New Year special – writing sins that scupper a story Part 5: Sherlock Holmes

Over the last few days I’ve railed about weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, bad characterisation and unsatisfying endings in DVDs I’ve watched over the holidays. Yesterday I had a chewy moan about hasty rewrites that weren’t properly integrated in Did You Hear About The Morgans. Today’s post is not a complaint, but a congratulation. It features a film where I suspect a major change had to be made, but it was done deftly and without upsetting the story. So beware spoilers, and I give you…

 Sherlock Holmes and the mystery of Irene Adler’s trousers

It all started when Irene Adler had to be rescued from the slaughterhouse and was found to be wearing voluminous men’s trousers – which you have to admit is unusual attire for a lady of the Victorian era. Was it a disguise? We were never told.

Writing sin (very venial): A rather too crowded final scene

That wouldn’t have bothered me much, as she’s a racy lady who likes to cut a dash – but for a rather crowded final scene. Right at the end of the movie, Holmes is explaining to Watson and his fiancée how the villain Blackwood faked his death, when some policemen rush in with news that the explosive device defused in the story’s climax has been stolen. This info-dump is quite substantial and completely upsets the rhythm of the dialogue (so that Watson’s fiancée appears to be kneeling on the floor for a very long time). My hypothesis?

The arrival of the police been spliced in to prime the audience for a sequel with Professor Moriarty.

Of course, a hunch like that isn’t enough, and Dave soon provided the next clue. Many moons ago, he saw a trailer for Sherlock Holmes that featured a scene where Irene knees Holmes in a sensitive place. It wasn’t in the final film. And he read on imdb that the release of Sherlock Holmes was delayed because more edits were needed.

Could someone have made a decision at a late stage to lay the groundwork for a sequel with Moriarty?

We looked at the movie again. There were a number of scenes where Irene meets a shadowy figure in a darkened carriage. They could all have been spliced in later, with deft reshoots and editing. And as commercial movies have to keep to a strict length, other story material must have gone. Was the missing fight between Irene and Holmes evidence that something had been removed?

And was Irene’s male attire originally a disguise, from a story thread that hit the cutting room floor?

When revising, we often have to slip in new elements or change an emphasis. This might be because we’ve changed our direction or because of outside feedback. If it’s late on in editing, the amount of unpicking required is enough to make you reach for the violin or the opium pipe.

Maybe my theory is totally wrong. But if you’re trying to knit a new thread into your story, get the DVD of Guy Ritchie’s admirable Sherlock Holmes, imagine it doesn’t have the Moriarty thread – and see how they made it look as though it was always there.

Have you had to splice new threads or ideas into a book? Was it painful and how did you do it?

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  1. #1 by erikamarks on January 3, 2011 - 2:10 pm

    In answer to both questions–yes! As well as often being gruelling, the process of adding (or carefully) removing elements from a storyline can be nerve-wracking because I always worry that I’ve left some piece of the previous concept in place–and readers WILL pick up on it. Just like in Sherlock Holmes, we aren’t satisfied with “just because”–we know how story construction goes and that every element is the result (usually) of a specific choice that affects the plot.

    This seems so prevalant in movies now–my husband and I are always noticing it–especially, as you said, because of sequel-itis, and the tendency to film a series in one fell swoop. Oh, yes, and the dreaded info dump!

    • #2 by authorguy on January 3, 2011 - 2:14 pm

      The trimming of references to deleted material is quite a pain. This type of editing has to be done at leisure, since it usually involves re-reading the same story over and over!

      • #3 by rozmorris on January 3, 2011 - 7:42 pm

        Hi Marc – you’re right, it can’t be hurried. That’s probably why SH did it better than some of the other movies I’ve written about recently – they look like they have been more clever and thorough.

    • #4 by rozmorris on January 3, 2011 - 7:40 pm

      Trimming out all the references is a pain, isn’t it? Especially when you find something that can’t be filleted out easily, or that adds a nice thematic resonance as well as the pure plot function. At least it’s easier for novels than films – we don’t have to worry about costumes, consistent weather and all that continuity stuff.

  2. #5 by authorguy on January 3, 2011 - 2:11 pm

    My novel St. Martin’s Moon was very annoying that way, it didn’t give me much of anything to work with all during the writing, which took 4 years. Only after it was finished did I suddenly get a flashbulb moment of “That’s what it was all about!” I had to go back through the whole story, adding lots of little pieces here and there to show the effect the ghost was having on all parties. Most of these sequences were self-contained, but had to be inserted at just the right places to support the story.
    As editing continued the story continued to grow, which was a good thing to my mind, and I was often coming up with little scenes to add here and there as I was reading, so the addition of these scenes was pretty organic and stayed within the flow of the story.
    I’ve never had to remove one plotline to make room for another one, though.

    • #6 by rozmorris on January 3, 2011 - 7:43 pm

      Marc, I know that feeling. Often a novel doesn’t reveal its simple message until quite late in its gestation. But then it’s quite rewarding, isn’t it? Like you, I find a lot of other details suggest themselves – like finding the chemical partner to make invisible ink show strong and clear.

  3. #7 by Peter Wesley on January 4, 2011 - 1:34 pm

    Very helpful! I am doing a redux of a long poem I wrote many years ago, trying to strengthen it by adding & subtracting elements. This helps. Thank you!

    • #8 by rozmorris on January 4, 2011 - 3:05 pm

      Thanks, Peter! Adding and subtracting can be a real headache, but I find once I get going I thoroughly enjoy it. Good luck with your revision.

  4. #9 by Jonathan Moore on January 5, 2011 - 2:49 pm

    Another film failing spectacularly (I say in reference to other posts in this series not the Sherlock Holmes one), was The Seeker: the Dark is Rising, which was all over the shop and didn’t really know what it was doing. Worst story sin ever (to me) is the Godzilla syndrome – when a character’s power flutuates to suit the story. i.e. your bad guy can’t simply break into a house and snap your hero’s neck, but they can put the moon out of orbit.

    • #10 by rozmorris on January 5, 2011 - 2:56 pm

      Absolutely! I’m just having a similar problem myself. I’m redesigning some physics in my story’s world, because it affects what the characters can and can’t do. And it’s hard work – which presumably is why those writers avoided it.

  5. #11 by Victoria Mixon on January 5, 2011 - 11:58 pm

    Wow, Roz, you’ve been busy! I spent the holiday reading vintage mysteries. Dorothy L. Sayers plotted so tightly it was like she was trussing a turkey. Unfortunately, she was also so in love with her own cleverness she didn’t leave the reader much room to appreciate it for themself. If you’re not telling your story for the sake of the audience, you’re simply not telling a story.

    • #12 by rozmorris on January 6, 2011 - 8:57 am

      Hi Victoria! ‘Tell your story for the sake of the audience’… now THAT needs to go on a T-shirt. Or bed linen.

  6. #13 by Victoria Mixon on January 6, 2011 - 7:00 pm

    “bed linen” :))

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