Originally posted January 16, 2008.
Last time, we looked at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s techniques of:
- opening the story;
- non-direct dialog;
- laser-focused description;
- establishment of character.
Today we’re going to look at how Doyle attacks one of the most difficult methods for any fiction writer: the information dump.
Let us type.
Setting Up the Case
“My name is Helen Stoner, and I am living with my stepfather, who is the last survivor of one of the oldest Saxon families in England, the Roylotts of Stoke Moran, on the western border of Surrey.”
Holmes nodded his head. “The name is familiar to me,” said he.
Those of you who have been here before know that we are about to enter the very maws of one of the most dangerous speed bumps known to the narrative arts: information dump. Whether you need to explain some underpinning of a particular technology in science fiction, to the background of the case in your murder mystery, you can’t simply dump all the information out to the reader in report form. That would overwhelm the reader because he doesn’t know the story like the writer does.
It’s important to master the art of distributing gnarly amounts of information in the best way possible–one that doesn’t slow down the narrative or, worse yet, stop the pace entirely.
On the subtlety scale, Doyle doesn’t score well; then again he never meant to disguise the information dump, but to keep the story flowing through it.
“The family was at one time among the richest in England, and the estates extended over the borders into Berkshire in the north, and Hampshire in the west. In the last century, however, four successive heirs were of dissolute and wasteful disposition, and the family ruin was eventually completed by a gambler in the days of the Regency. Nothing was left save a few acres of ground, and the two-hundred-year-old house, which is itself crushed under a heavy mortgage. The last squire dragged out his existence there, living the horrible life of an aristocratic pauper;
The language here can be described as lurid, and active and illustrative verbs are chosen–“crushed under a heavy mortgage” instead of the more passive and less visual “came under a heavy mortgage”; “dragged out his existence there” instead of “lived a long time there”; etc.
Actually this is a technique to be carried out beyond just dealing with information dump–Doyle chooses his words with economy and care, to impress the most impact as efficiently as possible.
…but his only son, my stepfather, seeing that he must adapt himself to the new conditions, obtained an advance from a relative, which enabled him to take a medical degree and went out to Calcutta, where, by his professional skill and his force of character, he established a large practice. In a fit of anger, however, caused by some robberies which had been perpetrated in the house, he beat his native butler to death and narrowly escaped a capital sentence. As it was, he suffered a long term of imprisonment and afterwards returned to England a morose and disappointed man.
For the Victorian age, a very sensational account. Even for our own age, beating a butler to death is still shocking.
“When Dr. Roylott was in India he married my mother, Mrs. Stoner, the young widow of Major-General Stoner, of the Bengal Artillery. My sister Julia and I were twins, and we were only two years old at the time of my mother’s re-marriage. She had a considerable sum of money–not less than 1000 pounds a year–and this she bequeathed to Dr. Roylott entirely while we resided with him, with a provision that a certain annual sum should be allowed to each of us in the event of our marriage. Shortly after our return to England my mother died–she was killed eight years ago in a railway accident near Crewe. Dr. Roylott then abandoned his attempts to establish himself in practice in London and took us to live with him in the old ancestral house at Stoke Moran. The money which my mother had left was enough for all our wants, and there seemed to be no obstacle to our happiness.
Note that Doyle doesn’t let up on the accumulation of relevant items: the large sum of money, the death of the mother, Roylott’s establishing himself back at Stoke Moran. Never let information dump spew information that isn’t directly relevant (or at least seemingly relevant) to the story at hand–obvious for a mystery story, but also necessary in other genres. It’s nice to know that Aunt Susie loved peppermint ice cream, but it had better mean something significant, and mean something soon.
“But a terrible change came over our stepfather about this time. Instead of making friends and exchanging visits with our neighbors, who had at first been overjoyed to see a Roylott of Stoke Moran back in the old family seat, he shut himself up in his house and seldom came out save to indulge in ferocious quarrels with whoever might cross his path. Violence of temper approaching to mania has been hereditary in the men of the family, and in my stepfather’s case it had, I believe, been intensified by his long residence in the tropics. A series of disgraceful brawls took place, two of which ended in the police-court, until at least he became the terror of the village, and the folks would fly at his approach, for he is a man of immense strength, and absolutely uncontrollable in his anger.
Also note that this information dump isn’t simply a listing of facts–mother married Roylott in 1827, mother died in spring 1828, that sort of thing–but comprises in itself a story, with a beginning, middle, and end–with Dr. Roylott as the main character. Turning an information dump into a story is one of the best ways to turn possibly flaccid material into a captivating, living part of the main narrative–a technique used by Doyle to great effect, as well as by Heinlein.
“Last week he hurled the local blacksmith over a parapet into a stream, and it was only by paying over all the money which I could gather together that I was able to avert another public exposure. He had no friends at all save he wandering gipsies, and he would give these vagabonds leave to encamp upon the few acres of bramble-covered land which represent the family estate, and would accept in return the hospitality of their tents, wandering away with them sometimes for weeks on end. He has a passion also for Indian animals, which are sent over to him by a correspondent, and he has at this moment a cheetah and a baboon, which wander freely over his grounds and are feared by the villagers almost as much as their master.
Another item that adds to the popularity of “Speckled Band” in the canon is that the villain is not at all dull. Holmes is not up against someone normal or even, arguably, sane, and that adds spice to the adventure. Plus there are those dangerous Canon animals.
“You can imagine from what I say that my poor sister Julia and I had no great pleasure in our lives. No servant would stay with us, and for a long time we did all the work of the house. She was but thirty at the time of her death, and yet her hair had already begun to whiten, even as mine has.”
“Your sister is dead, then?”
“She died just two years ago, and it is of her death that I wish to speak to you.”
We’re now truly starting the main story-within-a-story, which appears in nearly every Sherlock Holmes story. Unlike some modern-day writers, who start with the crime and then bring in the detective, Doyle liked to start with the detective–indeed, due to his choice of first-person point of view through Watson, he had to. The bookending of normality on both sides of the adventure is what gives the tales their comfortable structure.
And perhaps this also provides a key to the enduring quality of the Canon: in every story, the movement from familiar fireplace to unknown adventure is an initiation of the Hero’s Journey (a la Campbell); and the subsequent return the closing of the journey’s loop. Mystery stories that start with the murder risk losing this valuable narrative structure, which serves to lure the reader in with curiosity, then drag him by his lapels into the unknown.
“You can understand that, living the life which I have described, we were little likely to see anyone of our own age and position. We had, however, an aunt, my mother’s maiden sister, Miss Honoria Westphail, who lives near Harrow, and we were occasionally allowed to pay short visits at this lady’s house. Julia went there at Christmas two years ago, and met there a half-pay major of marines, to whom she became engaged. My stepfather learned of the engagement when my sister returned and offered no objection to the marriage; but within a fortnight of the day which had been fixed for the wedding, the terrible event occurred which has deprived me of my only companion.”
Sherlock Holmes had been leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed and his head sunk in a cushion, but he half opened his lids now and glanced across at his visitor.
“Pray be precise as to details,” said he.
We’re playing the action/reaction game again, this time with Helen’s and Holmes’ positions reversed.
“It is easy for me to be so, for every event of that dreadful time is seared into my memory. The manor-house is, as I have already said, very old, and only one wing is now inhabited. The bedrooms in this wing are on the ground floor, the sitting-rooms being in the central block of the buildings. Of these bedrooms the first is Dr. Roylott’s, the second my sister’s, and the third my own. There is no communication between them, but they all open out into the same corridor. Do I make myself plain?”
The interruption did not need to be made; technically the passage would be fine without it. However, we’re breaking up the long explanation by Helen with interjections from Holmes. This serves another purpose as well, as we’ll see later.
“The windows of the three rooms open out upon the lawn. That fatal night Dr. Roylott had gone to his room early, though we knew that he had not retired to rest, for my sister was troubled by the smell of the strong Indian cigars which it was his custom to smoke. She left her room, therefore, and came into mine, where she sat for some time, chatting about her approaching wedding. At eleven o’clock she rose to leave me, but she paused at the door and looked back.
“‘Tell me, Helen,’ said she, ‘have you ever heard anyone whistle in the dead of the night?’
“‘Never,’ said I.
“‘I suppose that you could not possibly whistle, yourself, in your sleep?’
“‘Certainly not. But why?’
“‘Because during the last few nights I have always, about three in the morning, heard a low, clear whistle. I am a light sleeper, and it has awakened me. I cannot tell where it came from–perhaps from the next room, perhaps from the lawn. I thought that I would ask you whether you had heard it.’
One of the most important takeaways from how Doyle’s best stories-within-stories work is how much more focused and leaner they are compared to the rest of the surrounding narrative. The inner stories never overshadow the main point of the story–which is that Sherlock Holmes Saves The Day or, as another way of putting it, Seeks the Elixir (another reference to the Hero’s Journey).
“‘No, I have not. It must be those wretched gipsies in the plantation.’
“‘Very likely. And yet if it were on the lawn, I wonder that you did not hear it also.’
“‘Ah, but I sleep more heavily than you.’
“‘Well, it is of no great consequence at any rate.’ She smiled back at me, closed my door, and a few moments later I heard her key turn in the lock.”
“Indeed,” said Holmes. “Was it your custom always to lock yourselves in at night?”
“I think that I mentioned to you that the doctor kept a cheetah and a baboon. We had no feeling of security unless our doors were locked.”
“Quite so. Pray proceed with your statement.”
The inner story is intruded upon by the outer story again. Holmes asks natural questions, but they could easily have been covered without being asked after by Helen. The choice to break the inner story briefly shows us that the outer story has not simply stopped.
“I could not sleep that night. A vague feeling of impending misfortune impressed me. My sister and I, you will recollect, were twins, and you know how subtle are the links which bind two souls which are so closely allied. It was a wild night. The wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows. Suddenly, amid all he hubbub of the gale, there burst forth the wild scream of a terrified woman. I knew that it was my sister’s voice. I sprang from my bed, wrapped a shawl round me, and rushed into the corridor. As I opened my door I seemed to hear a low whistle, such as my sister described, and a few moments later a clanging sound, as if a mass of metal had fallen.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Paragraphs Are Your Friends. Sigh.
That’s the other thing about retyping the text instead of merely reading it again. Even if you dearly love a story, having to type through parts like this reminds you of the sore spots that you quickly glide over as a seasoned veteran of repeat readings.
Type that pain.
Still, it’s important to note that even with the huge seamless paragraph, Doyle keeps our interest because the conflict is rising conflict; that is, the pressure keeps rising, rather than simply staying level–even if the pressure is at 90%, the conflict isn’t rising if that pressure isn’t rising progressively up to 100.
Also, during this rapid rise, Holmes does not interrupt, because that would be as disastrous as installing a speed bump at the Daytona race track–and nowhere near as interesting.
As I ran down the passage, my sister’s door was unlocked, and revolved slowly upon its hinges. I stared at it horror-stricken, not knowing what was about to issue from it. By the light of the corridor-lamp I saw my sister appear at the opening, her face blanched with terror, her hands groping for help, her whole figure swaying to and fro like that of a drunkard. I ran to her and threw my arms round her, but at that moment her knees seemed to give way and she fell to the ground. She writhed as one who is in terrible pain, and her limbs were dreadfully convulsed. At first I thought that she had not recognized me, but as I bent over her she suddenly shrieked out in a voice which I shall never forget, ‘Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’ There was something else she would fain have said, and she stabbed with her finger into the air in the direction of the doctor’s room, but a fresh convulsion seized her and choked her words. I rushed out, calling loudly for my stepfather, and I met him hastening from his room in his dressing-gown.
We’re nearing the end of the rising conflict and the climax of the story within a story.
When he reached my sister’s side she was unconscious, and though he poured brand down her throat and sent for medical aid from the village, all efforts were in vain, for she slowly sank and died without having recovered her consciousness. Such was the dreadful end of my beloved sister.”
“One moment,” said Holmes, “are you sure about this whistle and metallic sound? Could you swear to it?”
The climax of the inner story has passed; then and only then does Holmes interrupt and the outer story breaks into inner story for pacing purposes.
Note that Doyle paces the inner story by breaking out into the outer story, and manages to keep everything moving: the inner story continues moving forwards because Holmes only breaks in between scenes, taking the place of sequel; the outer story keeps moving forwards in parallel because of these breaks.
Forwards momentum–one of the most important characteristics of a successful yarn.
“That was what the county coroner asked me at the inquiry. It is my strong impression that I heard it, and yet, among the crash of the gale and the creaking of an old house, I may possibly have been deceived.”
“Was your sister dressed?”
“No, she was in her night-dress. In her right hand was found the charred stump of a match, and in her left a match-box.”
“Showing that she had struck a light and looked about her when the alarm took place. That is important. And what conclusions did the coroner come to?”
“He investigated the case with great care, for Dr. Roylott’s conduct had long been notorious in the county, but he was unable to find any satisfactory cause of death. My evidence showed that the door had been fastened upon the inner side, and the windows were blocked by old-fashioned shutters with broad iron bars, which were secured every night. The walls were carefully sounded, and were shown to be quite solid all round, and the flooring was also thoroughly examined, with the same result. The chimney is wide, but is barred up by four large staples. It is certain, therefore, that my sister was quite alone when she met her end. Besides, there were no marks of any violence upon her.”
“How about poison?”
“The doctors examined her for it, but without success.”
“What do you think that this unfortunate lady died of, then?”
“It is my belief that she died of pure fear and nervous shock, though what it was that frightened her I cannot imagine.”
After bringing the inner story to a fever pitch, Doyle blends its denouement gradually into the main narrative.
Next time, we’ll explore Doyle’s technique for turning the corner–uncovering previously hidden depths in circumstances and character.
Until then, don’t let the mysterious whistling drive you mad.