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Honey You Should See Me In a Crown II (Or, What BBC Sherlock Teaches Us: Doubt, Loyalty and Narrative POV)

BBC's Sherlock - the reincarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective in 21st century London. In its second series, it only has six episodes, but confounds me in its ability to be perfect. I'm a snob about film and TV, but I'll also be first to say it's the finest piece of storytelling on TV in a while. We writers can learn from it, so welcome to my all-rounder series: Honey, You Should See Me in a Crown.

I will be dissect this king of entertainment, created by Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame, a fan favourite since Blink, The Girl in the Fireplace and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead) and Mark  Godtiss Gatiss (who also plays Mycroft Holmes in the series). From plot, to pacing, to characterisation, to relationships and dynamics, from themes to subtext, to stereotypes and archetypes, and all literary bad-arsery. (And thankfully this will tie in with my HSC crime studies, so HA! Board of Studies, ha!)

I've talked about hero-villain dynamics and the importance of the shadow on this blog before, so now I want to touch on how you can use that to manipulate your audience, namely through three things: doubt, loyalty and narrative POV.

First off, have a look at doubt, and watch this scene from the finale of Sherlock Series 2.

The villain, Jim Moriarty, who we've been chasing and engaging in a battle of wits with alongside Sherlock, suddenly gives us proof that he's an actor, Richard Brook, and that Sherlock hired him and invented all of the crimes.

And this post, from bakerstreetconfessions on tumblr, where, arguably, the Sherlock fandom resides, demonstrates the point I'm making:

This device, this challenge to the audience's perspective, planted doubt, even if it were for just a moment. They had to stop and ask themselves: hang on, has Sherlock tricked me? They were handed Richard Brook's resume, newspaper articles, a terrified man begging up and down that it was just a job. And we begin to think that the way Moriarty acted, the things he was capable of, only a man as clever as Sherlock would be able to do such things. And maybe he did. Maybe he created everything.

"How do you know you can trust him?" Sherlock asks the journalist. "What are his credentials?"

And then, we're asking the same thing, this time of Sherlock. We entered the story with John Watson, our narrative POV, and we know as much as he does. We've been taken into Sherlock alongside him, marvelling his intellect, his deductions, etc. And as Richard Brook is trying to convince John of his story, he's trying to convince us, and when John refuses to believe it, we sit with our narrator, for John's faith is the audience's faith.

This doubt is foreshadowed in Moriarty's story of Sir Boasts-a-Lot (Part One and Two), where we see a seed of doubt spreading like a contagion amongst the police. And we, as John, catch up with these other characters, when Sherlock catches us out on our doubt, our wavering loyalty. "You're worried they're right about me. You can't even entertain the possibility that they're right. You're afraid that you've been taken in as well. Moriarty is playing with your mind too. Can't you see what's going on?"

But that's the beauty of this episode, of this show, they entire Sherlock concept - We never know what's going on, and we'd never given a second thought to it until our narrative voice realised it. And then you realise that you have an incredibly unreliable narrator, for he isn't the detective who holds all the cards, he isn't the villain mastermind pulling the strings, he's just the sidekick, and so are we.

Of course, this sort of thing wouldn't work in all YA. But for the villains, the warlords and warlocks, if you can make your audience reconsider what side they're on, the "angels" or the "demons", even for a moment, you can change their entire experience in your book. I've talked about shadows before, and that intrinsic darkness in everyone is a fundamental part of pairing your villain and hero together. If you can question this, just like Moriarty managed to make the audience do, you have the opportunity to then interweave foreshadowing and subtext earlier through your work.

Your audience is loyal to your protagonist, naturally. Play with that. Subvert their expectations, investigate the archetypes and the conventions of your genre, of your "kind" of story and then twist them and morph them into something else. Why don't you entertain the possibility that your protagonist is really the villain?

So, comments below: Any books or films that have challenged your faith in the narrator or hero? Do you think maintaining archetypal traits is important, or should we subvert them whenever we can? Does a traditional story have its merits, or do you think it's time to craft our own traditions? What else did you learn from this episode? What do you think of restoring our faith after such doubt - should we, or should we stay true to these challenges? 


  1. I thought it was brilliantly awful how Moriarty planted doubt throughout the episode and helped it develop (barely even needed to, really, just set it in motion from a number of angles), but I suppose I'm quite a believer in Sherlock because, despite John's doubts that you mentioned, I didn't doubt him.

    Instead, I sat there, watching the seven year old girl scream thinking "ahh, Moriarty must've used his image somehow, made the children fear Sherlock", and half-laughed as Moriarty presented himself as Richard Brook, the actor, and thought "damn, he's good! That'll be a hard one to discredit.." [Actually I think I said some of those things out loud too - I watch Sherlock with my brother, and feel the need to tell him my theories]

    As for maintaining archetypal traits or subverting them, after seeing Sherlock I think I support the latter. Not for the enjoyment, necessarily (during this episode I felt that grip-tightening, teeth-clenching frustration and desperation you get when you know the protagonist is right but the world is turning against them, like in stories when there's no help to turn to because the authorities are part of the pool of antagonists...) Subverting the traits, or expectations, allows us to see the characters from different angles, question them and their motives, get that teeth-clenching feeling then watch the characters eventually work, or weave, or force their way out of the situation. Having these strong feelings, good or bad or frustrating, I guess shows a strong connection to the characters which is what everyone wants.

    And having that feeling linger afterwards (and be discussed), and creating a strong desire for the new episodes which won't be out for much too long, well, that's just good business :P


  2. [Just a little addition to my previous comment, despite me already having blabbed enough] My lack of doubt that Sherlock was everything he claimed/we already believed him to be may not only be faith in Sherlock himself, but faith in Moriarty - belief that he is, in fact, that damn devious, that good at what he does. That's a reminder that we can have just as much faith, as many expectations, and perhaps an odd sort of "loyalty", in/to villains/antagonists as we can to protagonists. Thus, subversion of these can be applied to villains as well, resulting in us rethinking them, being completely taken aback, or shocked but considering and maybe eventually understanding (for example, Moriarty shooting himself. It can sort of be reconciled with his personality and behaviour - maybe, I'm still considering this - but for me it had an immediate shock value. This is perhaps because of the expectation that Moriarty valued his life more highly, as antagonists and protagonists alike tend to)

    Now I'll be quiet XD


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