Posts Tagged Sherlock Holmes
I’ve had an interesting question from Jonathan McKenna Moore (who was one of this blog’s earliest readers – quick fanfare 🙂 ).
Jonathan had seen Anthony Horowitz talk about writing new Sherlock Holmes stories, which led him to ask this question:
‘How does misdirection work in prose? Horowitz says that one of the functions of Dr Watson is misdirection, following false trails that Holmes would never entertain, and lulling the reader into considering them. He goes on to describe misdirection as drawing attention to one object in the room so the audience doesn’t notice another. While I can understand how that would work in a film, in prose you have to go out of your way to mention object 2, and spend time describing it. It isn’t just set dressing. How do you show the reader something, without letting them know that it’s important? Is it just a case of losing the significant detail in a haystack of description? If so, then that rules out the sparse writing that often suits mystery stories.
Okay! First a brief definition – misdirection is planting a clue that will become significant, but disguising it so that the reader doesn’t spot how important it is. Then, at the right time, you reveal it in a lovely ‘aha’ moment. It’s one of the fundamentals of plotting. And it goes a lot further than just mysteries. Almost any type of story might need misdirection.
So … how do you do this in prose?
Two keys to effective misdirection
There are two elements to effective misdirection.
2 … in plain sight.
When using misdirection in a novel, the reader must feel you played fair. They mustn’t think you randomly invented a new thing that answers the mystery, solves the case, resolves the characters’ problems. So a key feature of good misdirection is that you draw attention to the clue. If you hide it too well, the reader might not notice it.
To use Jonathan’s good phrase, the last thing you want to do is ‘lose the detail in the haystack of description’.
Devil in the detail
Novels contain heaps of details that hardly any reader will remember. So if you are planting a detail that will be important later, you have to draw attention to it – but in a way that looks like it serves some other purpose. The detail must be memorable, so that it’s noticed, but it must also appear inconsequential. Its final significance must be disguised. You have to be sneaky.
And actually, it’s quite easy to do in prose. You always need incidental details to flesh out characters’ lives or enable parts of the plot. Your character needs somewhere to drive to while he has a conversation with his old friend. Your clandestine lovers need a place to meet. Your spies need an item they can use to hide an SD card full of important photos. A character needs an excuse for why he’s late. These are details we often invent on the spur of the moment because they’re not that important to our scene. But they are excellent places to smuggle in an element you want to hide in plain sight. You can make the reader notice it, but they won’t realise how important it is.
Examples might be
- A location
- an object
- an explanation
- a hobby or talent
- a personality trait, allergy, dislike
- a mutual acquaintance or common background.
How to do it
Make a list of any significant details that you need to plant. When you come to a moment where you have to add an inconsequential element, see if you can sneak in something important. (Don’t overdo it, though, or you’ll alert the reader to your technique.)
The false trail
Jonathan also mentioned the false trail. This is another handy way to misdirect the reader. Again, you work backwards from your story’s final solution. Find a way to interpret your clue in the wrong way, send your characters off to chase it, and then bring it back in as a vital signpost to the real thing.
It’s tricky to give examples from stories without spoiling their punchlines, but it so happens I can illustrate with real life. On Friday I wrote the word ‘pineapple’ on my hand. My hand is my low-tech Evernote, and I needed to remind myself to go home via the supermarket. But it so happened that I was also going to a class at Pineapple dance studios. Naturally, having a storyteller mentality, I started thinking this was an amusing piece of misdirection. If I was found in nefarious circumstances, a detective might see ‘pineapple’ on my hand and think it was connected with the dance class, because they’d find my membership card. So the hunt for clues would start at the dance studio – until someone smart would ask ‘why would she write a note to remind herself to go to class … could it be her shopping list’? Then they might check my credit card use to find my usual supermarket, and find signs of a scuffle in the car park … voila.
So, to answer Jonathan’s final point about the use of misdirection in the sparse style of mystery stories … you don’t have to break style and write a conspicuously lavish description of your item. You slip your detail in naturally, as part of the fabric of the scene.
Thanks for the cards pic Gordon Cowan
If you found this useful, there are lots more tips for slick plotting in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.
1 If the focus is on the events, you’re better off with third person – most commonly this is historical fiction, family sagas, epic fantasy, crime, thrillers. If the story is more about the characters – and the events might seem insubstantial compared to the psychological journey, first person is generally best.
2 In first person, you see the world and all the other characters as the character does. It’s especially useful if the character may not be sympathetic or has dubious qualities – such as Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, or Barbara Covett in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. First person lets you add layers of irony and unreliability – all part of the fun.
3 If you’re going to use an unreliable narrator, be consistently unreliable from the start. Don’t turn them suddenly unreliable half-way through.
4 Whose POV do you show? With character-based novels, the same events told by a different person would make a different book. Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin is a mother in a confused, conflicting relationship with her son. Kevin in the same novel is a child growing up with a mother he knows hates him. Which story do you want to tell?
5 First-person narrators might be aware they’re telling the story, like Eva in we Need to Talk About Kevin, or they might be experiencing the events in real time with no sense of explaining themselves – like Carol in My Memories of a Future Life. (And I chose first person because her experience is more important than the events.)
6 The narrator isn’t always the protagonist – Dr Watson narrates Sherlock Holmes, showing someone extraordinary through his more sane, relatable eyes – yet preserving the mystique of his more remarkable moments.
7 Usually the first-person narrator doesn’t know the thoughts or feelings of other characters, or what happens when they are not present. Writers of first-person narratives have to make use of letters, chance conversations, listening at a keyhole, online eavesdropping – without being cliched. However, Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones writes a first-person narrator who spiritually snoops on the private moments of others. Ghosts do that.
8 You might have filter characters for some or all of the story, like Nelly Dean in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, who tells the story of Heathcliff and Cathy to first-person Mr Lockwood.
9 Sometimes there is a central character who is the story’s exclusive viewpoint, but the novel is written in third person. Henry James’s What Maisie Knew is a story of multiple adulteries seen through the eyes of a child. James chose third person because he wanted an innocent who notices far more than she has the vocabulary to describe. This is sometimes known as limited third-person.
10 Third person can show a godlike view of many characters, but it’s usually better for the novel to focus on the thoughts and feelings of just a few characters – subjective viewpoint. Decide whose heads you will get inside – and stick to that main cast. Less important characters can be shown from outside through their dialogue and actions. If you suddenly add the intimate POV of another character late on in the novel that’s very dislocating – although you might just get away with it if they’re a long-lost sister who we’ve been curious about.
11 Crime novels and thrillers, which are generally more about plot than character, get away with introducing new characters, in close up, anywhere in the story. They will often devote a chapter to a character who is about to meet a sticky or spectacular end, narrated so we share their thoughts and feelings. Or they introduce a new assassin half-way through. This works because the main hook is the events, not the characters.
12 Most scenes are better if written from one character’s POV. But what if you’re narrating in third person and you have put two key characters together? You can either narrate it all from a more distant perspective, trusting the reader to understand the tensions. Or you could shift point of view. Yes, honestly, you can if you…
13 Use POV shifts with care. The best way to do this is to start the scene from one character’s POV and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action so that we know we are tuning into a different person’s experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again.
14 You can have alternating first-person chapters, first and third, so long as you establish the pattern early on and do it consistently. And you have a good reason.
15 You can mix omniscience and subjective view. In Lifeform Three, I have a hybrid of omniscient narrator and limited third person. The narrator is never a character (but is me the storyteller), is able to talk loftily about some parts of the world that the main character doesn’t know, but aside from that is glued to the main character. I made strict rules – the narrator knows about the world in general but does not know about the main character’s history or what happened to him before the story started. Some fairy tales are like this.
16 You can do what you like, really, so long as you make your boundaries clear. Write in second person if you must, or plural instead of singular – although you do risk wearing out the reader. Unless you’re writing about Siamese twins.
Do you have any guidelines to add about choosing point of view, or interesting examples? Share in the comments!
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?
If Doctor Who was being made as a Hollywood movie, two lazy, cobbled-together storytelling problems would have to be sorted out.
I love Doctor Who. One of my earliest TV memories was Patrick Troughton drowning in a room of foam, which sounds cheap and silly but actually was bizarre and horrible. 1970s Doctor Who became my weekly tutorial in creativity. It was ‘what if everything around you was different’, on LSD. Shop dummies came alive and drove the Doctor away in a car, and turned around to look at him with blank faces. A storyteller couldn’t have a better start in life.
The reborn Doctor Who is different, of course, and in many ways better. However, the writers have got lazy when they have to extricate the Doctor from trouble. Husband Dave touched on this on Mirabilis Year of Wonders (which you can read here after his rant about the Daleks– strange how if you put our names together they make Davros).
These are the two storytelling sins I’m seeing worryingly often in Doctor Who.
1 The Doctor deals with a crisis with an outburst of gangsta-like posturing – ‘Yo, I’m the Doctor, be very afraid.’ Like he’s channelling Kanye West.
I like a character with attitude, and can get my groove on to Kanye West. But Kanye West Doctor Who is embarrassing. It’s not that the Doctor can’t be a remarkable, fear-inspiring creature – the problem is that the writers don’t show it.
Sherlock Holmes, a chap not known for modesty, doesn’t tell enemies to give in just because he’s Sherlock Holmes; he does something brilliant. But telling readers what to think and feel, instead of showing it, usually backfires. When Kanye West Doc says ‘be afraid of me’, my response is, ‘I’ve met plenty of plonkers like you’.
Yo, show not tell.
2 ‘Solve the situation by giving the bomb counselling’.
In the new Doctor Who, aliens, bombs and errant Hoovers are often talked into finding their inner humanity and then renouncing their evil intentions.
Actually, this would work if the writer had set up a weakness early on in the story that could be exploited in that way. You can pull absolutely anything out of the hat to solve a problem if it has been seeded properly. But in Doctor Who it often isn’t done, and so counselling the bomb looks like sentimental rubbish and the last resort of a writer who couldn’t think of anything better. Sir Terry Pratchett calls it makeitupasyougalongeum in his guest blog post on SFX. (He also points out that in more academic circles it is known as deus ex machina.)
You might say that I shouldn’t take these things so seriously. In that case, I urge you to look at the climax of GalaxyQuest. Although it’s a spoof, it played fair by the audience. The crew dragged a magnetic minefield behind the ship and tricked the enemy to wander into it. It was properly set up – earlier in the story we saw them have a tricky encounter with the minefield. It wasn’t plucked out of the vacuum as a thing they’d suddenly found and could use.
(This reuse of ideas seeded earlier is called reincorporation. It’s extremely satisfying and you can find more on it here.)
In Doctor Who, makeitupasyougalongeum surfaces in another guise: ‘get out the sonic screwdriver’.
The sonic screwdriver can get the Doc out of any hotspot if convenient. Some producers of earlier series minimized its use, because they didn’t want a gadget that could cure all. But now it’s a magic wand that writers can wave to solve any problem. Handily, they have it malfunction or make up new characteristics for it when they want the problem to last a while longer. Eg in Silence in the Library it apparently won’t open a door made of wood. I bet it’s opened plenty in the past.
The first rule of magical or powerful devices is to give them boundaries but this has none. What the sonic screwdriver can do is entirely governed by what is convenient for the writers in each episode.
As I’ve said, I love Doctor Who and regard it as essential brain food for creatives, young and old. But often it is plying audiences with major story cheats – ones that Hollywood movies, for instance, wouldn’t allow. Hollywood storytelling may sometimes push obvious buttons, but its principles are underpinned by what we respond to as intelligent life forms. We don’t like fudged explanations and we snigger at plonkers.
It’s kind of a law of the universe. Yo, don’t mess with that, Doctor.
Do you have any examples of makeitupasyougalongeum or Kanye West Doctor Who? Share them here!