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Sherlock Homes & Storytelling

Arthur Conan Doyle Had a Formula That Still Works

Mother reads to child
Every great story begins, "Once upon a time..."

You might think of beginning, middle, and end. I might call it the Premise, the Process, and the Promise. And a Sherlock Holmes story starts in media res. Do you know the how to tell a story?

For years I've been lecturing and teaching workshops at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and I often come with magnifying glass, a big old briar pipe, and a herringbone deerstalker hat. I'll tell my audience that Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor before he became the author of one of the greatest and most enduring characters of all time. In writing, on the big screen, and on tv, Sherlock Holmes never fails to grab our attention and hold us rapt until the big reveal.

What's his secret?

Usually, when the story opens, the victim is already dead - so there's no big surprise there! And that's really the middle of the story (media res). There must have been a lot going on beforehand to explain how the deceased got that way.


We'll have to go back in time to gather all the clues, meet all the people involved, and learn everyone's motives. Then we'll have to go forward in the timeline to eliminate the red herrings, the false flags, the circumstantial evidence and the people with alibis.

And then, j'accuse! It was Mr. Mustard in the parlor with a candlestick holder.

Even though most of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries are middle, beginning, and end - they always have those sections and so should you. The obstacle, the journey, and the resolution. The premise, the procedure, the call to action. The details can follow later because your paper or your business plan is not your presentation.

Tell the story first. There's always Q&A for the proof.

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