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Sherlock | Four Corner Opposition

Alright, so now that we've discussed what four-corner opposition is and it's function in planning a story, let's apply it to some examples.

One of my favorite and most rewatched series from the last decade has been BBC's Sherlock. Masterful storytelling, never more in than in those first few seasons, and never more than in that first episode when we meet Jon Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

So let's look at our Four Corner Opposition as it relates to Sherlock: A Study in Pink.

As a reminder, this tool helps us keep conflict and points of view consistent, but also helps us relay the theme of the piece.

The lines between these squares act kind of like mirrors. The characters on the other side of the mirror from each other are similar, but different. They're reflections of each other, not copies. The thing they have in common is how they are the same, but the thing that they differ on is what makes them opposite.

For Sherlock, he identifies many times with the serial killer Cabbie (who is actually named Jeff Hope, but that's never uttered on-screen, so we'll stick with 'The Cabbie' here). He identifies and admires him several times when trying to figure out who he is, and then, once in his cab, he and the Cabbie share a moment where they confide in how hard it is existing in a world with all these dull, stupid people. So they definitely have something in common, and they're using the well-worn trope from crime fiction of "we're not so different, you and I." Red Dragon by Thomas Harris does this quite well, the idea that the hero detective and sadistic killer are mirror reflections of each other, the same only but for one difference. Again, when you see this done, what you are seeing is the four-corner opposition stated outright.

So it would be easy to label this line with the both of them on it "Geniuses" and move on, but that doesn't quite work, because you want to opposing item to be equal and opposite. If Sherlock and the Cabbie take up the two "Genius Column" slots... does that make Jon Watson dumb? Not that there's anything wrong with having dumb characters, but, Watson isn't one. Simple? Sure. Direct? Of course. Dumb? Definitely not.

So instead of "Genius," let's take a line from the show. In this first episode, Detective Inspector LeStrade very pointedly says of Sherlock: "He's a great man, and if we're all very lucky, one day he'll be a good one." This sentiment is echoed in the final episode of the series, when LeStrade calls him a Good Man, finally, implying a story-arc to the series that transforms Sherlock from Great Man into a Good one.

So instead of using the term "Genius," let's use the term "Great Men," and then the opposing column can be "Good Men." We also like this because it drives home the distinction the show itself tries to make: 'Great' does not equal 'Good.' 'Good' is positive, while 'Great' can be positive or negative. Think of all the dictators in history called 'Great and Terrible.'

So across the top we have Good Men vs Great Men, excellent. Those are out columns (there's no distinction between columns and rows, I just happened to fill those in first). Now for our rows, let's look at what else the show has to say and what characters are already in play.

So we have The Cabbie and Sherlock aligned as Great Men, that's how they're the same... how are they different? Moreover, we have Watson as a Good Man... but is he more like the Cabbie, or more like Sherlock? And who fills the empty space of "being a Good Man but not a Great One" alongside Watson?

We have one of our answers from inside the text. Sherlock himself compares The Cabbie to Watson when they're in the cab together, on their way to Sherlock's possible murder. The Cabbie and Watson never actually share screen time together, but in Sherlock's assessment of the men, we see how they differed.

Quote: "No. No, there’s something else. You haven’t killed four people because you’re bitter. Bitterness is a paralytic - love is a much more vicious motivator. Somehow, this is about your children."

Note the use of the term "paralytic" here. Watson's story arc for this episode has been about him healing from his psychosomatic leg injury. He was, very literally, suffering from paralysis as a result of his grief. In saying this, Sherlock is drawing a connection between the Cabbie and Watson, and in doing so and analyzing the differences between the two men, comes to a conclusion about the motivations behind the case.

It's also important to note that, at first glance, it seems like Sherlock doesn't have much of an arc in this episode: he does have a small one. He learns to crack the case because of his interactions with John Watson, demonstrated here.

But we're getting sidetracked. Back to this four-corner opposition: alright, well, Sherlock throughout the episode is trying to team up with people to help him work. He needs there to be other officers at the crime scene to help him work.

SHERLOCK: ... Who’s on Forensics? LESTRADE: Anderson. SHERLOCK: Anderson won’t work with me. LESTRADE: He won’t be your assistant. SHERLOCK: But I need an assistant.

Okay, so Sherlock needs to be with people to do his job, he says it himself. And LeStrade is also in need of others, he states it outright, that he needs Sherlock to help him solve this case, which is why he puts up with Sherlock's antics.

So we have characters that need others in LeStrade and Sherlock, who are also crime-fighters... does LeStrade fit under the category of "A Good Man" to fit into the column alongside Sherlock? I would say so, I feel he demonstrates himself to be a Good Man on many occasions, but not a Great one, that's why he needs Sherlock's help to solve cases.

So if we know these are our four and in this configuration, what do Watson and the Cabbie have in common that differentiates them from LeStrade and Sherlock? Watson and the Cabbie are alone, while Sherlock and LeStrade seek the help of others. They are together.

So we have our four-corner opposition, and also the first instance of how it can change. As we've said before, Watson gets the main story-arc for this episode. He goes through the most change. Part of his transformation will be learning he needs others: he's going from being alone in the world to being together, with Sherlock, driven home by the last line spoken in the episode, spoken by Mycroft: "Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson." This is about them becoming a team, but also, about Watson learning to be a part of a team, and not handle his trauma alone.

And in an interesting way, this is about saving Watson. Because through the character of the Cabbie, we know what a grieving man left alone can become: dangerous. Watson was already showing signs of being bitter and misanthropic. In a way, what the episode is saying is: Watson was at a crossroads. He could have become more like the Cabbie, dangerous, but in learning to not be alone (to shift from the 'alone' row to the 'together' row), he's become a little more like Sherlock than the Cabbie, and is saved.

Theme: "A Great Man left alone is dangerous" or maybe "A man, left on his own to his grief, becomes dangerous." There are several ways to articulate this, but we've landed on the core conflict and the general message it's sending. With the Cabbie acting as a "dark mirror" of both Sherlock and Watson (having the most negative traits of each), being genius, great, and alone, he acts as a cautionary tale for both men.

Now obviously we've reverse-engineered this from an existing work. When you're looking at it in your own writing, perhaps you're trying to figure out which characters would be best to bounce off one another and figuring out how they're the same or different. Or, maybe you've completed a draft and something isn't quite working for you so you're digging out your four-corner opposition tool to try and figure out how to make it work better.

But there you have it! A (or possibly, the) four-corner opposition for the first episode of Sherlock: A Study in Pink!


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