Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Two Sherlocks Walk Into a Bar

A while back I advised the writer to never put two Sherlocks in the same scene. Or if they do, they must never talk shop. What I said then I stand by, provided you understand why I said it. Understanding why will guide you should you wish to put ignore my earlier advise.

You should remember that whenever you hear a "rule" it is subject to being overcome by another "rule" just as a magnet's field overcomes Earth's gravity field when iron filings lying on a table fly upward to the magnet when it gets sufficiently close.

When you are writing there are multiple forces in play and those forces may occasionally balance or overcome one another.

The delightful Selena McDevitt last night reminded me of this when she tweeted, "Two experts "talking shop" should be explosive and near violent! They should be like two peacocks fighting."

Consider the psychology of two experts in a room talking shop. If they are male, female spectators may later speak of testosterone poisoning. Experts are justifiably proud of their expertise and will want to demonstrate this. Put two together and each should try to demonstrate his superiority over the other. (Unless one is clearly superior and self-confident whereupon he'll kick back and let the other hang himself.) When rivals vie for supremacy that is conflict and conflict is interesting.

So, in this we have an example of two "rules" that are pulling in opposite directions. The "No Two Sherlocks" rule says keep them apart. The "Conflict is Interesting" rule says, push them together.

This is not necessarily a trade-off or gambit situation, because the way you depict the conflict might not offend (or anesthetize) the reader.

Consider the "why" of the "No Two Sherlocks" rule. You don't want to have Expert A say something about something the reader doesn't understand, whereupon Expert B will reply with something else the reader doesn't understand. The reader doesn't want to feel dumb and the smart writer doesn't want to make the reader feel dumb.

Georg Cantor and Leopold Kronecker were rival German mathematicians of the 19th Century and they had different ideas about infinity. They clashed with great heat and passion. The content of that conflict might find its way into a Neal Stephenson novel (because he tends to include math proofs in his novels), but nowhere else. But one description of their many arguments has stuck with me for decades.

When they fought, the large Cantor would be picked on by the much smaller Kronecker. Spectators at the time characterized their conflict as Cantor trying to get walk away from Kronecker who would chase him around like an angry dog yapping at his heels. This image has stayed with me for decades.

That's why you need a Watson in the room. S/he must serve as the eyes and ears of the reader to interpret the experts' conflict and depict their conflict in terms and images that the reader will understand.

If you are going to put two Sherlocks in the same room and if they are bound and determined to talk shop, then by all means stress the angry dog or the fighting peacocks imagery while soft-pedaling the transfinite number theory content.


  1. Great blog article, and thanks for speaking with me on it. The possibilities for explosive dialogue should be one of those things that excite authors to write, and one of the more enjoyable ways to break a rule. ;)

  2. I think your Big Bang Theory observations are spot-on.

  3. Just be careful, some people consider Big Bang Theory to be 'laughing at' instead of 'laughing with'

    1. An excellent point. I could not watch The IT Crowd for that very reason.


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