A few months ago, everyone was talking about Only Murders in The Building. Even one of my favorite writing podcasts, Ditch Diggers, discussed it. It was for a time everybody’s favorite show.
And I’m part of Everybody. I watched every episode, and couldn’t wait for the next one. Honestly, with comedy writing legends like Steve Martin, Martin Short and Tina Fey involved, I’m not the least bit surprised. These are some of the best comedy writers in the business with years of experience.
So today it’s our topic for why it works. Let’s get it on the table, cut it apart, and see why it worked.
Motivated by the characters conflicting wants
Some stories are motivated by a situation. Some stories are about people coming together for a common goal. And some are about characters reacting to something in varying different ways, depending on what they want.
The latter is a bit more complicated but far richer.
Only Murder In The Building is about three people with parallel goals, not necessarily the same goal. You have Mabel, who wants to find out who killed Tim Kono. She has several reasons for this, that I don’t want to ruin for you on the off chance you haven’t seen it yet. Oliver wants to have a successful project to prove that he isn’t a failure. And Charles wants to prove that his career isn’t behind him. He isn’t a has-been. More than that, though, he wants to have people love him again.
Oh, and both Oliver and Charles want to prove that they’re hip enough to have a millennial friend.
All of these goals can line up, but won’t always.
Relatable on multiple levels
I think we’ve all had friends who are only our friends because we share a common fandom. People we don’t have a single thing in common with beyond liking this piece of art. It’s a true-crime podcast that brings Mabel, Oliver and Charles together. And I think most of us love a little True Crime.
But we’ve also all experienced that excitement when a new episode of something we love comes out. Many of us, unfortunately, know what it’s like to lose someone. We know what it’s like to be hurting for money, or missing someone we’d like to call but can’t.
So we might not know what it feels like to investigate a murder in an upscale apartment building. But we can still absolutely relate to these characters.
Twist upon twist upon twist
At any time while watching Only Murders in The Building if you think you know what’s happening, you’re wrong. There were so many twists and turns I barely knew which way was up. But at no time did I feel cheated. At no time did I feel like a twist came out of nowhere or didn’t make sense.
I want to tread lightly here because I don’t want to ruin anything for you. But there’s more than one mystery to solve.
This isn’t the sort of thing achieved in one draft. This is the sort of thing that takes rewrites upon rewrites to make sure that the twists are logical, but still hard to see coming. This is what can be achieved when you know your story back and forth. When you’re careful with your craft. When you’ve gone through the damned thing over and over. It takes planning and patience.
Every episode left you with a question
When I was a kid I used to love reading Goosebumps. Every chapter ended with a cliffhanger. They weren’t, in hindsight, good cliffhangers. A common one was for the character to open a door and scream. On the first page of the next chapter, it was too often revealed that this was just a sibling or friend startling them. Cheap.
But it did give me a taste for that sort of thing.
A much better way to handle an ending is to leave your audience with a question. And I mean something beyond the core question of the larger piece. In Only Murders in The Building, the main question is who killed Tim Kono. But in any given episode, you might have any other questions.
Will the dog die?
Why is that strange ring there?
Why is that hoodie important?
Will this character lose their home?
None of these are cheap gimmicks. They’re real questions that stick with you for the whole week. Until it’s time for the next episode.
To sum it up, here’s what we can learn from Only Murders in The Building.
-Make sure every character wants something. Bonus points if it’s something different from the other characters.
-Make your characters relatable in realistic ways, and we’ll be more likely to relate to them in unrealistic ways.
-Plan out your twists and take your time.
-Give us a question, not a cliffhanger.
What piece of content would you like to see me cover next? Let us know in the comments.
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