In my work as a Script Doctor, I take dramatic stories for television, the movies, and the stage, and I make them structurally better. That sort of work isn’t formulaic, but there are common touchstones that must always be considered and then incorporated — what I remember the great Joseph Campbell loosely calling, “the natural rhythms of human storytelling shared with the reliability of a heartbeat” — and that’s what I do; I provide an unpacked redirection of the concentric condition that we are all innately accustomed to sending and receiving in a performance communication dyad, in the acknowledgement of, and in the often unwitting acceptance of, “The Holy Triad.” The Creator, The Object and The Observer.
Well, with all that technical fancy talk out of the way, now we can get into the depths of what makes a Lifetime Murder Movie work as a document of human tragedy and despair.
Since we’ve been in Covid-19 lockdown, my wife and I have been watching a bunch of movies on my new favorite channel, The Lifetime Movie Network, and the killer/murder dramas are actually quite delightful in hewing their odes to the Ancient Myth and American Folklore tropes commanded by Joseph Campbell.
Another great thing about LMN is you get a fresh movie every two hours on every even hour! Plus, LMN loves “theme days” where every movie is about cheerleaders, or abducted daughters, or evil stepdads, and that’s a lot of fun if you’re into the theme of the day, but if you don’t like, say, kidnapping movies, then you know you’ll have to skip a whole day of watching when that theme is of the moment.
Now I’ll share with you my general analysis of the trends I see in every Lifetime Murder Movie that concerns dying and killers. These are general observations, there’s always the outlier to disprove every fact, so bear with me — but if you’re interested in writing a Lifetime Murder Movie, well, you need to be aware of these shared memes that trend across the entire movie network. What you will not find in this analysis is how to structure a Lifetime Murder Movie — because that’s the where and the why of how I earn my big money!
Let’s get started.
First off, I’ve never seen more red-hair on a movie network! Red hair is clearly a special talisman that the Lifetime Movie folks love to place in their movies. My wife and I now play a game of who can spot the red hair the quickest, and then, to break any ties, we have to decide if the red hair is natural, or manufactured. Our guessing ratio appears to be 90-10 in favor of authentic fire.
Another fun fact is that in a dramatic Lifetime Murder Movie, the police do not care. They are there as a general threat to the killer, but they never really help, or save the day, or race to the rescue of the Heroine until she’s already cured the murder. In fact, the police are often dismissive of our Heroine, and strangely suspicious of her motives for even speaking to them! “I’m sorry, Miss, but the gun and knife you found don’t have any fingerprints on them. Call us if the killer shows up again and actually draws blood. In the meantime, where exactly is your husband? Do you have a boyfriend?”
Every movie has a good gal and a bad gal — the Heroine and the Villain — and the Protagonist is always female, never male. Villains are an 80-20 ratio of women to men and they have dark hair, but rarely red hair. The Heroine is almost always blonde, and not just blonde, but California Blonde: Short cut, wavy soft curls framing the face with highlights.
Beware that LMN likes to use familiar faces from cancelled television shows and B-grade movies. Lots of “aged out” actors, both men and women, from mainstream media appear again to serve second lives in Lifetime Movies, so be ready to be told by production that you’re writing for a specific personality set — there will be expectations you will need to meet. LMN also loves to reuse actors across multiple movies, so know their casting favorites because it will help you know what LMN expects you to promote in your arc and Heroines are pretty much always Heroines from movie to movie and the same goes for Villains — once is never enough and twice is always was.
The Protagonist Hero is female and shy — yet she ends the movie with a vengeance. She often is on her own, with no money, comes from a broken family, and she has no reliable romantic relationship. She has friends that are reliable. At the end of the movie, if the Heroine is injured, she will refuse to go to the hospital. If the Heroine has a male friend, he is usually Gay, or he is already taken — so there’s no sexual threat to her, or dating interest to distract her from all the blood and terror surrounding her; and so he becomes a safe space for her, but, in the end, he won’t rescue her, she’ll rescue him.
The Villain, at some point, will often dress in black sweatpants with a matching hoodie so we can’t see the face. The outline suggests a male figure, but the one in black is female. This “Stalker in Black” appears only at night, and inside the house of the Heroine to scare her, or kill her. The best Villains never apologize for killing, and the higher the number of the deaths they rack up, the better we love them! It isn’t a problem if we love the Villain more than the Heroine because, in the end, the world will be set morally right again with the retribution of the unworthy. Joseph Campbell wouldn’t have it any other way.
Women are always the focus of a Lifetime Movie. Men are there only as support, or as killers. Boyfriends, Dads and Husbands are usually the bad dudes, or they are killed, or blamed, or placed under suspicion, and they rarely turn out to be innocent. Oh, and Villains rarely die — they survive by going to the hospital!
There is always wine in a Lifetime Murder Movie. And hottubs. And swimming pools. And beautiful shots of the golden California landscape. And someone always ends up locked in the trunk of a car.
There isn’t a lot of race mixing in a Lifetime Murder Movie, and I don’t mean that to sound crass or insensitive, this is just an inadequate observation made over months of intermittent constant watching. If the Heroine is Black, the rest of her surrounding cast will also be Black, otherwise, Black roles in Lifetime Movies are often limited to friends and associates, or roles of social authority. As well, there really isn’t a lot of cultural mixing in a Lifetime Movie — no foreign accents or languages allowed.
As well, you don’t see a lot of Asian or Latina Heroines. If a friend of the Heroine is, say, Indian, she is only there to provide moral support/information to the Heroine and often gets killed, or disposed of, early in the movie. The “People of Color” in a Lifetime Movie with a White Heroine are the red-shirted Star Trek canaries in the coal mine: Watch out, because they’ll be gone soon!
As well, I have yet to watch a Lifetime Murder Movie where cross-racial killings happened — where a White Heroine is killed by a non-White Villain, or a Non-White Heroine is killed by a White Villain. I’ll leave it to you to reason why.
The best murder weapons are: Knives, Poison, Guns, Cars, Baseball Bats, Broken Glass, Strangulation and Crowbars — all in that order! The best defense against a knife and a crowbar is a fire extinguisher — not for spraying, but for clubbing it over the head of your attacker!
There will always be a hospital scene where someone has a head injury that affects their memory of what happened and also makes them vulnerable to a poison attack added to their IV drip line! Often, the hospitalized are the men in the movie who tried to help/warn/save the Heroine, but miserably failed because they were weak, and trusted, and just cared too much.
“No worries” must be uttered at least three times in the movie.
Vital information will be delivered via cellphone — both voice and text — making for a weak way of getting plot exposition crammed into the story; but now we’re getting into structure, and not just identifying tropes, so I better stop before I get ahead myself.
You now have the rundown of all the memetic elements that make for a successful Lifetime Movie Network drama, and my advice to the aspiring Lifetime Murder Movie writer is to not mess with these memes. Yes, I know your screenplay training program taught you to flip every circle on this list to face the other way, but you won’t be successful in selling your script to Lifetime if you don’t follow the paved path. They have a feature want — not a formula demand — that works for them, and the proof is in the movies, so don’t interfere with the LMN heartbeat rhythm of killer storytelling! Tell yourself you’re writing to please Joseph Campbell, not MarVista Entertainment.
Get to work incorporating these ideas in your script — and using these tropes I’ve mentioned isn’t stealing or copying — it’s all only about inspiration of the murder in the killing!