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.