As a lifelong Sherlock Holmes buff, I thought I’d hate the BBC TV series, Sherlock, which is based on the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories but is updated to 21st century London. I was wrong. How wrong was I? About as wrong as Ptolemy was when he said that Earth– not the Sun– is the center of the universe. The show is magnificent, and revolves around the brilliant light of Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor who plays Holmes as if he popped out of the womb wearing a deerstalker hat and humiliating lesser mortals with his stiletto-sharp intellect. But if Cumberbatch is the Sun in the Sherlock universe, the nuclear fuel that illuminates him is generated by the show’s equally gifted creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.
Whether you write for the big or small screen, you can learn a lot from the geniuses behind Sherlock. Actually, it’s elementary. Just watch the show (you can catch up on the previous episodes on Netflix), gather the evidence, and before you know it you’ll be making brilliant deductions about the keys to writing a successful script. But to give you a head start, here are 7 basic things that screenwriters can learn from Sherlock:
1) BE BOLD. The writers and everyone involved in Sherlock know their Holmes– no question about it– and show enormous respect for the original Conan Doyle stories. But they never make the mistake of strictly adhering to “the canon” (the 56 short stories and four novels about Holmes and Watson written by Conan Doyle) so religiously that they can’t take big and appropriate chances. Sherlock constantly makes brave choices that feel bold and inevitable at the same time. Its writers are hugely respectful of the original stories, but never a slave to them. The message for you as a screenwriter is: be brave, be bold, and like Sherlock himself, never do anything half-way.
2) BE VISUAL. Sherlock turns the Great Detective and his bodacious brain into a walking and talking one-man Google Glass. When Holmes is drawing instant deductions about people, we can literally see every conjecture from his rapid-fire thought process as words, superimposed and jumping around on the screen like a pan of Jiffy Pop heated to critical mass. And when the show rewinds past events– sometimes in more than one alternate version– characters’ memories are presented in rapid-fire action that percolates across the screen. This innovative show is exciting, it’s witty, and it’s more fun than a barrel of Baker Street Irregulars. In your own screenplays, always remember that just because your characters use cell phones and computers, or are talking about past events, doesn’t mean that your story has to be visually dull.
3) FIND A NEW TWIST. Sherlock is at its best when it finds clever 21st century twists on the old Sherlock Holmes stories (e.g., the modern Holmes uses nicotine patches instead of smoking when he is attempting to solve a case: his latest “three-pipe problem”). The show also constantly throws surprises at the audience. Sometimes, half the fun of this show is in being able to “guess ahead” and correctly predict the answers to some of its temporary mysteries (for example, in one episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” I was able to guess how Sherlock Holmes figured out the combination for the villainess’s safe), and other times it’s nice to be fooled. In fact, Sherlock‘s writers have a lot of fun with this notion, constantly teasing the show’s audience in a delicious tango between surprise and predictability. As a screenwriter, you too should strive to strike the right balance between familiarity and originality, find new twists on what has been done before– and surprise your audience.
4) WRITE ROLES THAT STARS WILL LOVE TO PLAY. Sherlock is populated by mesmerizing three-dimensional characters, especially Holmes and Watson and the show’s off-beat villains, and it’s no surprise that the producers were able to attract gifted actors for all of its roles. Sherlock Holmes in this TV series is an extraordinarily complex fellow (just as he was in the original Conan Doyle stories). As played by Cumberbatch, Holmes combines genius, a passion for justice, a flair for showmanship, flashes of cruelty (which one senses is mostly a defense mechanism), an addictive personality, compassion, and Asperger’s-like social impairments. As in the original stories, we see him through Watson’s eyes, understand his good qualities (which he often does his best to hide), and grow to share Watson’s affection for him. Holmes also becomes more emotionally evolved over time, thanks to Watson’s support, occasional “tough love,” and good influence on him.
In the Sherlock scripts, Holmes frequently calls himself “a high-functioning sociopath.” Forgive me, Mr. Holmes, but just this once you are wrong. Sociopaths are incapable of empathy, have no emotions and only fake them to fool others. Holmes has some empathy and plenty of emotions, but is uncomfortable with his feelings and is inept at expressing them– a more exaggerated version of a problem that in one form or another many (perhaps most?) people have. Also, unlike a sociopath, he is usually completely honest with others (except of course when it comes to using disguises, faking his own death, and other “minor” matters!)– which is part of his problem, since he can be tactless.
Dr. Watson, a veteran of a war in Afghanistan both in the current TV series and in the original Holmes stories, suffers from PTSD, which adds many layers to this character.
Even the “minor” characters in the Sherlock TV series– such as Molly, the mousy and insecure morgue pathologist who has a massive (and, at least at first, seemingly hopeless) crush on the emotionally reticent and occasionally callous Sherlock Holmes– have their own story arcs. In fact, the role of Molly, which the writers’ initially intended to be just a “one-off,” became a series regular because the actor who played her, Louise Brealey, instantly became a fan favorite– in part perhaps because Molly seems to represent the “hopeless crush” that the show’s legion of female fans have on the actor who plays Sherlock.
The lesson for you is: write all your script’s roles as if every one of them has to be good enough to win the actor who plays him (or her) an Emmy or an Oscar. And give every character his own agenda, conflict, distinctive personality, and story arc. Another tip: write lead characters that your audience will love despite– and partly because of– their personal flaws. Make us care about them. Study how “Sherlock” does this with Holmes and Watson, and how their relationship evolves over time as each one helps the other.
5) GREAT VILLAINS MAKE GREAT MOVIES. Sherlock has some of the most juicy, over-the-top villains since the old James Bond movies. The popularity of Andrew Scott, the actor who plays Sherlock’s twisted nemesis, Moriarty, among Sherlock fans almost rivals Cumberbatch’s. The same can be said of the show’s other villains, including seductress/dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), and blackmailer-to-the-rich-and-famous Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen). When you write your scripts’ villains, make sure they are fascinating, scary, complex, original, and strong and worthy opponents for your hero. They should also never be “all bad.”
6) HUMOR IS AN ASSET TO DRAMA. Sherlock is a drama, but it is frequently witty and tremendous fun. The writers of this show know how to strike a good balance between comedy and drama. So should you.
7) THINK AHEAD. All TV series must be written with a clear “map” or “bible” at the outset, outlining how the show and its characters will evolve over the many episodes to come. To write the first episode, you must already have a clear plan for how the plots and characters will develop in subsequent installments over a long period of time. Characters’ conflicts and their resolutions, as well as answers to the basic questions raised by the story’s premise, must be properly paced to build and sustain suspense. Although obviously TV series have more time in which to incrementally “move the needle” as characters and the overarching story conflicts evolve over many episodes, aspiring writers of feature films can learn a lot from the way series television writers plan ahead. You should not write page one of your screenplay unless you already know what’s going to happen in the final scene– and everything in between.
As a writer of feature films or TV who wants to study what constitutes great screenwriting in the 21st century, you couldn’t do better than to make the luminous Sherlock your guiding star.
Keep pitching. See you next month.
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Get invaluable advice in Dave Trottier’s classic book
The Screenwriter’s Bible