A Writing Lesson from Sherlock

There’s a TV show I used to watch, back in the days before I took writing seriously. BBC’s Coupling. Some shows made me smirk and others snicker. Coupling is one of the only shows that has made me laugh out loud. The writing was brilliant. The writer was Steven Moffat.

Imagine my joy, then, when it was announced Steven Moffat would be taking on Doctor Who after Russell T. Davies. Huge relief. Oh good, I thought, the show will be fine. *exhale*

And then, like an extra pressie on Christmas morning, along came BBC’s Sherlock, with none other than Mr. Moffat at the helm.

Sherlock blew me away. And it taught me something about writing. Namely, that passing dialogue can be used to plant plot seeds along a story line.

Elementary, right?

(Sorry. Had to.)

One of the things I love most about Moffat’s story lines are the clues he hides along the way. Little gems that seem at first like throw away lines, and only later — on second and third…and fourth viewing — are seen for the foreshadowing omens they really are. This is particularly true in the final episode of the second season of Sherlock, The Reichenbach Fall. I want to give examples here, but…well…spoilers.

Okay, fine. Here’s one. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, don’t read. In fact, I’ll put it in white text so you’ll have to highlight it to read it and then you can’t blame me for the spoilers, deal?

Spoiler example here:

In what seems a transition scene in The Reichenbach Fall, Sherlock startles Mrs. Hudson. She says, “Oh Sherlock, you made me jump”. Seems like a throw away line. Passing dialogue. Fill. Until you get to the climax of the show, and what you realize is that little statement, “Oh Sherlock, you made me jump” is LOADED with foreshadowing. 

Kind of gives you goosebumps, doesn’t it? 

See? That’s brilliant. And it happens again and again throughout the show.

That’s the kind of writer I want to be. Beyond tone and setting, I want even my passing dialogue between characters to do as much work as possible. To become road signs for what is to come. To be on the page and yet invisible such that the reader will want to read the book again just to find those markers missed during the first read.

There’s only one way I’ll learn how to do this, you know. Only one way to really understand how to effect this trickery in my own work.

I’m going to have to watch Sherlock again.

And again.

And, as Sherlock would say…observe.

P.S. – Sherlock will air on Masterpiece/PBS beginning next week. Check your local listings.