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The Sherlock Story Circle | Watson

Now that we've hopefully established a base for what we're talking about when we talk about "Story Circle," let's dive down into 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 apply our Story Circle theory to this show, shall we?

As a reminder, the story circle consists of 8 parts comprising of roughly 11 scenes. Those eight parts are: 1. Introduce your main character. 2. Establish what they want that's different from what you established in part one. 3. See them make the choice to go after that want. 4. Watch them adapt to said new situation. 5. Get the thing they wanted. 6. Pay a Price for that thing. 7-8. Return to where they started, having changed.

When it comes to the first episode of Sherlock, it's an excellent example of when a title character need not be a main character. Have you ever heard an argument over "who is the main character of a story?" What people are arguing about is "which character went through the biggest change" or, to put it another way, "which character went through the most points of The Story Circle?"

In the first episode of Sherlock, "A Study in Pink," it is Watson who goes through the Story Circle. He comes out of the experience having undergone a positive change, which is referred to as a positive character arc. A character who went through all the stages of the circle but came out worse would be a negative character arc. Characters who don't change are Flat Characters, a great example being Sherlock in this very episode. Sherlock does not change significantly in "A Study in Pink," so by this logic, Watson is the main character we should focus our attention on.

(Sherlock changes a little, that's a tale for another day).

So, that in mind, let's look for a Story Circle in John Watson's story in "A Study in Pink," Sherlock Season One Episode One.

Scene 1A.: Show your character at home, with someone he loves or hates: We open the entire series with a scene of Watson having a dream flashback to the war. He wakes up in a cold sweat, sad piano music plays, and we get lots of low lingering shots of him. He lives alone, in a bare apartment, he's depressed.

Wait... what? You might be saying to yourself, doesn't this break your rules right away? Watson was supposed to be at home with someone he loves or with someone he hates. Seeing how he interacts with two emotional extremes will illustrates the range of his emotional spectrum before the story starts. This is what we love about The Story Circle. When you consciously exclude part of it, you're saying as much as when you consciously include part. So if he's home alone instead of with someone he loves or hates... does that mean he loves or hates himself?

Scene 1B: Show your character at work, with someone he loves or hates (opposite emotion of the first scene): Watson is walking in the park, comes across an old friend, Mike. Mike is cheerful to see him, Watson is snippy, sharp, says he's not the man he knew before. Explains that he has a limp now after being shot in the war, and that he's looking for a roommate, but that he's such a grump nobody would want to live with him. Mike implies Watson has to be "close to the action of the city" and that there's one other man he knows 'too grumpy to live with,' leading into an 'answer cut' of Sherlock and the next scene.

(An Answer Cut is when the last line of a scene asks a question, and then rather than answering, the cut to the next scene implies the action. Mike never says "Sherlock" but the camera cuts to him, implying the response.)

So once again, we have an illustrative break in the formula. Watson does not go to work. Again, by not using it, we're communicating something to the audience: Watson is unemployed, or possibly, retired after his injury. This is later confirmed in dialog. But while we're here, we see Watson interact with someone he loves or someone he hates in the character of his friend, Mike. Despite how cold Watson is, it's clear he likes Mike. So, this scene informs us about the last scene, too. If he's interacting with someone he loves in Mike, then when he was alone he was interacting with someone he hates. Watson hates himself.

Conclusion: Watson is disabled after his time in the war. he can't bear to be away from the action of the city. He's unemployed and hates himself/what he's become/ his life. He's becoming misanthropic, his emotional range a narrow range between depressed and mean.

Alright! See how we learned more about the meaning of scene one after viewing scene two? That's a phenomenon called montage, and in film it's referred to as The Kuleshov Effect, the idea that scenes convey more information when paired with their surrounding scenes than they do in isolation. Neat, right?

Scene 2: Establish Your Want. In the next scene, Watson meets Sherlock and is immediately impressed / turned on by his acumen. Not turned on in a sexual way, although that is also a reading some people attribute to the work. Watson perks up, he's interested in this man who seems psychic in his ability to just know things, and there's a coda at the end where, back at home, he shows us that he wants to know more about him by Googling him.

(A Coda is a short scene that acts as the end of the scene before. Narratively, it's all one scene, but it disobeys the rule that a scene change occurs when you skip time or change locations, in this case, both).

So this is a clear want. Watson wants to be a part of Sherlock's world, but first he needs to become the action hero he will be in order to do it.

This is an important point to make: every story arc MUST have a "want," but not every story arc has to have a "need" as well. The existence of a need infers how the story is going to go: not only will the character have to overcome obstacles, but also some major character flaw. An example of a want story would be Sherlock's in this episode: he wants to find the killer, but doesn't necessarily need to change something core about himself in order to do it. A lot of crime stories function this way: the want is the desire to solve the case and bring order to the world, and there often isn't a need attached, especially in procedural crime stories. To the point that it's almost a defining characteristic of the genre.

The need for Watson isn't clear yet, if you're watching these scenes in order, but it will become so.

Scene 3: Enters an Unfamiliar Situation. Not only does Watson decide that yes, he's probably going to move in with Sherlock (and immediately meets Miss Hudson, skipping ahead to Step 4), and Detective Lestrade (same), but Lestrade comes in and brings the underlying murder plot of the episode to Sherlock and Watson's attention. Sherlock gets up to leave with Lestrade and leaves Watson behind. To add insult to injury, Miss Hudson dotes on him, mentioning his injury. Watson reacts with anger -- more anger than we've seen from him yet, cursing at Miss Hudson and his leg. Sherlock re-enters the scene and examines Watson closer, determining that he might be a 'man of action' like himself after all this, and asks Watson if he'd like to "see some trouble." Just as we just saw Watson be more angry than ever before a moment ago, we now see him happier when he ends the scene by saying "Oh, God yes."

So this is a crucial step in the whole process. "Enters Unfamiliar" is the stage where your character illustrates that they have agency over this situation. They don't get dragged into this new world, they make an active choice. This is important for character development and story, and how the viewer reacts to the story. Historically, audiences despise characters without agency, so let's illustrate that. That ending line "Oh, God yes I want this" (paraphrasing) illustrates this. The Game is on!

Scene 4: Adapt to the Situation you've Entered into. This is several scenes, sometimes the majority of a novel, but it's at least three: 4A: meet friend, 4B: meet rivals, 4C: illustrate competence with a minor accomplishment. The first two are, like with meeting love and hate in scene 1, illustrative of the new world they've entered. The third is about making sure there's some sign that the character isn't way over their heads.

We've already met Miss Hudson and Detective Lestrade. It is okay to do this. Watson has "Entered One Situation" just by choosing to room with Sherlock, so it's not even totally out-of-order, just a little out-of-order. We get to know Sherlock a bit better on the ride to the crime scene (a small part of Watson getting what we was after) and then at the crime scene we meet police officers Anderson and Donovan, two antagonistic police offices who do not like Sherlock and who, in fact, warn Watson to get out now. Watson sees more of Sherlock's world when he examines a body and is enamored by it, elated. In a small way, this is him Getting what he wants. But then Sherlock again rushes off, and the sad music from scene one returns, and he's left alone to limp home. He got what he wanted in a small way, and now he's paying a price. Upon walking away from the police, we see Watson be kidnapped by a mysterious figure that, one first view, we're meant to think may be Moriarty (spoilers: it isn't), and in this tense situation Watson comes alive: his hand tremor vanishes and he stands up to this bully threatening him and Sherlock, adapting to and proving his ability in this new situation.

Scene 5: Get what they Wanted. Watson returns to Sherlock, having proven he is on his side by standing up to the bully (let's not bury the lead, it's just Sherlock's brother Mycroft, but we don't know that at the time). The two investigate a new clue and go out on the town to track it down, and while there, engage in a running chase throughout London. When they get back home, Sherlock surprises him with the realization that he'd forgotten his cane: his limp is psychosomatic, and in engaging in Sherlock's world, it didn't bother him. Watson is stunned and elated. He gets what he wanted: not only is he a part of the action again, he has been healed.

You might notice that in the previous section, I noted that Watson "got what he wanted" and "paid a price" for it after seeing Sherlock on the job then being abandoned there. This is integral to the NEED-style story. Watson got what he wanted, but he hadn't changed what needed to be changed yet, so life smacks him down. Characters with a fundamental flaw they need to get over are incapable of getting what they want until they're fixed what they need, even if they do everything right.

And when you think about it, you know people like this in real life. How many of us have a friend that go from relationship to relationship, getting what they want only to pay a heavy price when it ends in failure? How many times have you thought to yourself "they need to fix what's going on with themselves first before they can make a relationship work." These are the same functions at play, the same forces of change at work, even in real life.

Scene 6: Pays a Heavy Price. When they get home, the police are there, and they bring into question Sherlock's motives and character, implying his past with drugs (which Watson has a hard time even believing, so enamored is he). During this scene, the murderer confronts Sherlock and Sherlock leaves with him without telling anyone, abandoning Watson again. So just as he's getting faith in someone, just as he's finding a friend and finding himself, the foundation of that new friendship is being questioned. This is him low moment, his pay a heavy price moment.

Scene 7-8: Returns to Where he started, Having Changed. Watson has been abandoned by Sherlock for a third time: the first in Scene 3, the second during Scene 4. Both times Watson reacted with sadness, he accepted his "heavy price." This time he does not. He refuses to accept that Sherlock would just leave without saying anything, and rather than skulking, he takes action. He looks up the tracker on Sherlock's phone, locates him. He's no longer sad and passive, he has become the man of action he needs to be. He follows the signal to where the murder has Sherlock cornered and makes an impossible shot (proving his hand to be steady now as well) saving the day.

These last scenes function as "compare and contrast" to the first ones. We are proving to the audience that this all meant something, that Watson has changed. Twice before we saw him be abandoned and accept it passively, now we see him be active and save the day. The circumstances haven't changed... so the only inference left is that Watson himself has changed. In a Coda at the end, Sherlock even confirms this, describing to Lestrade the perfect man-of-action they're looking for, only to "see" Watson once again, and realize it's him.

And there you have it! A perfect Story Circle that examines and changes the character of John Watson, turning him into the character we'll want to watch for the rest of the series! And like any good Story Circle for a main character, it goes from the start to the end of the story. But notice we barely mentioned the murder... in a crime show? That's because the murder plot is incidental to Watson's character arc: as it should be! The murder plot is more to do with Sherlock's arc, a Story Circle that revolves around plot, but not around change: as any good Flat Character's should! But we'll get to that another day. :)


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