Lessons from “Sherlock” in Good Writing

May 17, 2012 1 Comment
Today we asked Tessa Afshar, British television aficionado and historical novelist of Pearl in the Sand and just released Harvest of Rubies, to give her take on the popular Masterpiece Theatre Sherlock show…and what it means for good writing. Read an interview with Tessa on her new book over at River North Fiction’s blog!

The British love their Sherlock Holmes. They love him so much that when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his famous detective in a fit of vexation, people lined up outside his publisher’s door and staged a riot. They love him so much that they have actually built a flat on Baker Street that was once supposedly inhabited by this fictional character. So it’s not such a shock that they would come up with another Sherlock Holmes television production; the surprise is the new take on this beloved classic. Masterpiece Theatre’s Sherlock is a contemporary retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories. There are cell phones and London cabbies and traffic jams and websites in this series.

It’s a bit of a shock to the system, especially if you are a purist. Personally, I can’t get enough of it. There are several reasons for this delicious fascination.

Compelling Characters

First, the series is full of unusual characters that delight you with their quirky personalities. They are far from perfect, but they somehow manage to inspire affection in the viewer. Sherlock calls himself a high-functioning sociopath; Watson accuses him of having Asperger syndrome. Whatever the complexities of his psychological make-up, the famous detective is brilliant, but his social skills make a goat look sensitive. Here is a typical exchange early in his relationship with Dr. Watson:

John Watson: Why didn’t I think of that?

Sherlock Holmes: ‘Cause you’re an idiot. No, no, no, don’t be like that; practically everyone is.

Watson, a medical doctor injured in Afghanistan while on active duty plays the straight man, as in classic comedy, serving as the comic foil to Sherlock’s absurdities. But there is nothing straight about this Watson. He enjoys the excitement of danger just a little too much.

Holmes: You’re a doctor. In fact, you’re an army doctor.

Watson: Yes.

Holmes: Any good?

Watson: Very good.

Holmes: Seen a lot of injuries, then? Violent deaths?

Watson: Yes.

Holmes: Bit of trouble too, I bet.

Watson: Of course, yes. Enough for a lifetime. Far too much.

Holmes: Want to see some more?

Watson: Oh … yes.

Dialogue and Humor

Another element that makes Sherlock so absorbing is the wit. Some of the one-liners remind one of a cross between P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and a monologue by Johnnie Carson.

Holmes: Anderson, don’t talk! You lower the IQ of the entire street.

The dialogue, such an important part of any television show, is engaging, and shows you something about each character while also making you laugh out loud.

Holmes: Shut up.

DI Lestrade: I didn’t say anything.

Holmes: You were thinking. It’s annoying.

A Fresh Plot

Some of the plotlines are inspired by the original Conan Doyle stories. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, there really is a scary hound involved. But so much is changed about the plot that you can’t assume you know what’s going on just because you have read the story. Whether you like the liberties taken with the original plots or not, you have to admit that they are at least fresh. Within the first five minutes, you care about what’s happening to these people. You want to try to solve the puzzle, but you also find yourself rooting for the characters.

What Does This Mean for Writing?

As a writer, I see some parallels between the techniques used by a popular television series like Sherlock and what makes for a satisfying read in a novel. Although I am comparing two completely different mediums, there are certain overlaps. Writers could pick up a lesson or two from our unstoppable detective. Character, plot, dialogue, and humor can mean the difference between a reader who will return to your work a second time or regret the time they spent with your work in the first place.

In my novels it is important for me to develop imperfect characters that still manage to make you like them. Like Sherlock who is emotionally challenged, vain, and arrogant, my characters have plenty of imperfections. But hopefully like Sherlock you still manage to develop affection for them, because unless you have a vested interest in these protagonists within the first few pages, you will put the book down.

The way characters communicate with each other is just as vital in a book as it is on film. Dialogue, even if believable, needs to be absorbing. I write historical novels, but I don’t see why I should write them with a heavy hand. How can you survive life without humor now or 2,500 years ago? I want my readers to laugh. I also want them to be moved to tears at the appropriate times.  I don’t like to manipulate emotions just for the sake of it; that’s sentimentalism, and I am not attracted by it. What I prefer, whether I always succeed at it or not, is a genuine movement in the heart that rises out of something deeper than the sentiment. I don’t see this in Sherlock; it wouldn’t be appropriate there. It wouldn’t fit in. But this is my way of creating quirky characters that inspire the illusion of a relationship to the reader. One woman told me recently that when she finished Pearl in the Sand, she felt like she was saying goodbye to a good friend. That’s exactly what I’m after, and I feel a little that way about Holmes and Watson each week.

At one point in the series Sherlock Holmes comments, “What it must be like in your funny little brains; it must be so boring!”

The funny little brain of a writer cannot afford to be boring; it’s the worst crime to commit as a storyteller. I don’t produce internationally successful television programs, but I must still come up with believable plotlines that make the readers care about the outcome.

Character, plot, dialogue, and humor. They work on TV and they work in books. It’s elementary, my dear Watson (which, by the way, Sherlock never said.)

What have your favorite movies, TV shows, and books taught you about the writing craft?

Tessa Afshar was voted “New Author of the Year” by the Family Fiction sponsored Reader’s Choice Award 2011 for her novel Pearl in the Sand. She was born in Iran, lived there for the first fourteen years of her life, and attended an English boarding school for girls before moving to the United States permanently. Her conversion to Christianity in her twenties changed the course of her life forever. Tessa holds an MDiv from Yale University where she served as cochair of the Evangelical Fellowship at the Divinity School. She has spent the last twelve years in full- and part-time Christian work. Visit her at www.tessaafshar.com

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Lessons from “Sherlock” in Good Writing

  1. Great post, Tessa! I love the new Sherlock and Watson for the reasons you mentioned above too. The dialogue is so engaging it challenges me to do the same thing with my characters (in their own distinct ways). To answer your question- Downton Abbey is another great series I love because from the very first episode, it’s easy to love and root for the characters. My husband and I started watching the movie Gosford Park, but 20 minutes later, we still didn’t care even a tiny bit about the characters. So we turned it off. If I don’t care what happens to them by the end of the movie, I have no motivation to stick with it. The same applies to books, of course.

Comments are closed.