When I first started writing fiction again in the middle of 2007, after a hiatus of over a decade, I realized that I had lost the cadence and flow of writing a story. Story writing is inherently an entirely different process from that of non-fiction. As a result, I had a tendency to stall, and stall badly.
The damage was spectacularly bad on a couple of short mystery stories I wrote. I was filled with sadness and despair, but I kept going ’cause I’m like that.
One day, I stumbled across the thread of a wise writer, by the name of James D. McDonald, over at AbsoluteWrite called Learn Writing with Uncle Jim. One of his suggestions is to retype the first chapter of a novel:
Now, retype the first chapter. Do this with your writer’s eye, not your reader’s eye. Think about the lengths of the sentences, the lengths of the paragraphs, the sounds of the words. Think about the order of the scenes. Notice the dialog. How are the dialog tags rendered? Where is the point of view?
The point of this exercise is this: Have you ever gone to an art museum and seen the art students sitting there with their easels and oils, copying the great masters? The point isn’t to turn them into plagairists, or to make them expert forgers. The point is to get the feeling into their hands and arms of how to make the brush strokes that create a particular illusion on canvas. Writing is no less a physical skill than painting.
I thought that was pretty crazy, and didn’t try it at first.
One day I decided, what the heck.
Well, I don’t think it’s crazy anymore.
So let me take you on my journey of retyping “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”.
While “Speckled Band” is not Pride and Prejudice or The Brothers Karamazov, it is an indisputable favorite of the Canon across multiple Sherlockian/Holmesian polls, and one of the best early stories. And since I’m writing a mystery serial I thought it’d be wise to walk in the footsteps of one of the most successful of mystery writers.
As it turns out, Doyle knew quite a bit about writing short stories–not just detective mystery short stories. His word choice, pacing, characterization, and structuring are at times impeccable, and always–throughout this story–at least well done. The fame of Sherlock Holmes is no mere fluke; I should have known that, but I had never searched the depths of it.
(Plus it’s not like there are many teachers or professors out there who would even consider exploring Doyle in this amount of depth.)
So let us follow in his footsteps as he writes one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes adventures.
Let us type.
Getting Knocked Up
The first thing I learned is that it’s quite alright to not start out running from the start, as long as you’re able to pull the reader in with foreshadowing and just all around decent writing:
On glancing over my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I find many tragic, some comic, a large number merely strange, but none commonplace; for, working as he did rather for the love of his art than for the acquirement of wealth, he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual, and even the fantastic. Of all these varied cases, however, I cannot recall any which presented more singular features than that which was associated with the well-known Surrey family of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran.
Beginnings are one of the hardest things in any kind of writing, because that’s where you either interest the reader, or lose the reader’s attention entirely. Screwing up the beginning of your act in any art almost guarantees no one’s going to care about the rest of it. We need to hook the reader in, somehow; promise excitement, interest, adventures.
Starting slowly for beginning writers is a problem because we don’t hook the writer in from the start, however subtly, and of course our writing is shot from the start. The standard advice is to start up in medias res and throw action on the table as soon as possible–which actually starts to become repetitive and almost rote once you’ve read a slush pile of these.
Doyle, on the other hand, shows us that we can walk in–as long as we walk in with style and promise.
Here, Doyle (or, for those of us who like to play The Game, Watson) is implying, with the color of a Watson voice, that the case you’re about to read is going to be one of Holmes’s interesting cases—and since the first sentence covers a bit of Holmes’s eclectic tastes with respect to picking out what jobs to handle, you know this has a good chance of being weird. And then you hit the last sentence, and you know for sure this will be weird. It’s classic build-up.
Hmmm, you say. On, you read (or type)….
After providing slightly more background in just a couple sentences (alluding to more strangosity and singularness), note that Doyle is a very weird Victorian writer, because he immediately hits the first scene:
It was early in April in the year ’83 that I woke one morning to find Sherlock Holmes standing, fully dressed, by the side of my bed. He was a late riser, as a rule, and as the clock on the mantelpiece showed me that it was only a quarter-past seven, I blinked up at him in some surprise, and perhaps just a little resentment, for I was myself regular in my habits.
One definition of scene I ran across (in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers):
- happens in real time,
- happens in a real place,
- has specific characters.
Especially a lack of (1) means that you’re summarizing rather than letting the action play out properly. People generally want to see what’s happening; summarizing improperly is cheating your readers.
This scene starts slowly, but there’s already conflict to keep the reader interested. A lesser writer might have left out the bit where Watson was annoyed, but starting out with his annoyance at being roused early is still conflict—subtle conflict. It makes you wonder what bickering might happen next, or more to the point, why Holmes is bothering Watson so early in the morning. A story question, I believe Frey calls it in How to Write a Damn Good Novel.
Scenes without conflict risk falling flat. Scenes that keep up some sort of conflict, almost any kind of conflict, no matter how small, drag you in.
On with the motley:
“Very sorry to knock you up, Watson,” said he, “but it’s the common lot this morning. Mrs. Hudson has been knocked up, she retorted upon me, and I on you.”
“What is it, then–a fire?”
“No; a client. It seems that a young lady has arrived in a considerable state of excitement, who insists upon seeing me. She is waiting now in the sitting-room. Now, when young ladies wander about the metropolis at this hour of the morning, and knock sleepy people up out of their beds, I presume that it is something very pressing which they have to communicate. Should it prove to be an interesting case, you would, I am sure, wish to follow it from the outset. I thought, at any rate, that I should call you and give you the chance.”
Dialogue follows very quickly; we’re not ev
en five paragraphs in. Again, Doyle showing off his modern rather than Victorian flavor.
I think in The First Five Pages, an agent was mentioned who scans through pages for the first dialogue scene and reads that before he reads your first five. Dialogue is difficult to do, perhaps one of the most difficult of showing-the-story methods (for they are all harder than passive summarization, which is why the shortcut of summary is so tantalizing even if it short-changes your readers), so a writer who can get it right has potential. A writer who doesn’t….
And of course it helps if he doesn’t have to dig into page 20 to find your first bit of dialogue.
Dialogue not only informs but is also one of the best methods for showing the personality of a character. In these two paragraphs, not only is the plot advanced, but we already get a sense of Holmes’s sense of humor—something that gets strangely forgotten these days. It contrasts strongly with the Watson voice, which we’ll see later as well. We would recognize Holmes vs. Watson in a dark room.
Another important thing to note–which also contributes to the showing of character–is that the dialogue is not direct (another reference to Frey). Here’s the example with direct dialogue:
“Very sorry to knock you up, Watson,” said he, “but it’s an emergency.”
“What is it, then–a fire?”
“No; a client. A considerably excited young lady has arrived and insists upon seeing me. I presume she has something interesting to communicate. Should this prove to be an interesting case, I thought you might be interested.”
Bad dialogue scene, STAT! Someone has removed all the bubbly! Flat like flat champagne, which is very flat indeed. The back and forth, the wit, in the original version we like much better. It’s also much harder to come up with; it’s one of those details that drives an author crazy. But as they say, it’s the little things that count.
One final thing before I end this part:
“My dear fellow, I would not miss it for anything.”
And with that, the first scene is resolved–importantly, it’s resolved in favor of forward movement. You want to keep moving forward, even if it’s just a little at a time; still water is usually only good for mosquitoes.
I had no keener pleasure than in following Holmes in his professional investigations, and in admiring the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis with which he unravelled the problems which were submitted to him. I rapidly threw on my clothes and was ready in a few minutes to accompany my friend down to the sitting-room. A lady dressed in black and heavily veiled, who had been sitting in the window, rose as we entered.
Okay, this is obviously summary. But it’s the right place for telling: connecting two scenes (the second of which will be very large), and modifying pace.
Meeting Helen Stoner
“Good-morning, madam,” said Holmes cheerily. “My name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my intimate friend and associate, Dr. Watson, before whom you can speak as freely as before myself. Ha! I am glad to see that Mrs. Hudson has had the good sense to light the fire. Pray draw up to it, and I shall order you a cup of hot coffee, for I observe that you are shivering.”
You may see a redundant adverb here in ‘”Good-morning, madam”, said Holmes cheerily’. Is it? It’s not a recommended practice if your dialogue already expresses what your adverb describes (‘”I’m not having any more of this!” he said angrily’, for instance). And too many adverbs in this manner are also tiresome to read (‘”I’m starving,” he said hungrily. “Me too,” she said jokingly. “Are there sausages?” he asked wonderingly. “No, I think not,” she said unsurely.’).
Like a writer with good style, Doyle doesn’t pair up dialogue with an adverb very often. And “cheerily” is not redundant; here I take it to mean “in a cheery voice”, which does modify how Holmes is speaking, a modification not entirely evident from the dialogue.
Also notice that some action is embedded in the dialogue; or, rather, a reaction is embedded in dialogue that implies some other action, not previously mentioned, that the speaker is reacting to. This can remove needless duplication and keeps things rolling along. In all things, moderation, of course; but this is something that is part of Doyle’s style.
“It is not cold which makes me shiver,” said the woman in a low voice, changing her seat as requested.
“It is fear, Mr. Holmes. It is terror.” She raised her veil as she spoke, and we could see that she was indeed in a pitiable state of agitation, her face all drawn and grey, with restless frightened eyes, like those of some hunted animal. Her features and figure were those of a woman of thirty, but her hair was shot with premature grey, and her expression was weary and haggard. Sherlock Holmes ran her over with one of his quick, all-comprehensive glances.
Build-up at work again. Now, describing the client: Watson does not launch into full-blown detail, but describes just enough to get the important ones. Every detail is focused on one point—to communicate her fear. Nothing about beautiful eyes and luxurious locks and perfect skin with a mole on one cheek here. That would be straying and distracting. Here, Doyle is focused like a laser.
“You must not fear,” said he soothingly, bending forward and patting her forearm. “We shall soon set matters right, I have no doubt. You have come in by train this morning, I see.”
Do we need the soothingly? Probably not. The beat (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) of Holmes leaning forwards and patting her forearm, and his reassurances, are enough to show us that aspect–and far more illustrative than any mere adverb can suggest.
“You know me, then?”
“No, but I observe the second half of a return ticket in the palm of your left glove. You must have started early, and yet you had a good drive in a dog-cart, along heavy roads, before you reached the station.”
The lady gave a violent start and stared in bewilderment at my companion.
“There is no mystery, my dear madam,” said he, smiling. “The left arm of your jacket is spattered with mud in no less than seven places. The marks are perfectly fresh. There is no vehicle save a dog-cart which throws up mud in that way, and then only when you sit on the left-hand side of the driver.”
Swain calls this action/reaction. Holmes observes, client reacts, usually in progressive stages of surprise (and no, it doesn’t go on too long). This technique spices up what fans of the Canon call “the impress-the-client deductions”, that would otherwise be a speed bump in terms of story pace.
There are actually very few instances of Holmes in the Canon deducing for paragraphs on end without an interjection from somebody (often Watson) to break up the otherwise monotonically increasing monotony and keep us interested in what he has to say. He may have a lot to explain, but Doyle paces his explanations well–something we’ll see much later when the story is wrapped up.
(There are some pastiches where Holmes goes on for one full paragraph that spans a couple pages. It makes me want to shoot myself through the head, but that’s just me.)
“Whatever your reasons may be, you are perfectly correct,” said she. “I started from hom
e before six, reached Leatherhead at twenty past, and came in by the first train to Waterloo. Sir, I can stand this strain no longer; I shall go mad if it continues. I have no one to turn to–none, save only one, who cares for me, and he, poor fellow, can be of little aid. I have heard of you, Mr. Holmes; I have heard of you from Mrs. Farintosh, whom you helped in the hour of her sore need. It was from her that I had your address. Oh, sir, do you not think that you could help me, too, and at least throw a little light on the dense darkness which surrounds me? At present it is out of my power to reward you for your services, but in a month or six weeks I shall be married, with the control of my own income, and then at least you shall not find me ungrateful.”
She resolves the client deduction phase, and continues the build-up. There is some background matter thrown in with Farintosh to establish Holmes’s reputation among others–another method of characterization. He’s a minor legend, and we have faith that he can help and that the story isn’t going to simply sink down the drain with an incompetent lead.
(That, too, is a downfall of many beginner stories: having a stupid main character, for then the writer can more easily plot to bewilder him. Really, really not suggested unless you have more aces up your sleeve than Doyle does.)
Holmes turned to his desk and, unlocking it, drew out a small case-book, which he consulted.
“Farintosh,” said he. “Ah yes, I recall the case; it was concerned with an opal tiara. I think it was before your time, Watson. I can only say, madam, that I shall be happy to devote the same care to your case as I did to that of your friend. As to reward, my profession is its own reward; but you are at liberty to defray whatever expenses I may be put to, at the time which suits you best. And now I beg that you will lay before us everything that may help us in forming an opinion upon the matter.”
Again, dialogue is one of the best ways of showing character: Holmes is gallant, and also extremely polite and considerate towards Miss Stoner. We also learn that he’s been in the business for some time now.
“Alas!” replied our visitor, “the very horror of my situation lies in the fact that my fears are so vague, and my suspicions depend so entirely upon small points, which might seem trivial to another, that even he to whom of all others I have a right to look for help and advice looks upon all that I tell him about it as the fancies of a nervous woman. He does not say so, but I can read it from his soothing answers and averted eyes. But I have heard, Mr. Holmes, that you can see deeply into the manifold wickedness of the human heart. You may advise me how to walk amid the dangers which encompass me.”
“I am all attention, madam.”
More build-up, more legend-building for Sherlock Holmes. The reader is practically on the edge of their seat at this point. By now I was in some awe of how Doyle covered so many of the guidelines, implicit and explicit, to writing narrative. There is considerably more such awe as we continue the story.
Until next time, stay warm by the fire.
Continued in Part 2 – Dealing with Information Dumps.