Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Magnum vs Everybody Else

by Bethany Maines

I’ve been watching a lot of Magnum P.I. lately. And two things have become very clear. One, the early 80’s were a time of inappropriately short/tight shorts for men. And as for the second thing, well, it’s a bit like the old joke about intelligence. There are those who can extrapolate from incomplete data and those who…  I’ll leave you to figure out the second item that became clear from Magnum’s short-shorts.  

Aside from admiring 1980’s Tom Selleck, I’ve also been pondering a shift in TV story-telling style. Compared to today’s TV shows Magnum’s style of bouncing from weekly mystery to weekly mystery with virtually no expansive story line seems almost quaint. These days it seems like every show is pursuing extended plot lines and slow building character themes that reveal a new mastermind villain every season. In fact, it seems like the only ones without a seasonal “Big Bad” these days are the procedurals like Law & Order.

As a writer, I find myself intrigued by this shift. On one hand, this extended long-form way of telling a story, makes for greater character development and deeper story telling –making a TV show more like a novel (or comic book). And I admire the skill and planning it must take to execute so many plot lines at once. On the other hand, the extended story archs make it hard for casual viewers to pop in and out of a series. This kind of barrier to viewing would not have been allowed before Netflix, Hulu and other streaming media allowed viewers to catch up with a show all at once.

I feel this style dichotomy is closely related to what I call the “Sequel Dilemma.”  When writing a sequel, do you simply dive into the latest mystery or do you stop to throw in a couple of paragraphs of exposition to catch the reader up on what has happened to our hero/ine thus far?  If I were writing Magnum style novels than I pause to tell everyone that my heroine used to be in the military and toss in a bit of back-story. If I’m writing new style (aka Joss Whedon Style) novels then I just dive in and let my readers catch up or read the other novels to fill themselves in. As a matter of personal taste I find that I dislike the three paragraphs of exposition (which doesn’t stop me from loving Magnum – I love Magnum!!), but maybe the TV model doesn’t translate to novels. Maybe if a reader is diving into a story they expect a little exposition to get the ball rolling? What do all of you think?

On a separate note, today is my birthday! And I would like to celebrate by giving a gift to someone. The first person who can tell me the names of the two Dobermans, aka The Lads, on Magnum P.I. will win a free download of The Dragon Incident!

Bethany Maines is the author of Bulletproof Mascara, Compact With the Devil and Supporting the Girls, as well as The Dragon Incident, the first short in her new series Tales from the City of Destiny. You can also view the Carrie Mae youtube video or catch up with her at


  1. Happy birthday, Bethany! I can't remember the dogs' names, alas.

    You raise a good point. I had a hard time--as each subsequent Murder 101 was published--figuring out how much backstory to include but after a while, realized that readers would figure it out with fewer details than I was inclined to provide. It's worked out pretty well.

    Have a great day! Maggie

  2. I watched Magnum faithfully but don't remember the dogs names either. Because I write two series, I put bare minimum back story in. When someone in my critque group questions something, then I add more.

  3. I loved Magnum PI too. I do like the long complicated plots though-I'm addicted to Once Upon a Time. But you have to watch faithfully or you won't have a clue as to what's going on! For books-I always read my mysteries in order! As for the dogs...loved them. Off hand couldn't tell you their names...but I looked them up. Does that count? lol They are very good names too: Zeus and Apollo.

    Happy Birthday!

    1. Katreader wins! And looking up the names of Higgins' dogs is practically the entire purpose for Al Gore inventing the internet. Email me at and we'll make this free story thing happen.

  4. First off, happy birthday!

    And oh wow, so happy to see another "Magnum" fan. I thought I was the only one who had "Magnum P.I." on her Netflix queue.

    Regarding the episodic form versus the "big bad" form, I enjoy both, but I've noticed some series bend over backwards to preserve the "big bad." An extended arc is great, but I also like to see my beloved characters (oh, Magnum!) in brand-new situations.

    So I don't mind throwing in a little exposition now and then to keep situations -- and characters -- fresh. The only time I get annoyed is when the exposition is too obvious in the dialogue. (Example: Someone on "Magnum P.I." says, "Remember that time in Vietnam? Or remember that time on the carrier?")

  5. Happy birthday, Bethany! I enjoyed Magnum back in the day, but I don't remember the names of the dogs, either.

    I think the least beck exposition we writers can get away with is probably best. I think you need a little more in the second book, because the chances are good that you'll have a large number of readers who haven't read the first one yet. After that, the books are out there, and if readers want to know more, they can pick them up. In a standalone, you only parcel out little bits of the backstory and only as the reader absolutely needs it. My philosophy of writing series is to do the same.

  6. Bethany, you raise an excellent point! Although I've never written a sequel, so I really don't know! I suspect it depends on the situation we last saw said hero or heroine in?? I'm a little older than you (i think), so I was more of the Starsky & Hutch generation, but I totally get where you're coming from! Happy viewing, and don't forget to feed the pony!

  7. Late to the party, but happy birth week -- and many more, each happier than the one before!
    I remembered Zeus -- wanted to call the other Hera (feminist side showing up).
    I like a few reminders in sequels, especially of points that matter, because (I'll admit it) I forget things and don't want to follow my niece's lead and reread a whole series every time a new book comes out.
    I especially appreciate the authors who keep things fresh and exciting in a series . . . and those who end each book with a good resolution. I've become very angry at "cliff-hanger" endings. A satisfying ending is far more likely to bring me back to the series.