Retyping the Speckled Band, Part 4: Description with Purpose

Originally published May 6, 2008.

Previously we looked at how Doyle revealed character depth in the flow of the story, rather than breaking flow to drop in character information.

Today, we’ll look at Doyle’s skills at description, atmosphere, and suspense as we lead into that part of any story, so maddening to many a writer: the middle.

Let us type.

About the Muddled Middle

It isn’t called “the muddled middle” for nothing. The middle of the story is a treacherous plot mire for the unwary writer, who has to make the beginning meet the end in some sane way, and bring about the story to a conclusion without losing the main thread. It’s easy to get lost and, like unfortunate ponies and villains caught unwares on the Grimpen Mire, sink into the slush.

Doyle’s middles rarely fail to please; indeed, the detective story lives for the middle. And it’s in the detective story that, in one’s desires to provide all manner of red herrings and alternate hypotheses and, let’s face it, out-and-out tricks, it’s even easier to lose the plot in the middle.

It helps, after the beginning (e.g., setting the stage for the rest of the story) is done, to start to dive immediately for the action.

Sliding Into the Middle

It was nearly one o’clock when Sherlock Holmes returned from his excursion. He held in his hand a sheet of blue paper, scrawled over with notes and figures.

Doyle could have chosen to follow Holmes on his excursion and give us the gory details. Thankfully he doesn’t. We still get the details, but we don’t get the extraneous action that risks leading us away from the plot—which, right now, is to get to Stoke Moran.

“I have seen the will of the deceased wife,” said he. “To determine its exact meaning I have been obliged to work out the present prices of the investments with which it is concerned. The total income, which at the time of the wife’s death was little short of 1100 pounds, is now, through the fall in agricultural prices, not more than 750 pounds. Each daughter can claim an income of 250 pounds, in case of marriage. It is evident, therefore, that if both girls had married, this beauty would have had a mere pittance, while even one of them would cripple him to a very serious extent. My morning’s work has not been wasted, since it has proved that he has the very strongest motives for standing in the way of anything of the sort.

Establishing motive in definite terms, the better to make it clear that things are not just likely to, but certainly will, move in bad directions soon.

“And now, Watson, this is too serious for dawdling, especially as the old man is aware that we are interesting ourselves in his affairs; so if you are ready, we shall call a cab and drive to Waterloo. I should be very much obliged if you would slip your revolver into your pocket. An Eley’s No. 2 is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel pokers into knots. That and a tooth-brush are, I think, all that we need.”

Holmes alludes to the seriousness and duration of their planned undertaking—Watson’s packing heat, and their excursion onto the dangerous Canon animal-infested grounds of Stoke Moran will last into the next day.

The Start of the Middle

At Waterloo we were fortunate in catching a train for Leatherhead, where we hired a trap at the station inn and drove for four or five miles through the lovely Surrey lanes. It was a perfect day, with a bright sun and a few fleecy clouds in the heavens. The trees and wayside hedges were just throwing out their first green shoots, and the air was full of the pleasant smell of the moist earth. To me at least there was a strange contrast between the sweet promise of the spring and this sinister quest upon which we engaged.

But note that while we are moving directly to the middle, we’re not simply landing at Stoke Moran right there and then. There are various reasons for this, which will be coming up shortly, but one reason is simply building suspense—moving from the safety of London and the pleasant spring day to the grimmer events of Stoke Moran.

Indeed, one reason I think the Sherlock Holmes stories are so popular is that each story encompasses one vital part of the Hero’s Journey: moving from the familiar, everyday world—the comfort of Baker Street and, here, the open countryside—into the dangerous, other world of adventure and darkness. We ease into the story, look forwards to leaving for adventure—and look forwards to returning from the other world. Those are among the most satisfying of beginnings, middles, and endings.

I’ll note that it doesn’t take much description in order to share a spring afternoon with Watson in the trap; just a few words and very little in the way of adjectives, the minimum necessary to differentiate some important details. Like the fact that the sun is bright; the clouds are fleecy. We’re engaged by sight, but also by smell—the moist earth, pleasant rather than dungy. And the shoots are not simply described as being present on the trees and hedges, but being thrown out—some action-as-description.

And nothing else is needed to get the job done; and any more would detract.

My companion sat in the front of the trap, his arms folded, his hat pulled down over his eyes, and his chin sunk upon his breast, buried in the deepest thought. Suddenly, however, he started, tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed over the meadows.

“Look there!” said he.

A heavily timbered park stretched up a gentle slope, thickening into a grove at the highest point. From amid the branches there jutted out the gray gables and high roof-tree of a very old mansion.

Again, just enough description to get the job done of setting up a visual reference to Stoke Moran. Enough to establish that the action is happening somewhere concrete, rather than just a white room—yet not so much that the actual plot is lost. Description travels light here.

“Stoke Moran?” said he.

“Yes, sir, that be the house of Dr. Grimesby Roylott,” remarked the driver.

“There is some building going on there,” said Holmes; “that is where we are going.”

“There’s the village,” said the driver, pointing to a cluster of roofs some distance to the left; “but if you want to get to the house, you’ll find it shorter to get over this stile, and so by the foot-path over the fields. There it is, where the lady is walking.”

We spend the right amount of time easing into the countryside, building up setting, and not a moment too soon we’re back into the action:

“And the lady, I fancy, is Miss Stoner,” observed Holmes, shading his eyes. “Yes, I think we had better do as you suggest.”

We got off, paid our fare, and the trap rattled back on its way to Leatherhead.

A minor note on stretching and shrinking; note that in the countryside, up until now, Doyle has been using the techniques of “show” for storytelling—information is revealed in dialogue, characters move and talk in real time rather than summary. “Show” is used there because these elements are important; whereas he compresses leaving the trap in a (relatively) short sentence because it’s not at all important.

This is one element of pacing. (It’s similar to one we saw at the beginning in Part 1.)

“I had thought it as well,” said Holmes as we climbed the stile, “that this fellow should think we had come here as architects, or on some definite business. It may stop his gossip. Good afternoon, Miss Stoner. You see that we have been as good as our word.”

And another minor note: the logical element of the cover story of being architects (done subtly by Holmes, who doesn’t declare out loud: “We Are Architects On Our Way To Stoke Moran” but leaves the meaning to be implied).

Keeping track of logical details, even small ones, is important. This would have been an easy detail to leave out (“But what if he gossips that some unusual people are visiting Roylott’s? Wouldn’t Holmes have thought of that?” That sort of thing). It’s another reason why so many new writers lose it entirely in the muddled middle.

Our client of the morning had hurried forward to meet us with a face which spoke her joy. “I have been waiting so eagerly for you,” she cried, shaking hands with us warmly. “All has turned out splendidly. Dr. Roylott has gone to town, and it is unlikely that he will be back before evening.”

Just an aside—note that Doyle matches actions to dialogue here; “shaking hands with us warmly” is part of the dialogue tag (the phrase indicating who is speaking). This is done sparingly, as it should be, but in the right places—very often to set up the scene with a new character.

“We have had the pleasure of making the doctor’s acquaintance,” said Holmes, and in a few words he sketched out what had occurred. Miss Stoner turned white to the lips as she listened.

This is also the right place for summary—and a very short one—of what transpired 500 words previously, when Roylott made his memorable entrance. There is no need for repetition.

“Good heavens!” she cried, “he has followed me, then.”

Referencing our point a couple paragraphs ago, there are no dialogue tags here, because they aren’t needed (except when there is ambiguity in who is speaking, in which case a plain tag without additional descriptors is used). And there won’t be for some time, because the scene’s already been set up between these three.

“So it appears.”

“He is so cunning that I never know when I am safe from him. What will he say when he returns?”

“He must guard himself, for he may find that there is someone more cunning than himself upon his track. You must lock yourself up from him tonight. If he is violent, we shall take you away to your aunt’s at Harrow. Now, we must make the best use of our time, so kindly take us at once to the rooms which we are to examine.”

A note specific to the Holmes stories: often Dr. Watson is present, but not present in terms of being an active character. When someone is speaking, it’s more often than not Holmes; but notice that these words wouldn’t have come out of Watson’s mouth anyways. Voice is more than enough to distinguish between the two.

Description in Dual Roles

The building was of gray, lichen-blotched stone, with a high central portion and two curving wings, like the claws of a crab, thrown out on each side. In one of these wings the windows were broken and blocked with wooden boards, while the roof was partly caved in, a picture of ruin. The central portion was in little better repair, but the right-hand block was comparatively modern, and the blinds in the windows, with the blue smoke curling up from the chimneys, showed that this was where the family resided. Some scaffolding had been erected against the end wall, and the stone-work had been broken into, but there were no signs of any workmen at the moment of our visit. Holmes walked slowly up and down the ill-trimmed lawn and examined with deep attention the outsides of the windows.

Note that in contrast to Watson’s sparse but sufficient description of the summer day, or their approach earlier to Stoke Moran, he dives into detail here. This is in most part because this description is highly relevant to the upcoming parts of the middle, and partly for the atmosphere of portraying Stoke Moran in its declining years. Above I’ve highlighted in italics the parts that are atmosphere, and underlined the parts that are, basically, plot-orientated.

“This, I take it, belongs to the room in which you used to sleep, the centre one to your sister’s, and the one next to the main building to be Dr. Roylott’s chamber?”

“Exactly so. But I am now sleeping in the middle one.”

“Pending the alterations, as I understand. By the way, there does snot seem to be any very pressing need for repairs at that end of the wall.”

“There were none. I believe that it was an excuse to move me from my room.”

“Ah! that is suggestive. Now, on the other side of this narrow wing runs the corridor from which these three rooms open. There are windows in it, of course?”

“Yes, but very small ones. Too narrow for anyone to pass through.”

“As you both locked your doors at night, your rooms were unapproachable from that side. Now, would you have the kindness to go into your room and bar your shutters?”

Note that after the description, to again set up our new scene, we are no longer in “tell” mode, but in full-out “show”. In dialogue, Holmes actively queries Miss Stoner, instead of Watson simply summing up what happened. In a mystery, this has the purpose of letting the story unfold for us, and allow us to walk with Holmes in his investigation; but in any story, this also serves the purpose of keeping the audience interested. Regardless of whether we’re reading a book or watching a movie, the human mind is attracted to and fascinated by motion, which is why “show” is a strong principle in storytelling.

Miss Stoner did so, and Holmes, after a careful examination through the open window, endeavoured in every way to force the shutter open, but without success. There was no slit through which a knife could be passed to raise the bar. Then with his lens he tested the hinges, but they were of solid iron, built firmly into the massive masonry. “Hum!” said he, scratching his chin in some perplexity, “my theory certainly presents some difficulties. No one could pass these shutters if they were bolted. Well, we shall see if the inside throws any light upon the matter.”

Is this “tell” or “show”? We begin with summary of a nearly show sort, as Watson details what Holmes did, but end with full show with dialogue.

In either case, it’s also pacing. The summary here keeps the narrative speed consistent with the previous dialogue constant, and breaking back into “show” is also consistent with narrative speed.

Pacing is a difficult and subtle thing at times. This is when the experienced writer shows their intuition garnered from wrestling with this kind of technique repeatedly, because knowing how to pace comes with practice—lots of it. And even then, pacing is still difficult at times, and this is what second and third and etc drafts are for.

A small side door led into the whitewashed corridor from which the three bedrooms opened. Holmes refused to examine the third chamber, so we passed at once to the second, that in which Miss Stoner was now sleeping, and in which her sister had met with her fate. It was a homely little room, with a low ceiling and a gaping fireplace, after the fashion of old country-houses. A brown chest of drawers stood in one corner, a narrow white counterpaned bed in another, and a dressing-table on the left-hand side of the window. These articles, with two small wicker-work chairs, made up all the furniture in the room save for a square of Wilton carpet in the centre. The boards round and the paneling of the walls were of brown, worm-eaten oak, so old and discoloured that it may have dated from the original building of the house. Holmes drew one of the chairs into a corner and sat silent, while his eyes traveled round and round and up and down, taking in every detail of the apartment.

The high level of detail in the description here tends to be limited to mystery stories, and only when the details are relevant. For every other genre, and for most of the time in a mystery when the details aren’t under active investigation by the main characters, you do not need to inform people that the carpet is a Wilton, or where the furniture is exactly, etc.

Note also that Watson does not simply use dry description; he also adds color, such as talking about the brown and worm-eaten oak paneling of the room, a technically unnecessary detail—but it keeps things from getting boring.

A mention: there’s a “floating body parts” sentence here: “his eyes travelled round and round and up and down”, which makes it sound like his eyes got up and walked about by themselves. Overdoing this kind of bodily movement metaphor can give that usually unintendedly humorous impression, especially when it’s a cliche (“he rolled his eyes”).

“Where does that bell communicate with?” he asked at last, pointing to a thick belt-rope which hung down beside the bed, the tassel actually lying upon the pillow.

“It goes to the housekeeper’s room.”

“It looks newer than the other things?”

“Yes, it was only put there a couple of years ago.”

“Your sister asked for it, I suppose?”

“No, I never heard of her using it. We used always to get what we wanted for ourselves.”

“Indeed, it seemed unnecessary to put so nice a bell-pull there. You will excuse me for a few minutes while I satisfy myself as to this floor.” He threw himself down upon his face with his lens in his hand and crawled swiftly backward and forward, examining minutely the cracks between the boards.

Note that description isn’t limited to stationary objects or appearances, but also to motion. Description of motion can, indeed, be counted as a kind of show. Remember: moving objects are great at capturing reader attention.

Sherlock Holmes’ eccentric and eager investigative attitude at times, when hot on some scent, is perfectly illustrated here. There’s a reason why Watson amusedly compares Holmes to a hound from time to time.

Then he did the same with the wood-wrk with which the chamber was paneled. Finally he walked over to the bed and spent some time staring at it and in running his eye up and down the wall. Finally he took the bell-rope in his hand and gave it a brisk tug.

“Why, it’s a dummy,” said he.

“Won’t it ring?”

“No, it is not even attached to a wire.”

Should Doyle have used some other phrase than “running his eye up and down the wall”? Maybe. On the other hand, people probably understood what he was getting at, and by this point in the story most folks don’t really care, as the oddness (the window that can’t open, yet her sister died in her room somehow; the bell-rope that has no use; Roylott’s method of making Miss Stoner move to her sister’s bedroom) is starting to pile up and we’re in full-fledged middle mode.

Not to say that you should let go of sensible, non-cliche writing at this point—on the contrary. But even Doyle was inclined to do it. The muddled middle strikes again.

“This is very interesting. You can see now that it is fastened to a hook just above where the little opening for the ventilator is.”

“How very absurd! I never noticed that before.”

“Very strange!” muttered Holmes, pulling at the rope. “There are one or two very singular points abut this room. For example, what a fool a builder must be to open a ventilator into another room, when, with the same trouble, he might have communicated with the outside air!”

“That is also quite modern,” said the lady.

“Done abut the same time as the bell-rope?” remarked Holmes.

“Yes, there were several little changes carried bout that time.”

“They seem to have been of a most interesting character—dummy bell-ropes, and ventilators which do not ventilate. With your permission, Miss Stoner, we shall now carry our researches into the inner apartment.”

Doyle’s pacing is impeccable here. He focuses on the strange items turning up, not hurrying through them at all—meticulously letting Holmes pick each strange thing apart. It’s classic suspense-building, whether it’s in Victorian mystery serials or 21st century science fiction movies.

Next time we’ll watch Doyle ratchet the suspense up several notches, and show why he masters the muddled middle.