Mystery Monday: A Plot Wheel for Perry Mason


Early last month, Robert Downey, Jr. announced that he would produce and star in a new Perry Mason film:

Click here for the entire Fandango article.

For fans of Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer-detective Perry Mason, this can either be exciting or distressing news; it depends on how much of a purist you are.  Either way, a 2012 revival of the 30’s icon is certainly a testament to the enduring quality of Gardner’s creation.  Check out my May 2011 post about Perry Mason for cool details about the detective and his creator, Erle Stanley Gardner.

Gardner wrote over 80 Perry Mason novels.  How does an author produce so many, without repetition of storyline and elements?

One answer, of course, is that Gardner followed a formula: the first half of the story is investigation, the second half courtroom; in the first half Mason seems to have the deck stacked against him and it doesn’t seem possible to extricate himself and his client, yet by the end of the second half there’s a twist and – voila! Mason’s on top once again.  As much as folks disparage the use of formula, it helps build the brand for a series like Perry Mason.

But another surprising reason for the prolific storylines is Garder’s use of plot wheels. Take a look at these cool little tools that Erle Stanley Gardner put to use in writing his novels.  Source for the following images:  Teaching the American 20s


“Wheel of blind trails by which the hero is mislead (sic) or confused”
“Wheel of hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero”
“Wheel of complicating circumstances”

For more on Gardner’s use of plot wheels, and other writing strategies he employed, take a look at the following:

Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer: the Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis and Roberta Fugate, 1980 (before J.K. Rowling, obviously).

So what do you think of an author using plot wheels to decide on combinations of plot elements?  Too arbitrary?  Not necessary until one has written dozens of novels with the same characters?  I’d love to hear from you.

Just for fun, I leave you with a clip from “The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe” (with Leonard Nimoy as guest star):

Until next time,


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18 thoughts on “Mystery Monday: A Plot Wheel for Perry Mason”

  1. Kerry MeachamKerry Meacham

    Hi, Kathy,

    I’m sending this to my mother. She spent years finding every book, and I remember watching the TV show as a kid. Can’t wait for the movie.


  2. GeorgeannaGeorgeanna

    Hi Kathy!
    I LOVE Perry Mason! And since Robert Downey Jr. is just yummy, this sounds like a win-win to me 🙂

  3. EllieEllie

    Oh I’m so excited! I like almost everything Robert DJ does, but especially Sherlock Holmes. I’m glad to see him as another detective.
    And those wheels are cool. 🙂

  4. Lydia SharpLydia Sharp

    Very nice use of plot wheels. Looking forward to the movie, too!

  5. Renee Schuls-JacobsonRenee Schuls-Jacobson

    I’ve never even heard of the plot wheel. Looks like the job chart we had at summer camp. I think I’m too much of a plotter to feel comfortable with the wheel. But it’s a cool concept.

    I love that people have so many different approaches to writing. It’s fascinating!

  6. Debra Eve | Later BloomerDebra Eve | Later Bloomer

    Just fascinating, Kathy! I too remember the show as a kid. A few of them look like they have pin holes in the middle. I wonder if he spun them like a roulette wheel and wrote at random!

  7. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    I love Perry Mason. I remember watching old episodes in my teens and college years. I thought the series was great. Back then, of course, I had no idea it was based on novels written by an actual author.

    I’m thrilled that someone is taking up Perry Mason again. I hope Downey does a great job with the franchise, introducing this great formula to a new group of viewers.

    Gardner’s plot wheels were fascinating. I’m in favor of coming up a structure that works, as long as the plots vary enough.

    My next question: Who will play Della Street?

  8. Tiffany A WhiteTiffany A White

    Kathy!! I literally stomped by feet and clapped my hands. I’m that excited about this!!

  9. Marcia RichardsMarcia Richards

    I’m excited too! Perry Mason was a great series…watched it growing up! Looking forward to the movie.
    I think the wheel is a great tool for a book series. There are endless combinations. But I would also plot it once I chose a combination.

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