All the cards on the table: I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes buff. Ever since I read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in grade school, I’ve been a diehard aficionado of the detective in the deerstalker. When BBC released Sherlock, I was skeptical about the concept of placing the famous sleuth and his equally famous sidekick in modern day London. Three seasons later, I find myself applauding the writing genius that is this unique show. The writers of Sherlock have successfully put together plots and characters that have captivated audiences worldwide. Here are just a few writing tips one can learn from this memorable show:
Create Engaging Characters
While some might think that the writers of Sherlock had things easy by reworking pre-existing characters, nothing could be further from the truth. Writers who adapt characters others have created walk a very delicate tightrope, as it is impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. There is also the difficulty of placing well known Victorian-era characters in modern day settings. The crafting of Sherlock’s characters is a testimony to ingenious writing, most notably Dr. Watson, who is portrayed as not only loyal, but intelligent and resourceful, two traits often overlooked in other depictions.
Put Together Meaningful Dialogue
In many ways, dialogue sets the pace for the entire story. Sherlock’s dialogue, delivered rapidly as he makes deductions at seemingly inhuman speeds, keeps the show moving at a quick pace, engaging the audience. While events correlate seamlessly with modern day life, the writers of Sherlock are not afraid to let the dialogue take on an old time, classic feel. References are often made to concepts of gone by eras like “dragon slayer” or “good old-fashioned villain.” These references allow audiences to take in a story with which they are familiar, albeit with a modern twist.
Any show that can successfully work in a large, overarching plot under which all of the other subplots build can rest assured in a guaranteed fan base. The manifold mysteries within Sherlock keep audiences guessing from episode one. This, coupled with the long delay between seasons, creates an intensely high level of suspense which hooks viewers of all ages. When using this plot device, it is necessary to maintain the balance of keeping subplots engaging enough to keep viewers watching, without detracting from the “main event.”
Professor Moriarty may be the most famous nemesis of all time, and Jim Moriarty, Sherlock’s modern day equivalent, is no slouch himself. The writers of Sherlock knew what they were doing when they put together this unforgettable villain. Moriarty’s elusiveness, intelligence, and seeming invincibility are so thoroughly developed that even his death at the end of season two leave many skeptical, especially after the famous teaser “Did you miss me?” in season three’s conclusion. Creating a villain equal in ability to the protagonist can be something of an impossible challenge, but Jim Moriarty is a solid A+ from a writing standpoint.
The Little Things
Finally, the greatest writing tip one can learn from Sherlock is this: make use of every detail. For each season of Sherlock, the writers have a mere three episodes to create memorable characters, unique dialogue, and engaging plotlines. For this reason, every detail counts, right down to the pocket knife jabbing letters into the wall, which comes straight from the pages of the Sherlock Holmes canon. This is something to keep in mind when putting together any piece of fiction: make everything count. Don’t have any throw-away scenes or throw-away lines. In today’s era of story snippets and short attention spans, your audience will be unable to afford you the luxury.
Although Sherlock is a TV show, there is much to be learned from a writing standpoint. Pay attention not only to dialogue and scene structure, but the details in the background. Keep in mind that someone wrote these “image stories” for a reason. Consider how you can use the same visualizing techniques in your own writing. Your efforts will not go unnoticed. To quote the great detective himself: “What one man can invent, another can discover.”