Do you want to know the storyteller’s secret?
Like many things in high school that I missed because I was up to mischief and focusing on remaining undetected, I’ve come to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes late in life.
Somehow, I also missed the Robert Downey Junior films and the Benedict Cumberbatch television show. But, I’ve finally arrived and am making my way delightedly through The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
The storyteller’s secret to a good detective story, I gather, is a tight plot and a flawed but brilliant detective. The opening story in the Adventures collection is ‘A Scandal In Bohemia’ where Watson describes Holmes as someone who ‘loathed every form of society’ and alternating from ‘week to week between cocaine and ambition.
Herein lies our contemporary detective.
For fiction, less so for screenwriting where you can literally show the action there is a certain amount of telling that is required, especially in a detective story where more often than not a case gets verbally relayed in the setup. The storyteller’s secret in screenwriting is to make the picture as clear as possible for the reader.
Holmes is a brilliant master of deduction but not always someone you’d take along to a party; a little too serious, a bit too smug. His character flaws offer us a break from focusing on the details of a case, a rest from the pure logic and sharp observations of our detective.
As writers, we hear the advice ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘avoid exposition at all costs’, but these methods are essential to the storytelling of Sherlock Holmes stories, and they remain fresh and vivid. These stories exemplify the storyteller’s secret, telling.
One that stood out among the three I’ve read this week was The Red-Headed League, which was written by Doyle in 1891. I love a good bank heist tale, and this one had me gripped till the end.
So read this article before you throw your story in the bin because some stranger has thrown that generic rule at you. Maybe you can use some of these Doyle tactics to make the necessary telling part of your story more digestible.
I’ve started considering them myself in my current short story drive.
The verb is storytelling, not story showing after all.
The Secret of Emotion
I don’t yearn to spend time with Sherlock or Watson in the way that I do with other characters, say from a Hugo or Dumas novel. Still, The Red-Headed League did convey the story to me emotionally, and that emotion was humor.
The set up is funny; a congregation of red-headed gentlemen, and it got me with warmth straight away. Throughout the story garnered more than one snicker from me and also a shared moment of laughing with Watson and Holmes. I love a shared character moment, true immersion.
If you get the emotional tempo right, it can distract your reader from that extra bit of exposition you need to get the story told. Humor is a great one if you can muster it. It’s a challenging task.
Personally, I’ll forgive a story many times if I find the characters interesting.
Contrasts in the language help veer our attention away from the exposition too because they bring the story closer to us and make it more vivid, or real.
In The Red-Headed League, the main character is introduced with a series of average adjectives; ‘very stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman’, followed up with a contrasting feature, ‘fiery red hair’.
He also creates contrasts using a form of antithesis by creating a melancholy character called Mr. Merryweather.
“observed Mr. Merryweather gloomily.”
“the solemn Mr. Merryweather.”
Further along, he describes another accomplice as ‘Brave as a bulldog’, that’s fine, but then ‘tenacious as a lobster.’ From a known phrase to an unknown one, a dog to a lobster.
Rhythm and Structure
A sequential, event-by-event recount of the details necessary to set up the story would be boring, but Doyle scatters breaks from the exposition throughout the story. In particular, at the beginning before the action has taken off.
He feeds us small bites of information from Holmes’s methodology that gives us a different taste of our elusive detective and a rest from the story, just for long enough.
Sometimes the author reminds us of the philosophical difference between Holmes and Watson on the subject of life being stranger than fiction.
Other times he treats us to Holmes’s thoughts on crime and how the more significant the crime, the simpler the motivation.
The intention always feels the same; to give us a break from the exposition and to bring us closer to the characters.
If you’re a short story expert, this probably seems old hat but if, like me, you’re at the beginning of a journey, I hope this has been helpful.
Sometimes it’s easy to ditch the rules and get into flow, other times they’ll hinder you from carrying on because you feel like you’re moving in the wrong direction.
Now and again they’ll bring you to a complete grinding halt as nagging voices tell you you’re on the wrong trail entirely. Give up, they say but you mustn’t.
Behind every writing rule is an exception and behind every great writer is a process that they’ve forged by pushing through, learning and evolving the rules to suit their story.
We at InspireFirst have a number of other writing tricks and secrets for successful storytelling. If you’re wanting to take your writing to the next level, utilize our resources.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, Doyle didn’t.