get in the way of what makes updated modern versions of old genres so fascinating – namely the feeling of discovering something new in a genre that you thought was long since gone.

After all, many of the original works in an old or forgotten genre weren’t made for nostalgia. They were made to tell stories, to entertain people and as a form of creative expression. All of the nostalgia was added later by fans. So, even if you don’t include any nostalgia, then your audience will add it anyway.

As such, don’t go overboard with nostalgia when updating an old genre if you can help it. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, too much obvious nostalgia can remind the audience that they’re looking at something based on something old – rather than getting to experience the joy of discovering a totally new work in a forgotten genre. So, be subtle about including nostalgia and don’t include too much of it.

3) Streamlining: Simply put, get rid of whatever doesn’t work whenever you’re updating an old genre. Be ruthless.

But, be sure that you have a good understanding of how an old genre works before you decide what is worth keeping. To use a videogame-based example, a lot of “awkward” design choices in old survival horror games (eg: strange camera angles, limited inventory, clumsy movement/combat controls etc..) are deliberately there to make the player feel vulnerable, and therefore even more scared.

But, if you find something that used to work in a genre (but which doesn’t work these days), then get rid of it and replace it with something that does work. One example of this that I briefly mentioned in an article a couple of days ago is how older and newer thriller novels handle things like sentence length and linguistic complexity differently.

One of the main differences between a thriller novel from the 1970s and one from the 2010s is that the old one only had to compete with films/TV, but the new one also has to compete with boxsets, smartphones, the internet, videogames etc… too. So, things like more matter-of-fact descriptions, shorter sentences and shorter chapters might mean that new thrillers aren’t the same as classic thrillers. But, they work!

These changes mean that they’re efficient and readable enough to hold their own against boxsets, games etc.. They still evoke the same emotions as older thriller novels do, but they’ve had to cut out the excess in order to keep doing this in the 21st century.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Random Tips For Modern 1970s-Style Storytelling

Although I’m much more interested in the 1990s than the 1970s – I happened to read a novel from the 1970s recently. Although I read a few second-hand 1970s novels when I was a teenager (during the 2000s), this was the first one I’ve read in quite a few years.

So, this made me think about what sets stories from the 1970s apart from more modern stories and, more importantly, how modern writers can tell 1970s-style stories.

1) Narration: When telling 1970s-style stories, the narration shouldn’t be as hyper-formal as something from the early 20th century – but it shouldn’t be too “modern” either. In other words, you should probably focus on including slightly more complex narration and descriptions (but in a slightly understated way).

To give you a comparison, here’s a descriptive sentence* from “Iceberg” (1975) by Clive Cussler: “He slowed his movement, spellbound by the strangeness of the dark colour beneath the vast shroud of blue-green water.” Notice how this is a single, longer sentence that is filled with slightly more complex language – yet, it is still very readable.

Now, here are two modern descriptive sentence from “Zero Hour” (2013) by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown: ‘Kurt noticed the hue of the water. Pink at the top but darker red as the light was absorbed.‘ Notice how this description is split into two shorter sentences and uses slightly more matter-of-fact language, yet it still manages to achieve the same level of description as the sentence from 1975 does.

So, when telling 1970s-style stories, your narration and pacing should be very slightly slower and more formal. Your sentence length should be a little bit longer too.

The thing to remember here is that books were a popular form of entertainment during the 1970s (since things like VCRs, the internet, videogames etc… weren’t widely available back then) in a way that they aren’t these days. As such, writers and readers had slightly different expectations in terms of formality, pacing etc… during the 1970s than they do today.

(* And, yes, the quote is from a UK edition of “Iceberg”, hence the spelling of “colour”. The original US edition probably uses US spellings. Interestingly, spelling localisation in UK editions seems to be less common these days than it was in the past.)

2) Content, censorship and moral standards:
Ok, this is a little bit of a complicated one.

Basically, the 1970s was a decade where book censorship was no longer a major issue (in Britain at least). However, when writing modern 1970s-style fiction, you need to make a distinction between traditional censorship issues (eg: profanity, horror, violence etc..) and modern moral standards (eg: about discrimination etc..) because the two things have to be handled in very different ways.

When it comes to traditional censorship issues like horror, violence, drug use, scenes of an adult nature, profanity etc… you can be as intense or as subtle as you would normally choose to be. Official censorship of these sorts of things in literature ended in Britain with the “Lady Chatterley” trial in 1960 and, of course, the US has the first amendment too.

If you don’t believe me, then read “Crash” by J. G. Ballard (1973) or “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson (1971). The toned-down 1990s film adaptations of these 1970s novels still have an “18 certificate” to this day (and the adaptation of “Crash” was even banned from some cinemas in London) – so, the 1970s certainly wasn’t a prudish or censorious decade with regard to literature.

However, “historically inaccurate” as it may be, it is a very good idea to apply modern standards to topics like discrimination, prejudice etc.. when writing new 1970s-style stories. This is because your modern 70s-style stories are still modern stories and will be judged by modern standards by a modern audience.

So, if you’re just writing a 1970s style story, it is best to leave 1970s-style attitudes out of it altogether. If you’re writing a historical story set in the 1970s, then the generally accepted rule seems to be that, whilst 1970s-style attitudes can be described/shown, they must be presented in a critical way (and, usually, shouldn’t be held by the main character). Likewise, whilst you can critically show dated attitudes, avoid using dated language (eg: insults etc…) wherever possible.

3) Technology: Yes, technology was less advanced during the 1970s. However, if you actually read stories from the 1970s, this is barely mentioned at all. After all, why would it be? I mean, most modern stories don’t include characters bemoaning the lack of futuristic holograms, cyborgs, flying cars etc….

So, when telling a 1970s-style story, just be a little bit subtle or understated about the technology. Just treat 1970s technology in the same “ordinary”, understated way that we often tend to think about modern technology.

After all, a lot of the underlying elements haven’t changed that much – I mean, a newspaper and a news site do basically the same thing. A landline phone and a smartphone both allow for phone calls. Cars fulfil the same role today as they did during the 1970s. The military, some police officers, hunters/farmers, violent criminals etc… still use guns (which haven’t really changed mechanically in decades). A vinyl record and a MP3 file both contain recorded music. A document can be typed on a typewriter or a computer. People still drink in pubs/bars etc..

Yes, you might have to make the occasional substitution, but it isn’t as difficult as you might think. For example, if a character hears an important piece of breaking news then just show them hearing it on the radio or the television (or have another character tell them the news), rather than showing them seeing it on the internet. I’m sure you get the idea.

Not only that, the technological limitations of the past can actually result in better stories. For example, detective stories where detectives have to rely on clever questioning and Sherlock Holmes-like deductive reasoning rather than just using modern forensic technology. Or thriller stories that are more suspenseful because the main character can’t just call for backup on their mobile phone etc….


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What Can Games Teach Writers About Challenging Their Audience? – A Ramble

Even though this is an article about writing “challenging” fiction that your audience will actually read, I’m going to have to start by talking about playing computer games for a while.

As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later. Still, if you want to jump to the writing advice, then skip the next four or five paragraphs.

At the time of writing, I’ve found myself in the strange situation of having two games on the go at one time (both of which I hope to review at some point). One is a fantasy/action game from 2002 called “Enclave” and the other is a set of fan-made “Doom II” levels called “Stardate 20×7” (which is the sequel to “Stardate 20×6). Anyway, the reason why I haven’t reviewed either game yet is because of how challenging they are.

This is a screenshot from “Enclave” (2002), level twelve is proving to be quite the challenge…

This is a screenshot from a set of “Doom II” levels called “Stardate 20×7” (2017). Ironically, this is one of the easier parts of this particular level…

In short, there’s one level on “Enclave” which I seem to be making very gradual progress with, due to some especially powerful in-game adversaries. Likewise, I got totally stuck on the second level of “Stardate 20×7” because – after about two hours of searching- I couldn’t work out where I was supposed to go next. This eventually got to the point where I actually ended up skipping the level (via cheat codes) so that I could carry on with the later levels, which feature more enjoyable combat-based challenge and more solvable puzzles.

Both games are challenging – yet, I’ve progressed a decent way through them (I’m about halfway through “Stardate 20×7” and about two-thirds of the way through the light campaign in “Enclave”). I still enjoy them and haven’t abandoned either one out of frustration yet – unlike, say, “Clive Barker’s Undying“.

So, why have I started this article by talking about computer games?

Simply put, they offer a very literal example of how challenge affects the audience’s experience of a creative work. Both of these games are enjoyable enough to keep playing because I’ve had a lot of practice playing computer games over the years, because they have a good difficulty curve, because of everything surrounding the games, because they have a reasonable length (eg: “Enclave” is split into two medium-length campaigns, and “Stardate 20×7” has a total of eleven levels), because they are in a genre I enjoy, because they have an interesting setting and because one of them gave me the option (via in-game codes) to skip a part I didn’t enjoy.

Yet, I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve abandoned reading fairly early on because of the author’s writing style, the length, the pacing or just the story itself.

So, what can games teach us about keeping the audience reading? Well, most of the stuff on the list of things I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago can also apply to stories too. I don’t have time to go into literally everything I’ve mentioned, so I’ll just talk about the most important points.

The first is the subject of a difficulty curve. In novels, this translates to a compelling, readable beginning. A great example of this can be found in G.R.R. Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones”.

Although “A Game Of Thrones” is a slow-paced and complex novel about the politics of a medieval-style world, it begins with a gripping first chapter about a team of soldiers in a frozen wasteland who are attacked by ice zombies. It is dramatic, it is suspenseful and it reads like something from the middle of a good horror novel. And it makes you want to read more! If G.R.R Martin had started his novel with a complex political discussion, the reader would probably be less intrigued.

The second is the subject of an interesting setting. This one is pretty self-explanatory. But, a great example would probably be William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”. This cyberpunk novel is written in an ultra fast-paced way that fires futuristic jargon at the reader constantly (with the audience having to work out what most of it means from the context). Yes, it took me two attempts to read this book. But, I loved it! Why? Simply put, the futuristic world of the story is absolutely fascinating.

The third is the subject of context. In short, if a novel taps into or relates to something the audience finds intriguing, then they’ll persevere. For example, when I was a teenager, I was – as teenagers are – obsessed with “edgy” and “controversial” things.

This is why, when I was a teenager, I read Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho”. I’d heard that the book actually had an “18+” age restriction in a couple of other countries and that it had actually been banned in some places. I had to read it. Even though this meant slogging through numerous dreary descriptions of posh restaurants and grimacing my way through scenes that made even the horror novels I read regularly at the time seem like light comedies by comparison, I persevered because someone, somewhere didn’t want me to read it. And reading it made me feel like I was rebelling.

Finally, there’s the subject of length. In short – the shorter your book is, the more challenging you can be. Another example of this from the list of “controversial” books I read when I was a teenager was Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”.

The entire novel is narrated in bizarre futuristic slang and the audience has to decipher what it means from the context. It is, as you would expect, a very slow read because of this. Yet, it is something I persevered with because it’s a fairly slender novel (I can’t remember the exact length, but the edition I read was probably 200-250 pages at most).

On the other hand, when I tried to read Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” during my teenage years, I abandoned it about halfway through. This novel also uses a slightly experimental narrative style, but it is at least 300-400 pages long. If it had been half the length, I’d have probably finished reading it. So, yes, length matters when you’re challenging your readers.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What An Old TV Series Can Show Us About Innovative Storytelling – A Ramble

Although I’m busy preparing this year’s Halloween comic, I thought that I’d take a bit of a look at the various storytelling techniques used in a really interesting old TV series called “Columbo” which I’ve been watching on DVD recently.

If you’ve never heard of “Columbo” before, it’s a somewhat unusual American TV series from the 1970s that revolves around a friendly, dishevelled detective called Columbo who solves murders. Although this might sound like the premise of every detective show ever, the series does a number of innovative things, which still stand up fairly well to this day.

This is a screenshot from “Ransom For A Dead Man” (1971). Although the technology here has aged terribly, the show’s innovative storytelling hasn’t.

The first innovative thing that the series does is to use an unusual structure for each episode. Basically, Columbo doesn’t usually appear until about 10-20 minutes after each episode has started. By this point, the audience has seen the murder (in addition to who did it, why they did it and how they’ve tried to cover it up).

Although this shifts the emphasis of the story to Columbo trying to prove that someone is guilty, rather than trying to work out who did it – it also does something much smarter than this.

It gives the story of each episode context. Since the first 10-20 minutes of each episode is basically a short drama film, we get to see a lot more background and character information than we would do if each episode began with Columbo talking to the characters after the crime had been committed.

Plus, by making sure that Columbo only appears when he would realistically be expected to (eg: after the murder), it takes the focus off of him slightly and he comes across as more of a mysterious character – like how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mostly just showed Sherlock Holmes from Watson’s perspective. Plus, since each episode begins from the criminal’s “perspective”, this also makes Columbo seem more like a meddling interloper too. It’s a really clever narrative technique!

The second innovative thing that the series does is to use emotional contrast perfectly. Although the series is well-known for Columbo’s friendly personality and rumpled charm (seriously, he’s a really adorable character), it’s much less of a “feel good” series than you might initially think. The emotional tone of each episode’s story is much closer to a film noir, a melodrama or even an old American horror comic than anything else.

The series’ emphasis on ruthless criminals, their motivations (eg: almost always money, infidelity or revenge) and the fact that they seemingly get away with it for large parts of the episode, is much more like a “gritty” film noir or a horror movie than anything else. Yet, instead of the grizzled P.I. or world-weary cop you’d expect to see in a story like this, the main character is more adorable than tough.

This is a screenshot from Season One of “Columbo” (1971). I don’t know who is more adorable, Columbo or the lopsided sculpture he’s looking at.

This emotional contrast works perfectly since it makes each “side” bolder by comparison. In contrast to Columbo, the criminals seem even more cold, calculating and evil. Yet, in contrast to the criminals, Columbo looks even friendlier and more adorable.

The third innovative thing that the series does is to blend formats perfectly. Unlike many American TV shows from the 1970s-2000s, each episode of “Columbo” is 70-90 minutes long. This means that each episode is more like a self-contained film than a typical TV show episode. In fact, in the episodes I’ve seen so far, the titles of each episode are almost presented like film titles (with only a very brief mention of Columbo, in contrast to the title sequences of most TV shows):

Aside from a brief mention of Columbo in the opening credits, they almost looks like the title credits for a film, rather than a TV show.

Often, the best forms of creativity and innovation come from mixing pre-existing things rather than coming up with entirely new things. For example, the film “Blade Runner” was such an influential and groundbreaking film because it combined the film noir and sci-fi genres. Both of these things already existed, but they hadn’t been combined in such a comprehensive way before “Blade Runner”.

So, by mixing film and television, “Columbo” offers a good example of how creative works can stand out from the crowd just by taking influence from something outside their genre or format.

Although I could probably go on about this show for a while, I’ll conclude this article by pointing out that narrative innovations don’t have to be major, “experimental”, avant-garde, world-changing things.

A lot of the innovative parts of “Columbo” are subtle, structural things that aren’t always even noticeable unless you actually think about them. Yet, without these subtle innovations, this series would just be another run-of-the-mill TV series that would probably be lost to the mists of time by now.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂