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Screenwriting Structure: Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

Screenwriting Structure: Sherlock Holmes

Today’s Plot Point Thursday features Guy Ritchie’s 2009 remake of Sherlock Holmes. If you’re already familiar with this screenwriting tool, head on straight to the plot points. If you aren’t, here’s how to use it:

  • First, write down each plot beat onto an index card
  • Second, arrange the cards into columns so that the card at the bottom of each column is either a major turning point or an Act break
  • Finally, evaluate the (sub)plotting & pacing of the story: how did this movie weave together the A story with the B story? How did it alternate action sequences with slower ones? Comedic set pieces and sentimentality? Etc, etc.

This list of plot points is not just meant to help you master screenplay structure. You can also advance your repertoire of screenwriting techniques if you use these plot points along with the Screenplay vs Film analysis of Sherlock Holmes I posted last week.

For quick access here are the links:
Screenplay vs Film: 13 Screenwriting Tips from Sherlock Holmes (Part 1)
Screenplay vs Film: 13 Screenwriting Tips from Sherlock Holmes (Part 2)

Screenwriting Structure & Sherlock Holmes

I have always had great admiration for mystery writers. It’s not easy to mix clues with red herrings, maintain the suspense, and end with a solution that’s not predictable, but still satisfying. It’s a skill I’ve yet to master. Sherlock Holmes, however, is not the best movie to study to learn about mystery writing because it’s not a traditional mystery. Usually, a mystery begins with a dead body and the rest of the story is dedicated to discovering who did it and why. In the case of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, there is a dead body–but it comes back to life, and our intrepid detectives must discover how he did it and what is his master plan.

Still, there’s a lot to learn from Sherlock Holmes’s screenplay structure. All movies require plot twists that take your story in a different, unexpected direction, and mysteries are no exception. Sherlock Holmes is a good movie to study if you are curious about what exactly a plot twist entails. Examine the plot points below. Which incidents take the story into a different direction? Even more importantly, how often do they occur? Mastering the art of pacing will help you avoid writing a second act that drags, and this investigation will certainly help!

I’ve described Sherlock Holmes as a movie with humor, heart, action & mystery. Normally, if you have something for everyone, your screenplay becomes so diluted, that you end up pleasing no one. But Sherlock Holmes succeeds where so many movies have failed. Part of that is due to the chemistry between Robert Downey Jr & Jude Law as well as to Guy Ritchie’s directing style…but part of it is also due to the deft intertwining between so many disparate elements. Examining the plot points below should give you insight into how that balance was achieved.

Plot Points from Sherlock Holmes

  1. A carriage clatters over cobblestones, followed by other carriages. Watson and Inspector Lestrade are inside one while Holmes runs on foot.
  2. Holmes analyzes a way to overcome a thug in 90 seconds (“Holmes vision”), then punches his opponent and steals his hat and lamp.
  3. A Satanic ritual with a young female sacrifice is being performed.
  4. A lookout almost gets Holmes, but Watson puts him in a chokehold.
  5. Jude Law as Dr Watson

    Watson, hot on a criminal’s trail

  6. Watson & Holmes engage in hand to hand combat, save the young female, and unmask Lord Blackwood as the ritual’s initiator. Lestrade chastises Holmes for not waiting for his signal.
  7. At 221B, Holmes works on a silencer, driving Watson’s patient and housekeeper crazy. Watson tries to get Holmes involved in another case. Failing in that, he succeeds in tricking him into meeting his fiancee, Mary, at a fancy restaurant.
  8. Using his famed deductive skills, Holmes concludes that Mary is a governess, previously engaged, and after Watson only for his money. Mary throws wine at him and storms out. Watson is quick to follow.
  9. To work off steam, Holmes boxes a giant brute. His heart isn’t in it, and he almost yields, until he realizes Irene Adler is present. He uses “Holmes vision” once again and fells the giant.
  10. Blackwood’s dying request is to see Holmes. En route to the prison house, Holmes and Watson argue, but eventually patch up.
  11. Blackwood brags to Holmes that “a large game is a afoot,” and asks Holmes to join him. Holmes refuses.
  12. Blackwood’s hanged. Watson pronounces him dead.
  13. Irene sneaks into Baker St and pays Holmes to find a ginger midget named Reordan. It’s clear Irene and Holmes share a romantic past that didn’t end well.
  14. Although she acted as if this was her own case, Irene’s been hired to get Holmes involved by a man in black. In disguise, Holmes is able to discover her deceit.
  15. A police officer informs Holmes that Blackwood has risen from the dead. Holmes and Watson inspect Blackwood’s grave and discover the ginger midget Irene asked Holmes to find inside Blackwood’s coffin.
  16. 3-Screenwriting Structure:  Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

    Sleuthing, Sherlock style

  17. A gypsy tells Watson that his life with Mary will be awful — but she’s no fortune teller, just a prank orchestrated by Holmes.
  18. At a pawnbrokers, Watson gets an engagement ring and Holmes gets the address for the ginger midget.
  19. When they inspect the midget’s lab, they discover he was working on projects for Blackwood. Two arsonists arrive to destroy the evidence; they are joined by the muscle of the operation, Dredger.
  20. A long fight sequence ensues. Holmes fights Dredger while Watson fends off the two arsonists. With a miniature lightening rod, Holmes defeats Dredger and chases him to the docks.
  21. Dredger breaks the rod, battles with Holmes, and finally unmoors a giant ship which almost kills Holmes. Watson saves him in the nick of time.
  22. Holmes & Watson bicker in the jail yard. Mary bails Watson out, while “friends in high places” blindfold Holmes and take him to a secret location.
  23. Despite the blindfold, Holmes knows he’s in the home of Lord Rotheram, head of a secret society that claims to steer the world behind the scenes. Blackwood is Rotheram’s son.
  24. Lord Rotheram and two other members of the society, Coward and Standish, show Holmes a book of spells they claim give Blackwood his power. They charge Holmes with finding Blackwood before he kills again.
  25. Holmes visits Irene in her hotel room and tells her that the midget’s dead and that he saw her in Professor Moriarty’s carriage. He threatens to take her to the railway or the police station, but she drugs him and ties him to the bed.
  26. Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler

    Irene Adler, Sherlock’s tempestuous equal

  27. Rotheram boils in his copper bathtub, a murder orchestrated by Blackwood.
  28. The police rescue Holmes and take him to Rotheram’s in order to investigate his murder.
  29. Coward reveals himself to be in league with Blackwood and nominates him as new head of the secret society. Realizing the society actually engineers evil instead of good, Standish tries to kill Blackwood, but when he pulls the trigger of his gun, he sets himself on fire and dies.
  30. Holmes examines the dead body of one of the arsonists to deduce that Lord Blackwood can be found at a slaughterhouse near the river.
  31. At the slaughterhouse, Watson and Holmes save Irene from being sawed in half. As they chase after Blackwood, a bomb explodes. They all survive, but when police arrive on the scene, one of them warns Holmes that Coward has issued a warrant for his arrest.
  32. 5-Screenwriting Structure:  Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

    A trio in trouble

  33. Moriarty threatens Irene. She must find the machine Reordan was building for Blackwood or Holmes will die.
  34. Horrified by Watson’s injuries, Mary pleads with Holmes to solve the case, whatever it takes.
  35. Holmes performs a ritual from the book of spells. When he wakes, Watson and Irene are there to help. Using his deductive reasoning, Holmes concludes that Blackwood’s final act will occur at Parliament.
  36. As Lestrade arrives to arrest Holmes, Watson and Irene escape.
  37. Lestrade pretends to be a member of the secret order and brings Holmes to Coward. Holmes confronts Coward about the plan to kill Parliament. When Coward tries to shoot him, Holmes jumps out of the window and into the river…
  38. …where he is picked up by Watson and Irene. They investigate the sewer underneath and discover a crude chemical warfare machine.
  39. As Blackwood threatens Parliament, Holmes, Watson & Irene fight off thugs.
  40. As Irene and Holmes try to disarm the machine, Dredger appears. Watson and Holmes must deal with him, leaving Irene to take care of the machine.
  41. Irene is successful, saving Parliament. She leaves the sewer, having stolen some of the dangerous biological chemicals. Holmes chases her onto London Bridge (in the process of being built).
  42. Irene is about to tell Holmes everything when Blackwood appears and knocks Irene over the bridge. Holmes and Blackwood fight. When Blackwood gets caught in a rope, Holmes explains all of Blackwood’s conjuring tricks. Blackwood hangs himself with the rope.
  43. As they perch on the bridge, Irene tells Holmes not to underestimate Moriarty.
  44. The Tower Bridge in Sherlock Holmes

    Sherlock & Irene perch above the City

  45. Holmes gives Mary a large engagement ring (he pinched it from Irene) and explains how Blackwood pretended to hang himself at his execution. Later, they are informed that Moriarty has killed a police officer, and the case is reopened…setting up a sequel…

Final thoughts

If you’re writing a thriller or a mystery and your second act seems like it’s dragging, study Sherlock Holmes carefully. While Guy Ritchie’s “Holmes vision” was cool to watch, it’s the movie’s well-placed plot twists that kept the audience in suspense — and in the movie theater seats.

These plot twists make Sherlock Holmes an excellent movie to analyze using our index card method, so if you haven’t done it yet, now’s a great time to start. If you do this exercise regularly, your own grasp of screenwriting structure should improve tremendously!

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