A Comprehensive Look Into the Writing Style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
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Best known for his stories on detective genius Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s oeuvre is made up hundreds of writings on a wide variety of subjects. His popularity is only matched by how prolific he was and his distinctive style.
Doyle’s writing style may feel dated for the modern reader, but his use of the English language was actually ahead of its time. His vocabulary is even a bit tame when compared to the literary parlance of his contemporaries, as he was catering to a wider audience.
But there is nothing ‘elementary’ in Doyle’s style. In fact, he is adept with a multitude of literary devices, often in a single sentence. Check out this excerpt from The Lost World, the story which inspired Michael Crichton’s fiction novel of the same title:
"He had sprung to his feet with a mad rage in his eyes. Even at that moment of tension I found time for amazement at the discovery that he was quite a short man, his head not higher than my shoulder—a stunted Hercules whose tremendous vitality had all run to depth, breadth, and brain."
Describing a character who was previously described as dangerous, Doyle employs sarcasm (“stunted Hercules”) for a bit of humor. But there is an elegant use of rhyme that lubricates the flow of the long sentence (“higher” - “shoulder”, “depth” - breadth”). The alliteration at the end (“breadth” - “brain”) punctuates the sentence with a satisfying sequence of syllables.
Doyle’s style is usually described as “flowery” and too literary, but for the Sherlock Holmes stories, this long-windedness certainly lends itself to the plot. There is linearity in most of the Holmes narratives, with Watson bombarding the readers with details and adjectives. Sometimes, it’s Watson gushing over Holmes with the intensity of a schoolgirl crush, but most of the time it’s Doyle displaying Holme’s ability to deduct the most important details. As we go along each story, the characters and events are peeled back layer by layer, until the case unfolds in a confession by the criminal.
Even Doyle himself defends his style using Holmes as his mouthpiece. In The Sign of Four, Holmes said, “It is simplicity itself, so absurdly simple that an explanation is superfluous; and yet it may serve to define the limits of observation and of deduction.”
Another definitive Doyle tactic is his tendency to use Watson as the voice in the reader’s head. Watson usually asks questions and makes observations that a clever reader might have been asking on their own. It not only makes the plot less predictable, but also challenges the reader. Doyle does not want to pander to his readers by making them feel clever, but he allows them to participate and join the ride.
But while Doyle’s descriptions provide details for his story, he makes it a point to use dialogue to flesh out the characters and plot. Take, for instance, this hilarious exchange between Summerlee and Lord John in the second Professor Challenger story, The Poison Belt:
“Perhaps I can help you to pass the time in a pleasant way. Would it amuse you to hear me crow like a cock?"
"No, sir," said Lord John, who was still greatly offended, "it would not amuse me."
"My imitation of the clucking hen who had just laid an egg was also considered rather above the average. Might I venture?"
"No, sir, no—certainly not.”
Doyle wasn’t content with describing Summerlee as a naive but earnest entertainer or Lord Lee as a grumpy old man. This displays Doyle’s mastery of fictional dialogue, something that many young writers fail at, as previously discussed here on Metamorphosis.
But perhaps his legacy lies in his stories’ plots, which continue to consume readers. His choice of themes and subjects display an ability to discern wonder and terror from everyday life. It’s no wonder that his works have been adapted into contemporary projects. The Sherlock Holmes film series which starred Robert Downey, Jr. is a recent and notable big-screen iteration, and Deadline relays that it's set to become a trilogy in 2020. The franchise has succeeded in its own right and even spawned a spin-off game in the form of ‘Sherlock Holmes: The Hunt for Blackwood’ on slots platform Slingo that focuses on the story of Lord Blackwood. While these adaptations did away with most of the writer’s literary elements, the memorable characters and gripping narratives still draw in audiences. Doyle’s imagination is difficult to put into words, let alone replicate.
Sir Doyle’s influence thus comes from his mastery of literary techniques, calculated narrative execution, exciting dialogue, and power to elicit terror and intrigue among readers. If you’re a writer focusing on detective stories, horror, historical fiction, or even sci-fi, there is a lot to learn from this 18th-century author.