Sherlock Holmes: A Game of (Fore)Shadows

Confession: I honestly believe Robert Downey, Jr., has the corner on the market for “sexy”—especially when he portrays witty, eccentric characters like Sherlock Holmes.


Where was I? Oh yes. You wanted a blog post. So sorry about all that nonsense.

Anyways, when I went to see the latest Sherlock Holmes movie, A Game of Shadows, it occurred to me that not only is Sherlock smart and witty and so much fun to look at, he can also teach us a thing or two about writing. He is the king of dialogue, knows a little something about suspense, and I don’t think anyone can claim the stakes aren’t high enough. But the thing I think he—or rather, the writers—are best at is effective subtle foreshadowing.

Subtle foreshadowing can be a really tricky thing to accomplish. Sometimes, it’s okay for your foreshadowing to be obvious as it helps develop tension, but subtle foreshadowing can provide your readers with those oh-so-satisfying “I totally did not see that coming!” moments. This is where Sherlock’s writers really excel, and from them, we can learn some easy tricks.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. If you have not yet seen the latest movie, I highly recommend you do so before reading any further. I would really hate to ruin the surprises for you.

  • Make it an isolated event – When Sherlock and crew meet his brother in Switzerland, we see him toying with Mycroft’s personal and private supply of oxygen. Mycroft tells him to quit messing around with the contraption and that’s the last we see of it—or so we think. Later, we find out that that innocuous little contraption is the key to Sherlock’s eventual survival. By limiting Sherlock’s interaction with the oxygen to a grand total of 10 seconds, the writers introduce a moment of foreshadowing without drawing attention to it, and the resolve comes as a complete surprise.
  • Make it a reoccurring event – That’s right, folks, isolating and repeating events can both be a effective tools for foreshadowing. For example, Sherlock Holmes has a habit of “killing” Watson’s adorable bulldog—a habit that is well established in the first movie and carries over into the second. Towards the beginning of A Game of Shadows, Sherlock kills the poor pup and then revives him with a shot of adrenaline. Later, Watson must use the exact same technique to save Sherlock’s life.
  • Hide it in your dialogue – Idioms and turns of phrase can be an excellent way to disguise your foreshadowing. It works so well that I had to see Game of Shadows twice before I caught this one: while introducing Watson to the complexities of the current case, Sherlock tells him, “I will go to my death to solve this case.” Phrases like “I’m going to do _____ if it kills me” are such a normal part of real conversations that the viewer/reader probably won’t even notice the foreshadowing at all. (Another example: Rene’s letter to Sim states, “Remember my face because you’ll never see it again.” Later, we learn that a plastic surgeon had performed an operation that made him look like another man, so she really would never see his face again.)
  • Embed it into your world building – The first time Sherlock meets his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, is when he pays him a visit in his slightly unkempt office at the university. As they talk, Sherlock takes in the room around him: the chalkboard covered in numbers and equations, the books that lay scattered around, Franz Schubert’s “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) playing on a phonograph, the box of dead flowers on the windowsill. All of these paint a vivid picture of who Moriarty is on the surface—a man utterly consumed by scholarly and cultural pursuits—but they also hint at his darker secrets. As Sherlock solves the case, the books, the chalkboard, and the dead plants all provide him with essential clues, and Die Forelle returns in a pivotal scene involving a particularly large fishhook.

Master the art of subtle foreshadowing and your readers will be stunned by your genius—and maybe they’ll hang your picture on their wall and spend the day drooling over it.

Not that I would ever do anything like that.

What effective foreshadowing tricks have used in your own writing or seen in books/movies?