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 &
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!
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 
from the City of Destiny
. You can also
view the Carrie Mae youtube
video or catch up with her at

8 replies
  1. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    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. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    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. Katreader
    Katreader says:

    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!

    • Bethany
      Bethany says:

      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. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    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. Linda Rodriguez
    Linda Rodriguez says:

    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. Laura Spinella
    Laura Spinella says:

    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. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    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.

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