sherlock holmes lessons for writers

Sherlock Holmes vs. C. Auguste Dupin: 4 Ways to Improve Your Writing

Sherlock Homes rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow.–A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fighting words—within the detective genre, anyway. Yet  the term “detective” had not yet been coined when one C. Auguste Dupin first greeted the world in 1841 in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The character and the incipient tale in which he appeared (Poe would only pen two additional Dupin stories) were progenitors for the term, the genre, and all future sleuths who would stake out territory within it—none more famously than Mr. Holmes.

The Holmes vs. Dupin debate is a spirited one, freighted with valuable literary insights on how to improve your writing. But its greatest worth resides not in declaring a victor, but in culling gems from the literary treasure chest which was the genius of both. Here are four great lessons the Holmes-Dupin case illuminates for any writer.

1. Improve Your Writing by Building Legendary Characters

 How did Poe and Conan Doyle create such compelling, enduring protagonists and how can you do the same?

Unique Qualities

Both sleuths displayed a singular intellect and disarming capacity for observation and deductive reasoning. Both possessed quirks–if Holmes was eccentric, even socially awkward, Dupin was downright reclusive. Holmes was a cocaine addict, played violin all hours of the night, and fancied indoor target practice. Dupin was infatuated with darkness and fond of “seeking, amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford.”  Such traits tinged both detectives with characteristics and vulnerabilities which played off their ubiquitous talents and rendered them more relatable.

Location, Location, Location

Where do we find our favorite characters, in terms of setting as well as situation? We meet Dupin in vivid, mid-19th-century Paris, while Holmes sleuths his way onto the London scene roughly a half century later. But it is the spate of predicaments each faces which elevates their characters all the more. In Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin confronts a baffling mystery: the double murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter in the Rue Morgue, in an inaccessible room on the fourth floor–locked from the inside with no sign of forced entry.  In Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes must summon his genius—and no small measure of nerve–to solve the case of a fiendish hellhound prowling the moors in Devonshire. Create your character. Pick a setting. Present a challenge. You will be pleased with the results.

Trust the Reader

A compelling figure must be sufficiently formed to resonate in our consciousness, but not so fully as to rob us of that most precious source of literary magic—the freedom and ingenuity of our own imaginations. Conan Doyle noted in the preface of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that

The secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is, that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero. Everything else is outside the picture and weakens the effect. The problem and its solution must form the theme, and the character-drawing be limited and subordinate.

The advice is sage—show—through action, dialogue and characterization—more than tell (over-explanation), and the reader shall immortalize the character through that which you have presented, as well as that which you have not.

2. Improve Your Writing by Creating Nail-Biting Tension and Suspense

Both Conan Doyle and Poe were masters of suspense. In some instances, their stories’ tension manifested in classic whodunnit fashion, but in others, it is derived from alternate approaches. In Rue Morgue, it’s less a question of what happened—the murders have already occurred—than why. The suspense hinged upon whether Dupin could successfully prove his theory—and what might happen when he confronted the suspect.

Dramatic irony is another technique the authors  employed. In the Holmes’ tale The Adventure of the Speckled Band, we learn in the opening paragraph that the chief villain, Dr. Roylott, is dead—and a good deal of the tension builds upon this cognizance and anticipation of what is to come. Think of the works which had you on the edge of your seat. Thrillers may comprise the lion’s share, but any worthy tale imbues us with a palpable tension, and each writer is well-served by creating the same in her own work.

3. Improve Your Writing by Creating Powerful Themes

Compelling themes underpinned Poe and Conan Doyle’s work. Consider the notion of intellect versus brute physicality, a theme which winds throughout many of the stories–but perhaps none so graphically as Rue Morgue, in which Dupin’s acumen is juxtaposed against unimaginable violence and physical strength. This tale also proffers a common Poe theme: the death of a beautiful woman, to which he referred as the “most poetical topic in the world.”

Conan Doyle mined similar thematic territory, while also delving into others, particularly notions of class and society, and weakness and temptation—not only of his villains but of his protagonist as well. Create great characters, but watch the world in which they exist spring to life on the strength of provoking themes.

4. Improve Your Writing With Original Imitation

If, as noted in Ecclesiastes and by Holmes himself, “there is nothing new under the sun,” the extent to which Conan Doyle patterned his iconic figure after Poe’s may be viewed more in the light of homage, than larceny.  Conan Doyle noted:

On this narrow path, the writer must walk, and he sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him. He is happy if he ever finds the means of breaking away and striking out on some little side-track of his own.

Many believe Conan Doyle achieved this with Holmes,  building upon  Poe’s  foundation, accentuating Dupin’s strongest traits and instilling them in Holmes, and sprinkling in his own quirks and details (the Baker Street Irregulars are my favorite example). Consider your favorite stories. Let yourself be inspired—then inspire others by paying proper homage, before taking things in a direction all your own.

Tell me your opinion: What author has most influenced and helped you improve your writing?

sherlock holmes improve your writing

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About Daryl Rothman | @daryl_dcrdrr

Daryl Rothman is an author whose debut novel will be published by Booktrope in 2015. He has published flash and short fiction, and published articles on many top author sites. You may find Daryl on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+. Please feel free to visit his website and say hello!

Comments

  1. Wendell Berry – lyric descriptions, vivid characters, powerful message.

  2. I’d hate to sound hipster here, but I rarely read anyone’s fiction anymore. I’ll read non-fiction until the cows come home, but I find reading fiction these days triggers the analysis bug in me. I break down every chapter, paragraph, sentence, and word to look for strengths, weaknesses, and whether or not it resonated with me.

    It is a very exhaustive process. I rarely make it to the second page before I just give up.

    These are some interesting tips though, and I do appreciate you bringing these up with us. I know I got a few new things in my arsenal.

    • Matthew I hear you. I still enjoy fiction but I’ve gotten really into nonfiction lately ( Erik Larson a favorite). I have a guest post in a few weeks in fact, on how great nonfiction can be great asset to fiction scribes too. Thanks for the comments, and I love the hat, seriously! Take care-

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Daryl!

  4. I can resonate with Matthew Eaton’s comment above that, once you know something about fiction writing and you’ve read a lot of it, it takes a really outstanding novel to capture your interest. Over five years, I’ve critiqued close on 4000 stories in the Writers’ Village short fiction contest and am developing that ‘déformation professionnelle’ known to literary critics: little excites me any more. Alas! But I never fail to be excited by that great rival to Sherlock Holmes, Dr Thorndyke, in the 1914 stories by R Austin Freeman. Why? Freeman was incomparably the better writer and Dr Thorndyke, a detective of genius, retains the power to surprise us, even today.

  5. Thank you! I particularly appreciated the last point about “original imitation” (which is a great way to put it). Of course, we don’t want to “write just because of what we’ve read”, but what we read will inescapably form our writing. I’ve been trying to figure out the balance there and this was super helpful!

  6. Suzan Robertson says:

    Although I don’t write mysteries, espionage, or horror, I’ve been helped and influenced by James Lee Burke for his lyrical and superior prose, Alan Furst for his atmospheric settings, and Stephen King and Dean Koontz for their characters.

  7. I’ve found that with my current work I started with a minimalistic approach to details and things like that, but after I started reading Brandon Sanderson’s new book (Words of Radiance) the things I discussed and the length of it extended. It was kind of a neat thing, kind of like seeing the lengths he went to to create an effect kind of liberated me to kind of relish in the process.

    Kind of an interesting thing to notice, I thought. I figured this would be at least somewhat relevant.

  8. Great post! Briefly, my writing mentors include William Goldman. In my opinion Marathon Man (the novel) is a clinic on great writing. Others are John Hughes, Shane Black, Kevin Costner, and Lawrence Kasdan. I am aware these are screenwriters, but they know story and the elements that make great ones. Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams are probably in there as well, and for good measure I will add C.S. Lewis.

  9. Hi Daryl
    Great post, thanks
    That’s a tough one to answer. I find it difficult to be objective in assessing my own writing in relation to others.
    I’d love to say Stephen King, but that strikes me as hugely optimistic. 🙂
    I think there is a lot to be gained by trying write a short story in other author’s voices. I like taking a secondary character from another author’s book and writing a story for them that I think would fit into the book without anyone noticing. Much as painters did when they tried to imitate one of the masters.
    Having said that, I think everyone I’ve read and been moved by has somehow or other influenced my writing.
    In terms of improved, I’d have to say Steve Parolini, my editor 🙂
    cheers
    Mike

  10. Trevor Veale says:

    As someone who aims to thrill and intrigue as well as attest to life’s more bizarre and quirky features, I write under the inspiration of a very diverse bunch of works. My predecessors range from classic, such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, to contemporary: Cory Doctorow’s Makers and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.

  11. Love this post. It was great how you created writing advice around two characters from these masters.

  12. Thanks for the motivation for becoming a good writer….
    I am reading blogs of Holmes and Dupin from last few months..On a day, there came out an instinct for becoming writer like these professionals..
    After that day, I perform so many strategies for achieving my goals..Having failed in various tasks, I finally find one useful blog i.e. your blog..Thanks, once again
    Can you further help me by sharing tools and resources for enhancing online marketing business?
    Regards,
    Jennifer

    • Thanks Jennifer for the kind words!

      I’m not sure I’m the best to advise you on online businesses but I would just say this…keep hiking your craft–make sure your product is as good as it can be, and then try to spread the word. Watch what other top similar businesses are doing. Study and interact with your target audience. Engage your community. Katie has some great resources on her site re improving writing and getting published.

      Anyway, thanks again, and best wishes!

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