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Sherlock | A Study in Pink | Scene Breakdown | Scene 01

Okay, so we've talked about Story Circle with regard to BBC's Sherlock, and we've talked about Four-Corner Opposition with regards to it, and we've talked about Rule of Threes, and Conciseness and Quadrant Method with regards to BBCs Sherlock and it can all seem a mite overwhelming.

Like, really overwhelming.

In my writing classes I get asked a lot: are you supposed to think of this all at once? And the answer is "no." You're not supposed to think of it all at once, you're supposed to practice at it until you're not thinking at it at all: you're just doing it. Or you're thinking about it in the edit.

But we always find here that things are better with example. And just like all these rules apply to the larger narrative, in this case, the July 2010 Sherlock episode "A Study in Pink," it's also supposed to work for every scene. Every scene should have a Story Circle. Every scene should be concise.

So, let's look at Sherlock: A Study in Pink. Every scene, in intricate, to show how this is done at such a high level of expertise. Starting with Scene One.


To start off we see a PTSD nightmare that Dr. John Watson awakens from, and sad music plays. I'm not sure what this music is called, but it should be called "Watson all Alone," because it will play every time that happens.

Remember in our Story Circle conversation, when I said that every novel should start with two scenes, one showing your protagonist at home, and one showing your protagonist at work? And that in one of those locations they should be with someone they love, and in the other, with someone they hate?

Some of you thought I was kidding. But, here we are, the very first scene before even the credits have rolled and we have John Watson, alone in his bare-bones apartment as sad music plays. The script describes this introduction as "A bare minimum of personal possessions, neatly folded clothes. The opposite wall. Leaning by the door, a walking cane. Close on John, looking at it - frowns. Fierce, resentful."

So we're setting up that walking cane and that he resents it, straight away. First thirty seconds. Overcoming that limp is going to be a part of his character arc, the main thrust of it in fact. But in addition to starting that arc, it's a Rule of Three's Setup to be paid off later in the episode.

"But hold on," I hear you say, "You said he should be at home, yes, but with someone he loves or with someone he hates. And he's all alone!" That's the tricky bit about these rules, even when you break them, you're using them. If we as an audience, somewhere in the back of the part of our brains that recognize patterns, knows that he should be there with someone... what can we then infer from that? What is that communicating to the audience? Is it possibly communicating that he has no one in his life? That's certainly true. Similarly, not showing a character's job in an early scene kind of implies they don't have one, and we'll see that next scene, too.

But always remember, we can also learn about a scene from the scene's around it. So in the next scene John is going to interact with someone he likes: Mike Stamford. So if in one scene he's with someone he likes and that other scene he's supposed to be with someone he hates... but he's only with himself... does that imply that he hates himself at the start of the story? That resentful look certainly makes it seem so, and that interpretation certainly tracks with the rest of his arc. Neat, that works!

So we do a time-jump to the same setting in the morning, as John sits down with a coffee mug and takes a laptop out of his desk. His Unit's name is on the mug, great way to Show-Not-Tell exactly where he served. But also in the desk is his gun from service.

The gun is a another Rule of Three's Setup that will pay off later in the narrative, but we take note of it right away because it is the most classic setup ever, to the point that this device is named for it: Chekov's Gun, the idea that if you show a gun in act one, it has to have gone off by act two. Marvelous. We know he has a gun, and we know where it is. In his desk, in the drawer. If someone breaks in and we see him struggling to get to his desk, we know why. We don't have to be told, we were shown.

So John opens the laptop to a blog, The Personal Blog Of Dr. John H. Watson, and we linger on that blinking curser for painfully long. I don't think this counts as a Setup, but it kind of is. In the original books, they're written as memoirs from Watson's point-of-view, so most adaptations of Holmes try to introduce Watson as his chronicler. But it doesn't go much deeper than that, other than revealing that the blog was mandated by his therapist, setting that up as well.

Cut to said therapist, where John lies about not being able to write. He's embarrassed and ashamed at his state of mind. But more than that, I want you to think about Conflict here. Every scene needs conflict. Conflict drives a narrative. It would have been very easy to write this scene with John and the Therapist working together, her trying to help him and him trying his best, wanting to be helped. But it doesn't move the story along. Conflict moves the story along, having the Therapist want to help (there's that word) and John want to avoid that help is interesting. It's combative. It gives the characters a change to organically state arguments that would overwise be clunky.

John comments that she just wrote he "has trust issues." This is another Setup / First in a Rule of Three's that will follow him throughout his character arc, and will come back directly in a tense moment mid-episode. But it wouldn't be able to be tense there if it wasn't mentioned here.

The therapist says: "It’s going to take you a while to adjust to civilian life - writing a blog about everything that happens to you, will honestly help you." And in the final line of the scene, John says: "Nothing happens to me."

So, by our Conciseness rule, that's the point of this scene. John is depressed because nothing happens to him. Does that make analysis make sense with the scene as presented, and where the story goes? ... yes, yes it very much does.

So there we have it! Some very simple Conflict in this scene, very short and Concise. Setting Up and lot of the things that will Pay Off later in the episode, in scenes we will cover.

But does it have a Story Circle, this scene? Well, kind of. It's a part of the larger circle for the episode, yes, but it has a little one in and of itself. We Introduce John, that's easy. The Introducing for this scene is the same as the one for the episode. We introduce that he's unhappy, but that he wants to get better. He's Entering an Unfamiliar situation: doing therapy, writing a blog. It's new to him. He's adapting to his time with the therapist, she asks him three questions (again, Rule of Threes here) and then tells him this is what's best.

But he can't get what he wants yet, he has to fail at this early juncture so that we can have an episode. So having failed, he skips to the Pay a Heavy Price Moment for the scene where he says "Nothing Happens to Me," and then the scene ends, on that cliffhanger, cutting off the scene's arc and keeping our attention for after the credits.


See? This is how it's done. All tools used. Perfectly balanced. And as the viewer, you're none the wiser. It seems like magic, it seems like it just happened. It seems fresh and original, but it's done using the same tools of the trade that have existed for a hundred years. Join us soon for Scene Two!


Like this and what more of it? I teach interactive online classes over Zoom, three-four times a year for 10 weeks. Take your writing to the next level! Click the link for more information or to contact me.


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