Monday, February 26, 2007


After writing scripts for shows as diverse as Eight is Enough, Charlie’s Angels and Quincy, Lee Sheldon became The Edge of Night’s Headwriter from 1983 until it went off the air in 1984. He went on to produce Star Trek: The Next Generation and write a series of video games based on the works of mystery doyenne Agatha Christie. His first mystery novel, Impossible Bliss, came out in 2004.

We caught up with Lee to reminisce about his days in Monticello… and on the Orient Express.

PGP: How is plotting a mystery story different for soaps, prime-time, video games, and books, all of which you've done?
LS: In soaps, months may pass between the beginning of a mystery story and its final denouement. Many more characters may be involved; more clues must be discovered; and more incidents involved. I remember one murder mystery I plotted on Edge where nearly every character on the show was on the scene in the hotel where it occurred, and may have been the killer. The various plot threads were so complex I remember Executive Producer Nick Nicholson questioning me closely about whether I would be able to tie up all of them at the story's conclusion. I managed to convince him I could. I managed to do it. But no matter how confident I may have sounded to Nick, I wasn't entirely sure I could!

Primetime TV mysteries are like short stories. They need to appear to be complex, but when the solution is presented it should be fairly simply explained. In the end, each of the stories I wrote for TV that were nominated for (The Mystery Writers of America) Edgar awards hinged on a single, very basic twist.

Video games are usually similar. You want your mysteries to appear complicated, but the player doesn't want to sit still for long passages of exposition and explanation. The solutions to two of my earlier video games were again quite simple. But because the Agatha Christie mysteries are structured in a very classical style, their stories remain far more complex than typical video games that contain mysteries.

Mystery stories in books can be plotted much more at the whim of the author. We have stories that are incredibly simple, depending more on action; books with mysteries that are more cerebral and complex; and books where the authors do both. Mystery bestsellers these days like The Da Vinci Code often have much action in addition to complicated plots.

PGP: What process brought you to Headwriting The Edge of Night? Was the fact that it wasn't a traditional soap opera, but a more mystery based one, one of the factors that attracted you to the job?
LS: I began my association with Procter & Gamble writing a pilot for a prime time TV series that they were associated with. That and my reputation as a mystery writer in prime time TV led to interviews with Edge's producers. I wasn't sure I wanted to leave prime time TV or Los Angeles, and my agent advised against the move. But I was attracted to Edge because it was "the mystery soap" and because the challenge of writing for all those characters and creating stories that lasted for months was very compelling.

PGP: Which, among the storylines you created, was your favorite?
LS: Our "1984" story. I wanted to do a conspiracy "big brother" story that was more up to date and utilized new technology. The story dealt with an attempt to manipulate an election by eavesdropping on households and subliminal perception techniques broadcast through a cable TV system. It started with the death of a long-running character Nicole Cavanaugh (the actress wanted to leave the show to try her luck in Hollywood), and ended nine months later with a commando raid by almost all of the male stars of the show, as they were dropped from a helicopter on to the roof of the high-rise office building from which the culprits were broadcasting. The final two weeks of the story were televised in "real time" with each episode beginning with a clock counting down the minutes to the election much the way the TV series 24 is now produced two decades later.

PGP: Were there any stories you wanted to do, that you didn't get a chance to?
LS: I don't remember any stories I wanted to do that weren't produced. We did have one story concerning a Native American burial ground that was going to be re-located for a sub-division. Despite the fact that I took the idea from a real case in Connecticut; and that the story featured some strong acting by the Native-American guest stars and our regular cast; and that there were some powerfully emotional scenes, the audience wasn't much enamored of the Indian-rights storyline. I remember one letter from an irate woman in Iowa complaining that the Indians were "always trying to take our land away from us." It was scheduled to run six months, but to my everlasting regret and shame it was cut short by the network after only a couple of months.

PGP: How do you take a familiar story like Murder on the Orient Express and dramatize it into a video game?
LS: It isn't easy! With both the first game, And Then There Were None, and Murder on the Orient Express I was dealing with two of the most famous mysteries ever written. My goal all along was to follow the plots as closely as possible while still coming up with some surprises. To do that I convinced the owners of the license to Agatha Christie's work (including her grandson) to allow me to change the endings while still remaining true to the spirit of the books. The other challenge was to take stories that worked brilliantly as novels, but that contained very little physical activity and turn them into games where players had things they could do to hopefully solve the mysteries. A mystery story is somewhat easier than other types of stories because there is an obvious correlation between the puzzles a detective must unravel and the puzzles that face the player of a video game. But the difference in the two mediums still presents some extremely engaging challenges.

PGP: Did coming in to write a soap where the characters were already established with a long history help prepare you for this process, or are they totally different?
LS: Adapting a novel is similar to taking over the writing of a show where the characters are equally well-established. While I had more freedom with the stories on Edge I still had to remain true to the characters and how they would behave in the situations where I placed them. In both cases I must take on the role of a forger, much like the artists who paint pictures, then sell them as originals by more famous artists. If the experts can be fooled, both they and I have succeeded. One of the nicest compliments I received from a number of reviewers (even if they didn't realize it was a compliment!) was that they all stated that most of the dialogue was taken directly from the books. In actual fact no more than ten percent was original dialogue. The rest was either rewritten or was entirely new. That they couldn't tell the difference I consider a success.

PGP: What are you working on now?
LS: I'm currently a professor at Indiana University teaching screenwriting and video game design. I'm completing the adaptation of a third Agatha Christie novel as a video game and am contracted to design and write two more after that. I'm also in the early stages of designing an online virtual world called Londontown, and consulting on three other virtual worlds in development. I'll be writing my next mystery novel this summer in Key West (one of my favorite places) where it is set. And soon after that my son and I will be collaborating on a screenplay. Busy, busy, busy!

To check out the mystery that The Edge of Night, check out The AOL/PGP Classic Soap Channel, today!