Guest blogger: Jennifer McAndrews

05 Mar

Tackling Revision with Sherlock Holmes

During her first semester at college, my daughter returned home one weekend and asked, “Mom. Have you ever watched ‘Sherlock’?” I hadn’t. But as a mystery writer, I thought I’d better.

It didn’t take long for me to become hooked. “Sherlock,” as you may have guessed or already know, is the latest television incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. To date the BBC has run two “series,”, with three episodes in each series.

Only recently did I learn that the first episode of the show, the one we’d watched via Netflix prior to the release of the show on DVD, was truly the first episode, but not the show’s pilot. Imagine my excitement! An episode I hadn’t seen! (When there are only six, a new episode is a Big Deal.)

Turns out, it wasn’t a new episode. I learned the pilot was a shortened version of the first episode (“A Study in Pink”), with some script changes and a different director. Now that intrigued me. For almost as long as I have had access to special features on DVDs I have been fascinated by deleted scenes. I always want to know why – what made the director or editor choose to cut a specific scene? What made one ending better than another? For me, studying the scenes in relation to the story was a lesson in writing craft. Certainly sometimes scenes were shortened by only a line of dialogue or two and there wasn’t much to learn from them. But the longer scenes? The ones that might have shed new light on a character – why delete them?

I approached the pilot to “Sherlock” with that same student-of-craft attitude. I was keen to spot the differences and theorize on the reason for the change between the two versions, thinking I might pick up a tip or two to help make revising my written stories go that much quicker. For “Sherlock” the differences between pilot and first episode are summed in length, script changes, and director. Sounds simple enough. But each, taken in detail, gives a writer something to learn from.

Between the episodes, John Watson’s demeanor remains the same. The character of Sherlock himself, however, manages to be both subtly and strikingly different. While his precise dialogue may not have changed, the actor’s delivery differs. In prose fiction, we would perhaps describe his speech pattern in the pilot as “crisp, bright but not quite cheerful”. Change the dialogue description to “rapid-fire, nearly condescending” and an entirely different character emerges. Where once Sherlock wore an almost-smile, transform the expression into almost permanent sneer and an altogether different man unfolds. Such simple changes! Consider making such ever-so-slight adjustments in one of the scenes in a book you are writing or reading. Change a phrase like “he paced slowly” to “he paced frantically” and the very energy of the scene is altered. One word was all it took.

Another obvious discrepancy between pilot and episode one are location choices. To be fair, the shifts may have been as much about location availability and budget, but remember, I’m looking at this from a writer’s perspective, not a film student’s. That being the case, I’m going to boldly state that location changes aided in shift of mood of certain scenes. During a dinner between Sherlock and Watson, pilot has them dining at an intimate table for two deep inside a dimly lit restaurant. In conversation, Watson advises Sherlock that he’s flattered by the attention but he prefers girls. Sherlock proclaims he is married to his work. Watson does not appear too convinced – neither does the restaurant proprietor. Switch to episode one, same meal, same proprietor. The proprietor even insists on bringing a candle to the table. But this restaurant has an almost greasy-spoon feel to it, and Watson and Holmes are sitting at a table for four inside the restaurant’s large street-facing window. The writer’s lesson is as plain as the lesson to the viewer: the wrong setting can cause mixed signals for an audience. Be certain that in writing the surroundings you place your characters in are appropriate to the moment. Again, a seemingly simple thing – moving characters to a different table and changing the (apparent) menu – and the entire mood is upended. Any potential romantic overtones are absent. Add a neon light in the window and it’s detective stake-out in one of its most recognizable forms.

And yet, remarkably, with a thirty-minute difference between the versions, the pacing remains the same. It’s the shifting in character demeanor, a change in lighting and slightly more somber music, and Sherlock’s sheer intensity that keeps the story moving. What does this tell the writer or viewer? That pacing is not an element to be considered on its own. The pace of a piece is affected by its many parts. The motion of the character, the attitude of a location, the speed of the dialogue all come together to impact on pace.

This last, perhaps, is one of the most surprising and valuable lessons I took away from my viewings of “A Study in Pink”. So many times I’ll read notes from writers asking how they can fix the pacing of their story. And beyond the standard “tricks” of when to raise story questions or where to leave a reader hanging, the answer has eluded me. But I begin to see the difficulty lays in believing that pacing is a singular element – like a character’s manner of speech, or length of scene. Instead, it is many unique elements blended together. Adjustment to pacing requires attention to all of those elements – no shortcuts.

Okay, so that last may not make my story revisions go any faster. But the new insight I’ve gained may make them easier, which might make me feel like I’m going faster. And the faster I can get through revisions, the faster I can get back to re-watching “Sherlock.”

Jennifer McAndrews is a Romance Writers of America Golden Heart® finalist and a two-time Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence finalist. Her latest release, DEADLY FARCE (a humorous mystery from Avalon Books) introduces bodyguard/private investigator Lorraine Keys, whose unorthodox methods of deduction would have Sherlock Holmes speechless with shock.


Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Guest Blog, Idaho



26 responses to “Guest blogger: Jennifer McAndrews

  1. Janis McCurry

    March 5, 2012 at 6:50 AM

    Jennifer, that’s a great point about pacing not being a singular component. It’s all about interweaving. Thanks for guest blogging on Gem State Writers.

  2. jennifer mcandrews

    March 5, 2012 at 7:57 AM

    Thanks for allowing me to blog, Janis! And the idea about pacing…that was really a revelation for me. No wonder it would devil me so! Now how bizarre is it that I can’t wait to go fix pacing? *bg*

  3. Peggy Staggs

    March 5, 2012 at 8:34 AM

    Jennifer, thanks for a great blog. Motivating insights. This is one I’m going to put in my, “Read Before Writing,” notebook.

  4. Liz Fredericks

    March 5, 2012 at 8:57 AM

    Hi Jennifer, thank you for blogging on GSW. I don’t watch much TV but keep learning from others about how useful it might be to think through pacing etc. Now, you’ve also inspired me to check out the episodes.

    • jennifer mcandrews

      March 5, 2012 at 10:35 AM

      Liz, I have to say I’m not a television watcher, either. Or, more accurately, I watch sports, but not scripted shows. I try and keep track, though, when fellow writers mention shows they love and recommend as good “learning tools.” If I hear the same name repeatedly (Buffy, Firefly, Supernatural) I’ll try and check it out. I must admit, though, I think “Sherlock” is pure enjoyment. But definitely check it out! Your local library may have the DVDs.

  5. Clarissa Southwick

    March 5, 2012 at 9:05 AM

    I love this version of Sherlock Holmes, so I’m fascinated to hear about how it came about.

    The Sherlock character absolutely makes the show for me because he has the same physical energy as a young “genius” I know. In one early episode, Sherlock steps on and over a sofa instead of going around it. In that second, I knew the character and loved him.

    Episode after episode, I am amazed at how real this character seems–even though he was originally written in the 19th century.

    Thanks so much for analyzing this for us. I learned a lot.

    • jennifer mcandrews

      March 5, 2012 at 10:41 AM

      squeee! A fellow Sherlock fan! Had I known I would have gone into really excessive detail : )

      I agree with you about Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock really making the character come alive in the 21st century. I love that you can practically see the wheels turning in his mind; you know this guy is a genius, with all the attendant problems that brings. For me, it’s so much more accurate than calm and cool Sherlock, yanno? But I also adore John Watson and how the writers managed to show me how and why he is loyal to Sherlock.

      Umm…we were talking about writing, right? oh, yeah, right. I know! I’ll study another episode tonight and call it research ; )

      Thanks for inviting me today!

  6. Ginger Calem

    March 5, 2012 at 9:08 AM

    What great insight to revisions and improving pacing. Thanks, Jennifer! This is going to be hugely helpful to me and now I have another TV show I have to check out as well. 😉

    • jennifer mcandrews

      March 5, 2012 at 10:58 AM

      Thanks for stopping by, Ginger! As I’ve said already here, the realization that pacing was more than keeping tension on the page and putting hooks in the proper places really caught me by surprise. I’m actually eager to re-view some of my favorite films and re-read some favorite books specifically to see how the pacing was handled. I’m a geek that way : )
      And yes, do check out “Sherlock”. It’s fab!

  7. RRuin

    March 5, 2012 at 9:17 AM

    It’s why it’s helpful to read a manuscript out loud during editing. You should be able to feel and hear the rhythm, the pacing. It’s really very much like music and you can feel when a note is off.

    • jennifer mcandrews

      March 5, 2012 at 11:11 AM

      Yup, reading aloud is a good method. But I think equally important to keep in mind, when you go back to the page to revise, you need to remember the “big picture”. It’s not necessarily one line of dialogue or an over-long description that impacts the pacing, but may be many different elements coming together.

      • RRuin

        March 5, 2012 at 11:13 AM

        Kind of know that but thanks for the tip.

        • RRuin

          March 5, 2012 at 11:18 AM

          Great blog post btw!

        • RRuin

          March 5, 2012 at 12:18 PM

          Replying to my comment which wasn’t mean to read so snarky! I do think, however, there is no magic bullet when it comes to what makes a novel great. There are novels with slow pacing that are great.

  8. Meredith Conner

    March 5, 2012 at 9:38 AM

    Thanks for blogging today Jennifer. I love the subtleties and details that you pointed out in the two different versions of the same episode. I love stories that are rich in detail and it is fascinating how the smallest things can change a story – not diminish it, but change it so it is altogether something new.

  9. jennifer mcandrews

    March 5, 2012 at 11:37 AM

    Meredith, thanks for commenting! And yes! Isn’t it amazing how what we may have dismissed as insignificant can completely transform a scene/character/story? So often I think of revision as a big hack and slash effort; it’s nice to be reminded that sometimes all a big change needs is a small adjustment at the right point.

  10. ramblingsfromtheleft

    March 5, 2012 at 11:54 AM

    Jennifer, I would hope that you take the time to watch the other BBC Sherlock series with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock. They are also available on Netflix. About the difference in the setting, the reason is that without telling Watson, Sherlock wanted to look for the cab and needed the window seat. Probably that was more of the reason to change the location … so it would fit into the story line of how Sherlock was tracking down the man in the cab.

    If you got a great deal out of A Study In Pink and the other new BBC versions, you will get more from the originals … and honestly … you will get the best from Conan Doyle’s books. As writers it is always helpful to watch movies and TV (some TV that is) and use them to teach of about setting, scene changes, inflections and so on … as a purist I usually watch the first two times for the fun and then later in the third or fourth viewing I begin to use a more critical eye. Thanks for a very interesting post … now go find Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock and have some more fun with Doyle 🙂

    • RRuin

      March 5, 2012 at 12:16 PM

      Jeremy Brett is, imo, the best Sherlock Holmes ever.

  11. jennifer mcandrews

    March 5, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    ah, but in the pilot Sherlock isn’t sure it’s a cab until he spies it from the restaurant (although I wonder if he knows but doesn’t say? certainly the viewer has figured it out by this point!). He chooses the window seat to watch the street. But in any case, for me, the change in table selection changed the mood of the scene somewhat — though that may have as much to do with the divergence in story lines from this point forward. Poor me. I’m going to have to go back and watch both again just to be sure ; )

    I haven’t read Conan Doyle’s works since college, though am now looking for a window of time to begin again. If only there were more hours in the day! And yes, we’ve begun on Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock as well and thoroughly enjoying.

    Thanks so much for stopping by and talking Sherlock and reminding me to get back to reading : )

    • jennifer mcandrews

      March 5, 2012 at 12:24 PM

      oops — that is, in Episode 1 he’s not sure it’s a cab. That’s what I get for rushing a reply! *blush*

  12. jennifer mcandrews

    March 5, 2012 at 1:50 PM

    Ah! My better-fan-than-I daughter just tweeted to let me know I got John and Sherlock’s dialogue mixed up. It was Sherlock who says “While I’m flattered…”. But she forgave me. Isn’t she sweet?

  13. Johanna Harness

    March 6, 2012 at 5:19 AM

    Wonderful analysis! I love Sherlock and really enjoyed your comparisons. Thanks for this.

    • jennifer mcandrews

      March 6, 2012 at 7:25 AM

      glad you enjoyed, Johanna! I had fun looking at it and determined now to do deeper character analyses — such torture it will be ; )
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  14. Mary Vine

    March 6, 2012 at 3:37 PM

    What a great teaching blog, Jennifer. Love the analysis very much. Thanks for being a guest!

  15. jennifermcandrews

    March 6, 2012 at 5:37 PM

    Thanks for being such great hostesses!


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