Friday, January 1, 2016

A Study in Dialogue: techniques from Sherlock Holmes

Do you know what happens today? The Sherlock Christmas special plays tonight! To celebrate I thought I'd finally post something I've been mulling over. 

I adore the BBC Sherlock, so last year I finally started reading the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (really, his name is a mouthful though). There have been many Sherlock adaptions, especially in recent years, and trust me the originals do not disappoint. In fact, it fascinates me to see Sherlock's origins in comparison to the many versions of both character and story that exist today. 


"Sherlock in a nutshell gif - perfect" - Omg, this .gif pretty much sums up the Sherlock fandom's sense of humor, haha.<-- We've been waiting too long...
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One thing I noticed about the story is that Sir Doyle ('scuse me, sir, do you mind the abbreviation?) often uses dialogue as a way of telling us what's going on in the story. 

No, not that bad form of cheating where the characters talk about things they both know of simply to inform the audience. 

I mean things such as:


"And an exceedingly interesting case it appears to be. I would not have missed it for worlds. But there is a ring at the bell, Watson, and the clock makes it a few minutes after four, I have no doubt that this will prove to be our noble client. Do not dream of going, Watson, for I very much prefer having a witness, if only as a check to my own memory."  

Sherlock Holmes, The Noble Bachelor 
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
 

Instead of leaving off the dialogue to go into a whole: 

"Brrring! 

There was the bell. Downstairs, Mrs. Hudson's rushed footsteps padded to the door."

Sir Doyle has Holmes abruptly interrupt his own conversation to mention the ringing of the bell. The reader understands that someone has arrived without being taken step by step through all the specifics. 

Also, the part when Holmes asks Watson not to leave with the most specific words, "Do not dream of going," implies that Watson has readied himself to leave. Sir Doyle evokes the image of Watson preparing to leave through Holmes' dialogue. We can see it without a tedious narration of it. 
 In fact, we can image it in our own fashion, whether Watson has gathered his newspapers together to leave, or has already stood from his chair, is left entirely to the reader. 

The latter example could be my own supposition, but:

1) In the books, Watson always believes Holmes will not wish him to hear the client's tale. 

2) Many of the old television shows, that follow the original story closely, always show Watson preparing to leave with similar dialogue (this is a common occurrence in the Holmes series).

3) Holmes' mind works so fast, it makes sense that in writing there would not be enough time for a narration of the action coupled with Holmes' verbal observation/request. (Although this may be debatable as it is told from Watson's viewpoint.)


Mind palace
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4) Sir Doyle's frequent use of this dialogue trick makes me think he's using it with real purpose. 

Either way though, I don't often see this used in books today. It's not good to use it very often, of course, as it is better to show things. But it can be very useful, especially in writing from a deep level of POV. 

1) It helps keep things concise, if you're going for a short story (like the Holmes series). 

2) If you're character's mind jumps from one thing to another abruptly, there may be little time left in between for narration. 

3) It can give the impression that the character is talking fast.

4) Also, a character will talk like this if he is very distracted and/or experiencing sensory overload (this has my life written all over it). 


Sherlock's character arc. This is what he's come from
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5) If the characters are so wrapped up in conversation that they only absorb the their environment as an afterthought and so mention it in their dialogue. It's the old, delayed reaction sort of thing (again, this is me to an embarrassing degree).  For instance: 

 "That's very fascinating indeed! Didn't the doorbell ring?" 

 4) It's useful when you do not want to, or it seems unrealistic to, continually "place" your characters. The whole "he went to the door" or "he saw the flowers," can get tiresome as far as narration goes. Showing it through dialogue can mix it up a bit. For instance if you originally had one character seated then he says something to the effect of, 

"'Oh, let me get the door for you.'" 

We know without you telling us that he's now getting up and going to the door. Then you don't have to go through the charade of:

"He stood and dashed to the door." 

Again though, conveying the action through dialogue leaves the image up to the readers. Some will see him dash in a blunder. Others will seem him athletic, and so forth. . .

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 So if you want to show us exactly how he went to the door and opened it, then you'll want to narrate it. 

"He dashed smartly to the door, polished his knuckles on his shirt, and finally opened the it with a cocky bow. 

'My lady.'"

It all depends which way you wish to go with it. I hope this was informative or helpful. It's at least fun to experiment with:

"Yeah, here'd be good." They set it [a table] under the window. "Nudge it against the wall some more. Yeah like that."

(My characters say "yeah" a lot for being in a fantasy.)
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 I hope you get to watch the Sherlock Christmas special. I'm pretty much like: 


Lestrade XD
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So have you read the Sir Doyle's originals? What are your favorite Holmes adaptions whether books or the screen? Any recs?





11 comments:

  1. I adore Sherlock in any form, but the BBC just seemed to do something to it, that makes it stand out for some reason. I can't wait to watch the Christmas Special. *Fangirling*
    I never noticed this until you pointed it out, but that is so cool. I love the books, I think I might try to use that in some of my writings this year. I hate having to place characters, it can draw people out of the story so easily. Great Post!

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    1. The BBC Sherlock really does stand out a lot. And I liked the special. Especially a lot of the camera tricks and angles they had in it. The twist between worlds.

      Yes, placing characters. Bleh. It's fine at times, but ALL THE TIME and even as a reader I get bored unless the characters are actually doing something more specific than just "standing" there.

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  2. I've only read A Study in Scarlet but I COMPLETELY NOTICED THIS TOO. I think it's a very specific method of storytelling? Buuut, it did bother me that it was so heavily telling vs showing. Like I felt I knew nothing about the characters because the book was just lengthy dialogue over the plot/event instead of developing the actual characters. I mean, it was okay! I enjoyed it! But I felt like I was being talked at instead of sucked into the story. If that makes sense?
    But I still do like the idea of using dialogue to get past tedious details. Like the whole "was the that doorbell" is showing/telling a lot! Like the character was too caught up to notice and yesss, like you said, DEEP POV. So there's goods and bads to it, I guess. ;)
    I haven't watched the latest Sherlock episode yet. I've heard it's crazy complicated?! :P

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    1. You're so right! A Study in Scarlet was kind of hard to focus on because it was so. . . telly. Honestly, it's a lot easier to read the short stories. But they are all like that. There's no character development, mostly because there's no character arc. Holmes doesn't change ever. Watson gets married, but as a character he stays the same too. It's kind of one of those things you have to read for the mystery and logic because the characters are always going to be the same. Which is why I love adaptions, because they always add in a character arc. I think this is why BBC Sherlock is so far my favorite.

      Ah! Deep POV is one of my favorite topics. I might do a miniseries on it. . .

      CAIT! YOU MUST! It is superb. It's a little mind-jostling just because there is so much going on at once. But, sincerely, once the movie-makers want you to actually know what's going on, you'll know. As long as you watch from start to finish, you won't get lost. They do some awesome stuff with the camera too.

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  3. These are all super good points, and I don't think I ever considered them as I was reading the originals. But it's definitely something to think about. I especially like how it would convey the speed of Sherlock's thought process. Breaking the dialogue to describe Watson getting up would make Sherlock seem like a slower person over all.

    I'm not sure I've read all the original stories, but I know that I've read the majority of them. And as for retellings, the BBC Sherlock is by far my favorite. *hugs Benedict Cumberbatch* Also, that Sherlock in a nutshell GIF is my new favorite of ever. :P

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    1. Yes, I love how it conveys the speed of his thoughts. I might have to try it sometime with that in mind.

      I think BBC Sherlock is my favorite too! (Did you see the special?) It's well done, and I like the character arc they added.

      It's one of my favorite gifs also. I have to tell myself not to use it for every post.

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    2. I actually haven't seen the special yet. *wails* I was so busy right around the time it came out, I didn't have the chance. But I'm hoping they'll put it on Netflix soon, although I'll buy it before then if I have to because I REALLY NEED TO SEE IT.

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  4. Love love love this post! I really should read the Conan Doyle series. BBC Sherlock is like the dirty secret of my book purist self. I am, always have been and always will be, absolutely fixed on "I won't watch it if I've not read it." And yet, there is Sherlock, walking behind me, playing the violin. (That gif gave me so much joy. John's face is just perfect.)

    As I've not read them, I can't really comment on the technique, but I totally see what you mean. I like your example at the end.

    "Yeah" is an interesting one. I went through phases of dialogue in TCATT:

    2013 -- I had not clue what I was doing and didn't think through any aspects of my story and included phrases such as "I zoned out"
    2014 -- I went super formal and stopped using contractions in the narrative
    2015 -- I laid off and returned to contractions and even used "Hey."

    But "yeah" has proved a bridge too far for me. Likewise "OK". I don't know, though, it's a tricky one.

    Great post!

    (I am going to send you the fangirl Sherlock email as promised, I swear.)

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  5. Love love love this post! I really should read the Conan Doyle series. BBC Sherlock is like the dirty secret of my book purist self. I am, always have been and always will be, absolutely fixed on "I won't watch it if I've not read it." And yet, there is Sherlock, walking behind me, playing the violin. (That gif gave me so much joy. John's face is just perfect.)

    As I've not read them, I can't really comment on the technique, but I totally see what you mean. I like your example at the end.

    "Yeah" is an interesting one. I went through phases of dialogue in TCATT:

    2013 -- I had not clue what I was doing and didn't think through any aspects of my story and included phrases such as "I zoned out"
    2014 -- I went super formal and stopped using contractions in the narrative
    2015 -- I laid off and returned to contractions and even used "Hey."

    But "yeah" has proved a bridge too far for me. Likewise "OK". I don't know, though, it's a tricky one.

    Great post!

    (I am going to send you the fangirl Sherlock email as promised, I swear.)

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    1. I'm usually the same but saw BBC Sherlock first. Then my guitar instructor mentioned the books (because I have a Sherlock phone case, and he happens to be a huge Sherlockian except he's a purist when it comes to the books and BBC Sherlock frustrated him; which makes me sad, but you know, to each his own). I'd always wanted to read the actually books, but I think talking to my guitar instructor really is what made me finally read them.

      And they are fantastic by the way!

      Yeah, it just naturally rolls of all the tongues of the whole Foursome. It's a bit distressing. They say "okay" a lot too. I think I can let the "yeah" slide, but I'd prefer to cut back on the "okay"s.

      (I shall look forward to it!)

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