When I grow up, I want to be Agatha Christie. I mean..okay, fine, I’m already an adult, but when I mature as a writer, I want to be like Agatha Christie. Not in every way, mind you. Her output was intense and occasionally lazy. She grew to hate her most beloved character. Her life became one of her own mysteries for a few days when she herself disappeared. But she was a master of her craft. You could pick up any one of her books–even the ones from the end of her career when she was clearly not enjoying this anymore–and in it, there’s some bit of genius that makes me say, yes, see that? I want to be like that someday.
So, how do I want to be like Agatha Christie? Let me count the ways!
- Characterization in Every Moment
In her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, there is a scene where the narrator, his sister and two other characters are playing bridge. I do not know the first thing about bridge, but I think this scene is wonderful because every character’s personality is illuminated by their playing style. Whether they are careless or exacting or gossipy or bossy is shown through how they play. While they play, they discuss the goings-on in town. The discussion is the important part. Half of the characters in the game are completely unimportant. I don’t remember if they even show up again. But they are still fully formed people and every moment they are on the page shows you who they are.
Rule of thumb: Every single thing a character does should illustrate who they are. I have read writing advice that suggests every scene should advance the plot OR characterization. I humbly disagree. Characterization should be advanced in every single line. Agatha Christie knew that.
In the Side by Side, Apart manuscript, there was a moment where I tried to misdirect the audience. My editor cut it. And I was like, ‘No, no, I want the audience thinking about X, but Y is what is really important! It’s going to come back in like 5 chapters!’ And Gail was like, ‘You have given them no reason to think about Y. They aren’t thinking about Y. They don’t need to be focusing on X.’
I recently read Christie’s The Clocks. It is not among her better works. Overall, I would say the storytelling is a mess. But the misdirection is beautiful. A character casually introduces an idea about another character. 60 pages later, that second person is on the page. Our lead character thinks to himself, ‘wow, she looks so familiar.’ You the reader feel very smart and important for realizing why she looks familiar. And completely forget that that first idea 60 pages ago is what was actually important.
I am not good at misdirection which is why my smart editor cut out my sloppy attempts to misdirect, but I really really want to be good at it!
- Construction of the Narrative
I started reading Agatha Christie novels about 8 or 9 months ago after seeing a list of the “Top Ten Christie Twists.” This included things like:
–The police man did it.
–The child did it.
–Everyone did it.
–The narrator did it.
Wait, wait, wait. How do you write a murder mystery where the narrator did it? Doesn’t it stop being a mystery? A tiny bit of research later (AKA asking people in the chatroom at A Happy Assembly. Everyone knew, because this book is very famous. On the off chance that you do NOT know what book it is, I shall not share the title.), I had downloaded a copy of the book. I just wanted to see how she did it. Could she do it?
Well. She did it, and it was amazing. I knew before I started who the killer was and the book was still amazing. I thought either the narrator had to give themselves away or lie, and if they lie, then the entire book falls apart because we can’t trust them. I was wrong on both counts. The book is a masterpiece. It was built in such a way that every bit of information the killer/narrator did or did not give you was fully justified from his/her perspective. Nothing ever seemed out of place, even when things were. Every little hint from the detective that they knew was brushed right off and you never question it.
Flawless construction is probably more important in a mystery novel than any other kind of novel, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can slack off about it. A book is like a puzzle. Every single piece has to fit. There’s no room for pieces that don’t or pieces that are left out. Most of us are human. We drop a piece or we bend a piece. Not Agatha Christie. Her puzzles are perfect.
- Sense of Humor about Herself and Her Work
She has this character, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, who I just love. Mrs. Oliver is a friend of Poirot’s. She’s a mystery writer and is easily (perhaps too easily) looked on as a self-insert of Agatha Christie herself. Mrs. Oliver can often be found bemoaning that her main character is a Finn and she doesn’t know anything about Finland! When she gets details about poisons wrong, readers gleefully write in to correct her, which somewhat annoys Mrs. Oliver. She’s sort of a ridiculous character, honestly. She relies on her “woman’s intuition” which pretty much always steers her wrong. It’s not very nice to look at this woman and figure she’s a stand-in for Christie herself, but some of the opinions Mrs. Oliver expresses are almost certainly Christie’s.
There’s a certain element of the ridiculous in all fiction. If stories were mundane things that happen in every day life, they wouldn’t be worth writing about. There HAS to be a fantastic element, an unrealistic coincidence or something to make it different, even as the audience recognizes it as demonstrative of the human condition. Something exaggerated. Christie found a way to wink at her audience, to say, Yep, I’m in on the joke.
I’m not a mystery writer, never going to be. She wrote over 70 novels–I’ve got one, and right now the idea of two sounds daunting. But man. I want to be like Agatha Christie when I grow up.