Wednesday, April 16

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?

In previous posts I've written about Stephen King and how his prose possesses the almost magical quality of being able to draw me into his story world. (See: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.)

King gets me to care so deeply about his characters, to identify with them so fully, that even though I'm scared to death and half convinced a decomposing mummy has taken up residence under my bed (it's just waiting for me to stick an unprotected foot over the side), even so, I can't stop reading.

Lately, though, I've been reading less of the King of Horror and more of the Queen of Crime. In a previous post (How To Write Like Agatha Christie) I mentioned that Christie's books have sold 4 billion copies, making her the best selling novelist of all time. (see also: Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules and How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs)

What's her secret?

Of course she didn't have one. There is no piece of writing wisdom that, if whispered over an open grave at the exact moment of the vernal equinox, will transform one's prose into the equivalent of catnip for readers. Not even if it's spoken in latin. (More's the pity.)

No, but Agatha Christie did have a bit of Stephen King's magic. She had the knack of making her characters interesting, companionable. She had the knack of making us care about them, for making it matter to us whether they were murdered or falsely accused.

I've always liked Christie's characters, they have always felt like the sort of people I would enjoy spending an evening with--well, most of them. Since one of these wonderfully charming people is a cold blooded killer I doubt I could ever become too comfortable!

The Opening Paragraphs of Murder at the Vicarage

Let's take a look at the opening to the first Miss Marple mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage. This book was published in 1930, four years after Christie's great success with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In fact, Christie acknowledged that the character of Caroline Sheppard was a prototype for Miss Marple.

Vicarage was written in first person from the perspective of--you guessed it--the vicar. Here's how it begins:

"It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage. The conversation, though in the main irrelevant to the matter in hand, yet contained one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments.

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that any one who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.

"My young nephew, Dennis, said instantly:

"'That'll be remembered against you when the old boy is found bathed in blood. Mary will give evidence, won't you, Mary? And describe how you brandished the carving knife in a vindictive manner.'

"Mary, who is in service at the Vicarage as a stepping‑stone to better things and higher wages, merely said in a loud, businesslike voice, "Greens," and thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner."

1. Early Character Development

Christie gets right to it. Although the murder doesn't occur for another five chapters she wastes no time letting her readers know what kind of book they're reading. She even gives us a broad hint about who is going to die and, for good measure, teases us with the idea that the murderer will turn out to be the vicar, or at least that he will be suspected of the crime. But he isn't, though it does get things off to a quick and interesting start.

Also, in that first paragraph we're told that the current scene contains "one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments." Right off the bat, the reader is busy hunting for clues and asking themselves which are the important bits and which are the red herrings.

2. Light, Witty, Tone

One thing that jumps out at me immediately is the tone of the passage. It's light, witty, tongue firmly in cheek. 

Christie pokes a bit of fun at the vicar, letting the reader see him as an old curmudgeon with a not-so-hidden soft streak. Dennis teases the vicar and then Christie effortlessly points the camera at Mary. In the same gently mocking tone we are told she is "in service at the Vicarage as a stepping-stone to better things" and then we are shown that she is an abominable housekeeper (she "thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner"). 

Further, all the things Christie shows us are character traits which are connected to significant threads in the story itself. Mary's abominable housekeeping (and the vicar's wife's even more abominable housekeeping) is connected to at least one major clue and sets up one of the main sources of conflict between the vicar and Griselda: her unsuitability for the life of a parson's wife. 

Griselda's unsuitability--or, rather, his unsuitability for her--leads the vicar to worry she is having an affair, but everything is tied up nicely in the end when Christie reveals that much of Griselda's odd behavior is due to the fact that she has been keeping a secret: she's pregnant! And very nervous about how her husband is going to take the news. Of course everything is tied up at the end with a bow and the soon-to-be parents are happy as blissful clams.

3. Opens With Action

In the first few paragraphs there are no descriptive passages. We aren't told what color the wallpaper is or about its design. We don't know what anyone is wearing and we don't know what any of the character's look like. 

But we do know the important bits. We have a decent, though rough, idea of what each character's character is (I wish there was a more graceful way of saying that!). It is as though, with one or two strokes of her brush, Christie brought these characters to life. Not, perhaps, in the same way Stephen King does in, say, The Shining, but that's fine. Personally, I find it difficult--though (disturbingly) not impossible--to imagine King writing an English cosy. 

Colonel Protheroe, the character who will be the victim, is mentioned in dialogue so, naturally, there's no description of him. Nevertheless we learn everything about him we need to know: he is so impossible to deal with that even a man of the cloth would dearly love to stick a carving knife in him.

4. Intimate

Agatha Christie's tone is intimate. Inviting. Wry. She writes:

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) [...]" 

In a first person narrative the protagonist speaks directly to the reader, but this isn't always glaringly obvious. In that aside to the reader--"remarkably tough by the way"--it feels to me as though the vicar took a break from his narrative, leaned close to me, and whispered a companionable warning about the quality of the beef. 

Here we have not just a narrator speaking to a reader, they are gossiping. And it feels intimate and personal. That's the sort of thing a friend, a companion, would do. And that's the sort of thing--these little intimate peeks inside a character's soul--that draws me, as a reader, into a story. That sense of character, that sense of ... for lack of a better term ... aliveness

This is something I've noticed about Stephen King's prose as well. I'm going to blog about it in the next few days so I won't go into it in depth here, but if you have a copy close at hand, take a look at the first few paragraphs of The Shining.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Back? Good. That first line: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick," is shockingly intimate. It is as though we can read Jack's mind (it is almost as though, we too, have the shining). This tells us not only about the person Jack Torrance is speaking to, it tells us a lot about Jack Torrance himself. 

(I would argue that King's first sentence is a lot like Christie's aside about the quality of the beef. Both are intimate, private, remarks make by characters who are reaching beyond the page to connect with you.)

As I reread those initial passages of The Shining I kept thinking, yes, Mr. Ullman isn't the warmest, nicest, person in the world, but there's really nothing wrong with him. Yes he probably looks down on Jack as a mere functionary, but, really, that's how Jack sees himself. What one word seems to sum up the Jack Torrance of those early passages? I'd say: angry. And that's one of the themes of the book, perhaps the dominant theme: Jack's anger and how he deals--or doesn't deal--with it.

Okay, I'd say that's enough for now. In the future I want to analyse two other books by Christie, their openings, in an attempt to pick up clues as to how she wove her spell. Will there be a common thread? Stay tuned!

Posts about Stephen King:

Photo credit: "Belvedere Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 14

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene? (Part 2 of 2)

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene? (Part 2 of 2)

This post concludes a series I began in my last post: What is a Scene? 


E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, writes:

"Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development."[5]

Let's examine these two sentences.

a. The king died and then the queen died.
b. The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.

What does (b) have that (a) lacks? In a word: conflict. 

(a) is simply a statement of events. As Forster writes, all that a reader can ask--or wonder--in this case is "What happens next?" But, that said, I can't imagine that there could be any sort of genuine curiosity. One could continue by writing, "Then the page died and the cook died." And so on. One could relentlessly take out the entire royal court, but it wouldn't make an interesting story.

(b) is more than a simple statement of events. One can imagine that the queen had a goal: not dying. Something interfered with that goal. What was it? Her grief at the death of the king. (Here we have an antagonistic force--grief--rather than an antagonist.)

Conflict is what moves a story forward. If a story were a car then conflict would be its engine. 

There are various ways conflict can occur but any kind of conflict will involve someone or something who is being prevented from attaining what they desire. 

I think this is why some storytellers hold that the antagonist, rather than the protagonist, is the most important character in a story. But not to the reader. The reader is rooting for the protagonist (or should be). No, the antagonist is the most important person to the storyteller. Why? Because the antagonist is going to create the conflict that drives the story forward.

If nothing prevents the protagonist from getting what they want then all we have is a series of events. Alfred wants a piece of cake and gets it. Beth wants a cup of rich black coffee and gets it, and so on. Boring!

Without something to prevent the protagonist from getting what she wants a story would be about as interesting as watching paint dry.

The conflict should be unique.

Although we do want conflict--lots of it!--we don't want to go with easy conflict. We want conflict that is unique to our protagonist. 

For example, in every episode of the TV series, Monk, there was conflict. Lots of conflict. One of Monk's two main goals was to get back on the police force (the other was to find out who killed his wife, Trudy). Unfortunately, he was his own worst enemy. His obsessions, his compulsions, his multitude of fears and quirks would get in his way and prevent him from achieving his goal. 

One reason that television show worked so well was because the conflict was unique. It was a unique, believable, situation.

Internal Opposition

In order to have a conflict that is unique the opposition to the character's goals must be unique. In Monk's case, the unique opposition was internal. It came from his own limitations, his multitudinous compulsions and phobias. I mean, the man was scared of milk!

Monk was his own worst enemy. His catchphrase said it all: It's a gift and a curse. His uncanny abilities of observation were a direct result of his many phobias, his obsessions. If he lost them he would be normal, sure, but he would no longer excel at solving crime.

So if we see Monk's fears and compulsions as his internal opposition, we see that this did not change through the series. These were the same in every single episode.[6] That said, these fears, these compulsions, were challenged and explored in new ways each episode. The show was kept fresh and interesting because the external opposition Monk encountered varied from episode to episode.

External Opposition

Anything external--exterior--to the character, anything that stands between them and the acquisition of their goal, counts as external opposition. The man who gets punched by a boxer to prevent him flirting with the boxer's girlfriend has just encountered external opposition.

But this external, opposing, force doesn't have to take the form of a person. It could just as easily be a tornado or an illness. Or, as we saw in the beginning of this chapter, grief.

In a television show like Monk the external opposition usually came from two sources: the murderer and someone from within the police department who, for whatever reason, didn't want Monk on the case. These obstacles--both of which were strongly linked to the internal opposition Monk faced (his phobias and compulsions)--combined to form the storytelling engine that drove the episode forward.


The overwhelming majority of scenes end in disaster. Given this, why do readers keep turning pages?

It may seem counterintuitive but, as I've said, readers are drawn through a story because their hopes for the protagonist are constantly thwarted by the antagonistic force. 

Try-Fail Cycles

That seems depressing and perhaps a wee bit fatalistic, doesn't it? If the protagonist is constantly thwarted, if he never gets what he's going for, if he never achieves his goal, why don't readers just write him off and give up? Why don't they close the book and stop reading?

Here's why:

1. The reader keeps turning pages because the stakes keep increasing. 

It's ghoulish, but when there's a wreck on the side of the road people slow down to look. Even if it's nothing but a crumpled fender people slow down. Remember in school, if a fight broke out there was no shortage of onlookers. Similarly, in the circus, why do you think some trapeze acts used to be done without a net? Because it upped the stakes and, in so doing, increased the level of excitement, of curiosity.

2. The protagonist only failed because the antagonist was so strong, so brilliant and, perhaps, because the antagonist wasn't playing fair. 

In other words, it's not the protagonist's fault. The deck was stacked against him. 

Which is not to say that the protagonist should ever make this excuse. He shouldn't. He mustn't. He needs to blame himself for the failure even if there was no way he could have avoided it. Only the antagonist is allowed to whimper and shake his fist, spluttering: It wasn't fair!

3. It isn't so much that the protagonist has failed, it's that he almost succeeded. 

I don't have the space to go into them here, but in another chapter I will give examples of try-fail cycles. But, briefly, think of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Lately I've been watching more contemporary movies, movies such as The Winter Soldier, in an effort to give you more up-to-date examples, but if there was one thing that Raiders excelled at, it was try-fail cycles.)

The hero doesn't fail dismally, he almost succeeds. He's so close to succeeding you could taste it. If it wasn't for something completely out of his control, if it wasn't for bad luck, he would have pulled it off.

4. Though the majority of scenes end in disaster and the major goal is never won before the end of the story, minor goals are achieved.

There's a sequence in the middle of Raiders that illustrates this nicely. Indy is trapped in the Well of Souls which has become a snake pit. There are a lot of snakes. Keep in mind that Indy is scared of snakes, that's his minor flaw, his comical--ironic--quirk. His goal in this sequence is to get out of the Well of Souls. 

That goal, to escape the Well of Souls, is what I'll call a sequence goal. A number of scenes and sequels are daisy-chained together, one flowing into the other, and his goal in all of them is to escape the Well of Souls. 

He does. (There was really no question that he wouldn't, it was only a question of how.) After Indy escapes--immediately after--he takes up pursuit of the story goal: finding the ark and bringing it back home.

Throughout the movie Indy achieves many of his sequence goals and he seems to get closer, at times tantalizingly close, to achieving his main goal. But he never does, not until the end.

As soon as the story question is answered, as soon as the protagonist saves the girl, finds the treasure, solves the mystery, that's it. The story is over. Done. Before that happens, though, the protagonist will have all kinds of mini-goals. He'll fail to achieve most of those as well, but he will succeed a few times. But only a few!

I'll talk more about try-fail cycles in another chapter and we'll look at a writer's tool I use often: Yes, BUT; No, AND

Thanks for reading! This post is a rough draft of one of the chapters in my upcoming book, Parts of Story. I welcome any and all questions and (constructive) comments. 


5. P.D. James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, reproduces Forster's passage, above, and then comments:
"To that I would add, "Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat." That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development." 
P.D. James' comment has more to do with plot and the respectability of the murder mysteries--the genre--as literature, but the quotation was just too good not to include in a footnote!

6. That's not quite true. In at least one episode Monk lost his fears, his compulsions, due to medication he took. Also, in certain episodes his fears became very much worse. But for the most part, his fears and phobias--his psychological condition--did not change. 

Saturday, April 12

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?

Jim Butcher describes a scene as the place "where all the plot in your book happens. Any time your character is actively pursuing his goal [...] he is engaged in a SCENE."[2]

Dwight V. Swain writes in Techniques of the Selling Writer that a scene is a "blow by blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition."[1]

Jack Bickham in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes gives us a warning. He holds that one of the most important aspects of a scene is its continuous nature. A writer develops the "action between the characters moment by moment, with nothing left out; you follow the rules of cause and effect, stimulus and response. To put this another way: you make sure that you never summarize during a high point of conflict in your story."

What elements do these three descriptions have in common? I think it's this: a scene centers around an uninterrupted conflict between two opposing forces. One very important thing: in a scene there is no exposition. No flashbacks. No information dumps. The action is uninterrupted.

The goal of the scene is to draw your readers into the story, to capture their interest, to get them to ask not only what happens next but to wonder why it happened.

Here's how Dwight V. Swain sums up the core, the essence, of a scene: 

Goal --> Conflict --> Disaster

Let's look at each of these.


Every scene needs two opposing forces, a protagonist and an antagonist (or, more generally, an antagonistic force).[3] Each scene needs someone who wants something desperately as well as someone, or something, who is just as desperate to stop them getting it. 

The goal should be specific.

The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy lottery tickets! Or, if you're writing a crime story, perhaps the protagonist figures out a way to rig the lottery.

Instead of a character wanting to be rich, have them dream of graduating from Harvard Law at the top of their class. Instead of a character wanting love in her life, have her daydream of marrying Ernest Watly, the eccentric librarian who moved to town last year. Instead of a character wanting to travel, have postcards from locations all over the world taped to her walls and give her an abiding desire to see the Nazca Lines in Peru.

The goal should be clearly communicated at the beginning of the scene.

The protagonist's goal should be clearly spoken or demonstrated at the beginning of the scene. There are two things here: first, the goal should be clearly and simply expressed and, second, such expression should occur at the beginning of the scene. As I wrote that sentence it seemed too obvious to state but then I remembered all the stories languishing under my bed in which I didn't follow that advice. 

The scene question.

Every scene should, implicitly, ask the question: Will the protagonist succeed in achieving their goal?

In a scene, any scene, the protagonist sets out to do something. Something specific. Something concrete. But his efforts are opposed. The antagonist has a goal too, and she can't achieve that goal if the protagonist does. So there's a problem. There's conflict.

This is good because now we've created uncertainty. The reader is (hopefully) wondering whether, and how, the protagonist will circumvent the opposition and get closer to achieving their goal.  If so, we've created suspense. It is this opposition between the major characters, this uncertainty, that will create suspense and keep readers turning pages.

The protagonist (and antagonist) must want something desperately.

Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer notes that characters, like people, have three kinds of wants: to possess something, relief from something or revenge for something.

P.D. James in her marvellous book, Talking About Detective Fiction, writes that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love."

Whatever the character wants, they must be willing to sacrifice quite a lot for it; possibly everything. Their sanity, even their life. Why? Because as a story progresses the opposition the protagonist faces must increase. At a certain point the protagonist's pursuit of their goal will lack plausibility unless they have a strong desire, and a strong motive, to achieve that goal. 

This is where character development is so very important. If what the character wants grows out of who the character is, out of their deepest desires and drives, then--when these drives are linked up to the goal--it will be plausible that the character will be willing to sacrifice anything to achieve that goal.

I'm going to leave off here. On Monday I'll finish this post and talk about the roles of both conflict and disaster in creating a scene.

(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story, which I usually publish separately. But this particular chapter proved to be a bit thorny and was taking so much time I decided to post it as one of my three weekly posts. I'm sorry if that creates any confusion. Thanks for your patience as I (slowly) blog my book. Cheers!)


1. Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
2. Jim Butcher, Scenes, on
3. I didn't want to launch into an in-depth explanation of terminology at the beginning of this article since that would be akin to giving an information dump at the beginning of a scene! But I do have a few things to say. In my book this part will likely end up in a glossary. 
- "Protagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and simply means "chief actor." Today, we use the word to indicate the primary character in a story or the main actor in a play. That said, many stories are told through different points of view (POV). Each of these POV characters is the protagonist of their own story. In this way we could talk of a "story protagonist" and a "scene protagonist." I tend to shy away from using these terms as I think they could be confusing. 
- Like "protagonist," the word "antagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and means "opponent, competitor, enemy, rival"[4] and is used to refer to the nemesis or main rival of the protagonist; the character who stands between the protagonist and his goal. The antagonist often isn't evil or even bad (if they are then the antagonist is often called a villain). Strictly speaking, the antagonist is just someone who stands between the protagonist and their goal.
- The phrase "antagonistic force" refers to anything that gets in the way of the protagonist achieving his goal, whether human or not. Tornadoes, diseases, and so on, are examples of natural phenomena that have been used as antagonistic forces.
4. Antagonist, Wikipedia.

Thursday, April 10

Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul

Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul

I feel silly. 

For years I've noticed a technique of Stephen King's, I've even written about it and mentioned that it seemed to be a strange contortionist amalgam of first and third person. But I didn't have a name for it. 

Until now! Yes, I am doing a happy dance. And all because of this article: "So you want to be a writer ...".[4]

Free Indirect Style: What Is It And Why Should You Care?

Jon Gingerich writes that a "benefit of Free Indirect Discourse is it's a more comprehensive way to tell a story. By temporarily breaking away from the narrator's voice within descriptive passages, the reader gets to see things not only through the narrator’s eyes but through the character's eyes as well."[2]

When a skilled writer, someone like Stephen King, uses free indirect speech it is as though he gently pushes the narrator out of the way--or as though he, as storyteller, steps aside--and allows the reader to know the innermost thoughts of the character. 

To put it simply (if rather dramatically), in a master storyteller's hands free indirect speech can be used to lay bare a character's soul.

See what you think. Here's an example of free indirect speech from Stephen King's book Under The Dome:
"Big Jim also did not ask Who did you sleep with? He had other concerns than whom his son might be diddling; he was just glad the boy hadn't been among the fellows who'd done their business with that nasty piece of trailer trash out of Motton Road. Doing business with that sort of girl was a good way to catch something and get sick.

"He's already sick, a voice in Big Jim's head whispered. It might have been the fading voice of his wife. Just look at him.

"That voice was probably right, but this morning he had greater concerns than Junior Rennie's eating disorder, or whatever it was." 
In the quoted paragraphs, above, whose voice is it? Yes, it's the voice of the narrator (King employs an omniscient narrator; he/she/it is no one in the story and the narrator has godlike knowledge), but we get Big Jim's voice peeking through. We have access to the character's thoughts, we hear--not the narrator's voice--but Big Jim's. For example, in the first paragraph, the narrator would not say "diddling," that's Big Jim's word. 

That said, the narrator--and likely the author--are evident in the text along with Big Jim. For example, Big Jim doesn't strike me as the kind of person who would be fastidious about the use of "who" and "whom." 

In the last paragraph the narrator's voice is replaced by Big Jim's; it's almost as though the narrator has temporarily submerged himself within the consciousness of Big Jim; or, perhaps, it is that the narrator has simply stepped aside. He/she/it is no longer between you and the character; it's just you and Big Jim and you're like a god in that, in that moment, you know him. He is laid bare before you; his thoughts, his hopes, his ambitions. The kind of man he is. 

That is what--or at least part of what--can be so seductive about reading Stephen King's books. The slightly voyeuristic promise of being introduced to characters that you come to know completely. Intimately. That you come to know even as you know yourself.

That also shows us one of the principle strengths of free indirect discourse: intimacy. 

To sum up: In free indirect discourse the narrator can seem to dip down into a character and reveal to you their inner workings both through their thoughts (/mental workings) and their speech. In a sense it is third person temporarily masquerading as first person and, as such, goes a long way to eliminating the distance between narrator and character--as well as (and perhaps more importantly) between reader and character.[5]

Direct Speech vs Normal Indirect Speech vs Free Indirect Speech

Free indirect speech seems like it can be powerful tool but if you're still wondering what the heck it is, perhaps this will help. 

Direct Speech

Direct speech is quoted: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds. "Ahw," he said, the sound halfway between a curse and a sneeze. "Gonna rain."

In direct speech, the reader hears from the character himself; in this case, from Bob. Because this is Bob speaking, the timber of his voice, the kinds of words he uses, and so on, are going to be different from those the (omniscient) narrator uses.

Normal Indirect Speech

Normal indirect speech is reported: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds and thought to himself that it would rain.

This speech is indirect because we don't hear it from the character himself. What Bob says and does and thinks is filtered through the narrator. As a result we lose the timber of Bob's voice as well as the particular words he, as opposed to the narrator, would use. When I read normal indirect speech it can feel as though a veil has been drawn over the character, over his mind, his essence, and that I am forced to see him through the lens of the narrator's thoughts and feelings.

Free Indirect Speech

Here's an example of free indirect speech: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds; yep, it was gonna rain.

Here, as with direct speech, the narrator is shunted aside. You, the reader, no longer look at the character through the lens of the narrator's beliefs and hopes and judgements. Here you are shown Bob's unadulterated, unfiltered, thoughts as he thinks them. 

Free indirect speech: who started this wackiness?

Apparently, nineteenth century French novelist Flaubert was the first to be consciously aware of it as a style but both Goethe and Jane Austen used free indirect style consistently. Other practitioners of the form were: Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. [1]

Share your thoughts! What do you think of free indirect discourse? Do you enjoy reading authors who use the technique? Have you used it? Would you?


1. Free indirect speech, Wikipedia.
4. The article, So You want to be a writer ... is a collection of reactions--all by author-teachers--to Hanif Kureishi's statement that creative writing courses are a waste of time. It was Philip Hensher's essay that included the sentence that opened my eyes: "The focus [in Hensher's writing classes] is on technique as well as emotion and experience. Is the presiding consciousness the right one? Does he need to filter everything through his awareness? Is this the right tense? What is this thing called free indirect style?"

Miscellaneous Writing Links

Photo credit: "Cap Formentor" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 7

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery: The Murderer

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery: The Murderer

W.H. Auden writes that the test of a good detective story is twofold:

a) The reader must be surprised when the sleuth reveals the identity of the murderer.

b) The reader must believe that "everything he has previously been told about the murderer is consistent with his being a murderer."[1]

An excellent test! Also, it highlights an important point: a murder mystery is primarily about the murderer. Not the sleuth, not the sidekick, not even the victims. After all, it is the murderer's desire, his goal, that drove him to kill.

Qualities of an Interesting Murderer

1. The murderer must be a worthy adversary for the sleuth.

Storytellers want their audience to think the sleuth is clever and resourceful. This means the storyteller must show him being clever and resourceful. But the only way to do this is to pit the sleuth against an opposing force--the murderer--who is every bit as clever and resourceful as the sleuth. 

When the protagonist fails (as he/she inevitably will at some point) we understand that they were up against someone brilliant. If the murderer isn't clever then when the sleuth fails ... well, that's just embarrassing! 

Also, when the sleuth finally solves the mystery and unmasks the murderer it means  more because the antagonist was clever. So clever, in fact, that only your sleuth could have brought him/her to justice.

2. The murderer should act from motives of self-interest.

No inexplicable desires or drives, please. Not in a cosy. The murderer must have an easy-to-understand motive. P.D. James in her wonderful book, Talking About Detective Fiction, writes:

"All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing, and love."

3. The murderer could have a deep psychological wound.

I think there are, roughly, two kinds of murderers. Criminal masterminds like Professor Moriarty and garden variety criminals who poison their great aunt so she won't discover they've embezzled all her money. Generally, Agatha Christie portrayed the latter as weak and, possibly, evil. That works for me. 

Which isn't to say that these person-next-door criminals didn't have awful things happen to them which left wounds. I'm sure they did. But I doubt that any wound could explain committing murder. But wounds do something else: they humanize. And that's good because we want round murderers not stick figures like Dr. Fu Manchu.

Murderers like Moriarty, criminal masterminds, are generally  brilliant and calculating. It isn't so much that they have a deep psychological wound which explains their behavior but that some event or series of events radically transformed them into what they are. 

An event or ability. In the TV show Sherlock, Moriarty is portrayed as a brilliant psychopath, almost as clever as Sherlock himself. But his oddess is--or so I thought--explained by his brilliance. He is so smart that he views ordinary humans as ordinary humans view ants. He views himself as a different, and clearly superior, species. Just as many humans wouldn't bat an eye at killing a moose or deer so Moriarty wouldn't hesitate to kill a human if it was in his interest to do so.

Sleuths and Psychological Wounds

I know this question was about murderers, but I'd like to answer it for sleuths as well. Although this may be seen as heresy, I don't believe that all sleuths need to have a deep psychological wound. Especially if one is writing in something of the style of the (English) golden age mysteries, those set between the wars. (Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers are just two of the many authors whose works fall into this category.)

Agatha Christie's sleuth, Hercule Poirot, though excessively fastidious and saddled with a taste in clothes and facial hair that could be comically old-fashioned, did not have a deep psychological wound (and the same goes for Miss Marple and Sayers' sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey). 

Contrast this with Sherlock from the TV show of the same name. Now that is a character with a deep psychological wound. One of my favorite lines from that show is from the first episode of the first season, A Study In Pink:

Sherlock Holmes: "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high functioning sociopath. Do your research."[4]

And then, again, in the last episode of season three: His Last Vow:

Sherlock Holmes: "Oh, do your research. I'm not a hero, I'm a high-functioning sociopath."

I would argue that the original Sherlock Holmes did not have a deep psychological flaw. Yes, he was different—quirky—but nothing on the order of the Sherlock Holmes portrayed (brilliantly) by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

And it works. Sherlock is, hands down, my favorite show and I'm not alone. It enjoys a 9.3/10 rating over at IMDb and a 9.1 user score over at  

But Poirot is popular as well. Agatha Christie is, after all, the world's third best selling novelist and the most popular mystery writer of all time.

Whether to give your sleuth a deep emotional flaw might depend on the kind of murder mystery you intend to write. In a cosy it is the sleuth's ratiocination that takes center stage. We are concerned with logic; as Poirot would say, it is all about order and method.

On the other hand, in a hardboiled detective mystery such as "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett, or Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep," the logic of the crime is downplayed in favor of the sleuth understanding how the city, the police and the gangsters operate. That, and the sleuth's ability to take a punch as well as give one. In keeping with the setting, these sleuths are darker and more flawed.

4. Make the conflict personal.

Make the conflict between the sleuth and the murderer personal. Make the murderer want to taunt the sleuth. Make the sleuth willing to take crazy risks to catch the murderer.

If the murderer is caught then his/her life is over, perhaps literally, but if the murderer gets away with it, what then?

Yes, not being able to solve the puzzle or, worse, offering up an incorrect solution--being foiled by the murderer--could not only ruin the sleuth's reputation (assuming he cares) but send an innocent person to prison. And that is something the sleuth must care about. I think that's a large part of what separates white hats from black hats.

5. Show that the murderer is one depraved, sick, puppy.

For most of the story the antagonist is going to wear a mask. Underneath the mask they are getting more desperate and their sickness, their desperation, escalates.

One way we could show this is by escalating the number of murders, their violence, as well as the murderer's reckless daring.

6. Let your antagonist win occasionally.

Your sleuth needs setbacks. He needs strong opposition to battle against and, so, occasionally, he's going to fail. Often this happens at the midpoint. The sleuth--or the sleuth's helper--thinks they know who did it. But they're wrong. Often the suspect is found dead, killed the way the other victims were.

7. Show the killer's true face at the end.

The murderer is a cold-blooded killer. She has taken the lives of those she knew, perhaps even those she loved. And she did it for personal gain. She's not nice, not ordinary, perhaps not even sane. But for most of the book she has hidden in plain sight and has acted like everyone else. Now we get to see her as she really is. We get to see the murderer's contempt for those around her, for those who counted themselves as her friends.

Although there is a lot more that can be said about qualities the murderer should, or could, have; qualities that would contribute to making him or her an interesting character, one a reader would love to hate, that's it for today. In the next episode of this series, How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery, I'll talk about the second most important character in a murder mystery: the sleuth.

Here are the links to the previous articles in this series:


1. "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden over at This article is from the archives and was originally published in Harpers magazine in 1948.
2. "Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel," by Jonathan Crow over at
3. "A Plot Begins to Take Shape," by Margot Kinberg over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist ...
4. This line is from the episode, "A Study in Pink," from the TV show Sherlock. Episode written by [].

I also drew from my previous articles:

Photo credit: "Taking A Fence" by Ian Sane under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, April 6

Parts of Story: What Is Narrative Setting?

What do we mean by "narrative setting"? It's simple: the setting is where the events of the story take place. The story world includes the physical environments the characters encounter as well as the cultural groups they interact with. You can create these environs from nothing but your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

Conjuring a story world from nothing but the materials of your imagination may save long hours of research, but it must be consistent and plausible. A happy medium between these two is to set the tale in a fictional world but to use the actual world as a starting point. By changing aspects of the actual world one can often produce a setting that is both unique and plausible.

However you go about crafting your story world, the most time consuming, intricate and important aspect of a character's environment is their social environment.

What are the rules of your world's societies, both written and unwritten? What sorts of pair bonds are sanctioned? What are their norms, their unwritten rules? Are certain practices, certain actions, sanctioned but discouraged? 

Getting finer grained, what kinds of groups, or sub-groups, does the society contain? By this I mean any kind of group: political, recreational, medical, artificial, criminal, natural, sanctioned and unsanctioned. And if you see fit to give your world something like the internet, don't forget online groups!

Arguably, the most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, the groups we belong to. But, of course, your protagonist need not be like us! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

Above all, think about ways to introduce opportunities for conflict when creating a story world.

The Elements of Setting: Time

What time of year is it in the story? Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter? If this is a fictional world, does it have seasons? How much time passes in your story? Hours? Days? Months? Years?

Is there anything unusual about the flow of time in your narrative? Is your story written as a stream of consciousness? Does your novel employ time-jumps for flashbacks to convey the story? 

The Elements of Setting: Place

Where does your story take place? What is its geography? Is it an unexplored wilderness or is it well populated? Does the story take place in a town? A city? A tropical jungle? A rainforest? Is the place barren? Lush? Isolated? Densely populated?

Is there much water nearby? Is the air dry or wet? Is there snow at Christmas time? What sports or hobbies could a person easily engage in given the features of the area? Snowboarding? Skiing? Swimming? Surfing? What sports couldn't your characters do? For example, could your characters swim without risking hypothermia in December?

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances

What social groups is your character involved in? Are they religious? Spiritual? Politically involved? Do they have a large family? Small family? No family? If they're a loner, do they have a network of friends online? What kind of social groups is your character a part of at work? Are they self-employed? Unemployed? Are they the first one at the water cooler in the morning, gossiping, or do they keep to themselves? Do they get along with their boss? 

What are the signs of group inclusion? Do your characters have an accent? Do they wear a uniform, or some sort of special clothing? Do they have markings that identify them as part of a particular group?

Do different groups, different societies or cultural groups, have different accents? Different ways of speaking?

How do these marks of social inclusion, these accents and languages, differ from those which existed a century ago? A millennium ago? Also, what will these groups, these societies, be like a century--or a millennium--from now?

Setting As It Relates To Each Scene

I've touched on some of this information, above, but let's get specific. Stories are made up of scenes and most scenes occur at a place and a time. 

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends, and know what time of day it is. Is it high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? 

What associations do the main characters have about this time? What memories might it provoke? For instance, a character might wake during the witching hour and remember a nightmare they had as a child. (This introduces conflict: the character would like to sleep but the nightmare, and now the memories invoked by it, trap them in the waking world.)

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?

If the scene takes place outdoors what's the weather like? Is the sun hidden behind clouds turning day into night? Is it nighttime, yet lightning flashes make the landscape bright as day? Is it snowing? Raining? Is it sunny, with the unbearable heat of the desert baking everything to a brittle hardness? Are the characters in the Antarctic? Are they isolated by distance and the unbearable, bitter, cold? What associations might they have to snow? How about rain? Lightning? 

For example, while an adult might hate to wake up to a winter wonderland, a child would likely be overjoyed--especially if it means a snow day!

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. If man-made, were they invited here? Are your characters comfortable here? Does it make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

A room could be lavish and yet make a character uneasy because, while they have always desired it, they are unused to such luxury. Another character, one equally uncomfortable in such surroundings, might feel the urge to destroy it while yet another might relax and feel at home. This touches on the topic of how setting can be used to develop character, but before we examine that let's briefly look at the importance of being able to use setting to generate conflict.


I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating. One thing all stories must have, whatever the story world, is conflict. Political parties battle each other. Countries go to war. Social groups hold diametrically opposed yet strongly held views about what constitutes appropriate conduct.

What do your characters believe? Where in this ever shifting maze of interconnectedness do they fit? What groups do they belong to? What do they believe about the world? Which social practices, which social institutions, do they embrace? How do these preferences generate conflict both within a character and between characters?

It is one thing for a character to understand what sort of behavior a particular society expects from its members, and quite another whether, and to what extent, they will go along with it.

Writing Challenge

Select one of your favorite books and try to answer the following questions: 

- What is the setting for the story? 
- Does the world have seasons? If so, during what season--or seasons--does the story take place? 
- How much time elapses during the story? 
- What is the geography like? 
- How many distinct social groups exist and what characteristics distinguish one from another? 
- Which aspects of the setting created the most conflict and how was it generated? 

Here's the sort of thing I mean. Imagine two societies are remarkably similar but one--Lakehonor--helped defend the surrounding region against an enemy while the other--Broomoward--did nothing. As a result, many citizens in Ladehonor despise Broomoward. It's winter, food is scarce, and a fire has ripped through Broomoward destroying its food reserves. Many in Broomoward accuse Lakehonor of setting the fire. One thing is certain, unless Broomoward gets food many of its citizens will starve to death. What will Broomoward do? Attack the city that defended it? What will Lakehonor do? Share it's food reserves with the city that not only didn't help defend against the enemy but that now accuses them of sabotage?

Given this setting, who would be your protagonist? I think I would choose a child from Broomoward who discovers evidence that their food reserves were destroyed by the enemy they thought Lakehonor had defeated. But will he be believed?

Friday, April 4

Generating Suspense Through Conflict

Generating Suspense Through Conflict

Suspense. Every story needs some. As Kurt Vonnegut said, "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." Suspense enters with the question: Will the character get it?

Suspense is an emotional state created in a reader/viewer when an obstacle is put in the way of a character, one they care about, achieving something they desperately want or need. 

In Gravity (2013) Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) wants to return to earth. Alive. A number of complications put this outcome in question. At one point in the movie:

"High-speed debris strikes the Explorer and Hubble, and detaches Stone from the shuttle, leaving her tumbling through space. Kowalski, using a Manned Maneuvering Unit, soon recovers Stone and they make their way back to the Space Shuttle. They discover that it has suffered catastrophic damage and the crew is dead. They use the thruster pack to make their way to the International Space Station (ISS), which is in orbit only about 1,450 km (900 mi) away."[2]

Unfortunately "As they approach the substantially damaged but still operational ISS, they see its crew has evacuated in one of its two Soyuz modules. The parachute of the remaining Soyuz has deployed, rendering the capsule useless for returning to Earth."[2]

In my previous post, Three Ways to Create Suspense, I mentioned that Lee Goldberg held that three things were needed for suspense:

a) A real danger to the hero and 
b) the possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time (/a ticking clock)

Gravity has all three. The space debris provide a cascading series of dangers to Ryan. Usually, though her situation is desperate, one feels there's a chance--perhaps a vanishingly slim one, but still a chance--to escape the danger. Also, there is a finite amount of time in which to do so because she is running out of oxygen.

Great setup.

I think this shows us something else: Suspense (a state created in the reader) is created through conflict. That is, suspense is created through a character's efforts at getting what they need/want being blocked. 

So lets look at the different kinds of conflict we can set up in our stories. What kind of conflict do we want? Is conflict 'one size fits all' or are some kinds of conflict compelling and other kinds less so?

Before I go on to examine that, though, I'd like to take a step back and quickly point something out about MacGuffins.

The Care and Feeding of MacGuffins

If you're not familiar with the term "MacGuffin" see my article The MacGuffin: A Plot Devise from Screenwriting or go to the article on

A while ago I read through the articles in Uncle Orson's Writing Class (I highly recommend it) and--though I can't remember which article I read it in--came across something to the effect that a MacGuffin was a thing that one's characters cared about (and, of course, something that doesn't need much of an explanation; treasure, jewels, and so on). 

The only reason I, as a reader, care about whether the character gets the MacGuffin is because I care about the character and the character wants it. 

Granted, if you're anything like me, many times the MacGuffin takes on a life of its own. For instance, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or the golden falcon in The Maltese Falcon. But that's beside the point. Those movies work because what I care about is the character achieving their goal. I'd care about that even if I had no interest in that goal for myself.

Kinds of Conflict: Complex vs Simple, Unique vs Common, Interesting vs Boring

I made that digression--the one about MacGuffins being something that the character cares about--because I think it lies at the heart (or at least very near the heart) of what Lee Goldberg says about suspense. 

In a recent Google Chat Lee Goldberg said:

"You have to be careful that you're not going with easy conflicts. It's easy to have someone with a gun walk in, it's easy to have a hurricane or earthquake or monster. Those are cheap conflicts. The best conflicts are the ones that truly come from character.

"A cliched version would be the guy who is afraid of heights and has to go to a high building to rescue someone. You want a conflict that is based on character not conflict that could arbitrarily be applied to anyone and would work for anyone. You want conflict that is unique to the characters that you are writing about. That's how you want to invest the audience in what happens to them [the characters]. You don't want a conflict that is wholly exterior and homogenous, a conflict that anyone would find [scary]." (Lee Goldberg)

At first I was surprised. We don't know who our readers are going to be so it would seem a good idea to find a conflict that anyone could relate to: one's spouse and children being killed by a bomb that a terrorist set off, for example. Who couldn't relate to that?

Here, though, Goldberg argues the opposite. Later on in the talk he uses Monk, a character with an obsessive compulsive disorder who is afraid of ... well, pretty much everything! ... as an example. Not everyone is terrified of walking through sewer water. Yes, this is something we'd like to avoid; the idea is revolting; but for Monk it is terrifying. 

My point is that Monk has desires and goals and fears that no normal person--and certainly the lion's share of the series' readers--have. And yet it was a popular series, filled with suspense. 

Here's the key, the takeaway: Remember what I said about MacGuffins. We, readers, don't need to care about what the character cares about. (There's probably a better way of putting that!) We only need to care about the character achieving it. And if the writer has gotten us to identify with the character, we will. (I've written about how to get a reader to identify with a character here and here.)

A Technique To Build Conflict: Cross-Cutting And Point of View

Before I end this post I'd like to talk about a practical technique Lee Goldberg mentioned for creating suspense.[1] 

Third Person

Imagine a camera cutting between the hero and the villain, then between the villain and the hero. Cross-cutting in third person allows a writer to share information with the audience--in our case, the reader--that other characters don't know. Lee Goldberg says "You can control point of view to create suspense."[1]

First Person

Lee Goldberg continues:

"When you write a book in first person the essential element of suspense is understanding the conflict within the lead character. You have to establish who he or she is, what they want, what they're afraid of, what they stand to lose. And then create a situation where all those fears and risks come to a head. So if you are in the heart and soul of the hero or heroine and you see the events that are happening around him or her you feel the suspense that they feel.

"There it's a manipulation of the information you share about your hero combined with the conflict you put them in that's going to make that information have relevance.

"That's a harder thing to pull off. Suspense--I believe--is much easier to do third person than it is first person."[1]

Lee Goldberg

Lee Goldberg recently teamed up with Janet Evanovich to write the New York Times bestselling books "The Heist" and "Pros & Cons" and is now a #1 New York Times bestselling novelist. 

Lee Goldberg is a rare find, a senior writer who has done it all, and who still takes the time to pass along his thoughts on the craft of writing.

Well! That's it for now. If you'd like to sample Lee's writing wares, sign up for his newsletter and he'll send you a free electronic copy of "McGrave." It's a fast paced, engaging, and (of course!) suspenseful, thriller. 


1. Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:
2. Gravity, Wikipedia.

Photo credit: "The Race" by Vieira_da_Silva under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, April 3

Parts of Story: Tags And Traits: The Dominant Impression

"A tag is a label, but a limited, specialized label. It identifies a character and helps your readers distinguish one story person from another."
-- Dwight V. Swain, Creating Characters: How To Build Story People

Dwight V. Swain, in Creating Characters, describes tags and traits as having three main functions. First, they identify a character. Second, they identify each character uniquely. Third, they help recall a character to your reader's mind after an absence. He uses Kojak as an example; that character's tags were his ever present lollipop and his shaved head.

One of the most effective ways of using tags and traits is through formulating a dominant impression for each character. In this chapter I'm going to go over what a dominant impression is and how it achieves its effect.

The Dominant Impression

A dominant impression contains the sort of information that stays with you--that you remember--after you meet someone for the first time. It is the cluster of qualities that makes a character memorable.[1] 

What qualities make a character memorable? (I also talk about this in my chapter on Creating Interesting Characters.) DVS writes that it's some combination of a character's name, gender, approximate age and primary attitude. Let's examine these.

1. Name 

Names should be descriptive and unique.

Descriptive. Names should help characterize our pseudo-humans; they should give our readers an idea of the kind of people they are and, if possible, their role in the story. 

This can also be used to misdirect readers. For instance, it would be easier for me to think of a character named Damian Black as a villain than one named Christopher Holmes. These associations can be used to throw suspicion on an innocent person or to nudge the reader to give someone who is guilty the benefit of the doubt.

In my opinion, J.K. Rowling is phenomenally good at using names to tag her characters. Take Severus Snape for example. Severus is used as a red herring in the first Harry Potter book. The name "Severus" reminds me of "sever" and "Snape" sounds an awful lot like "snake." Neither of those words has terribly positive or cuddly connotations. 

Rowling really is a past master of the dominant impression. Here's how she introduces Snape: "Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin."[2] 

But Rowling doesn't leave it there. She has Percy tell Harry that: "He teaches Potions, but he doesn’t want to--everyone knows he's after Quirrell’s job. Knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts, Snape." So Quirrell's nervousness is passed off as being caused by Snape's proximity and we don't suspect for a moment that Quirrell is reacting to Harry and that the mild-mannered Professor Quirrell is really Lord Voldemort's helper. But when we go back and re-read the book it's right there staring at us, we just misattributed Quirrell's reaction.

To sum up, a name is--or can be--a part of a dominant impression. It can be used to shape our readers expectations about a character, who they are, how they will act and react. And, as such, it's one of the most powerful tools writers have.

Unique. It goes without saying that having two or more characters with the same name would be maddening for the reader, but so, often, is having two or more names which look or sound the same. Mary and Marty for instance. Even Darren and Dwain might throw a reader off, especially at 2:30 in the morning when they're feverishly reading your book desperate to find out the identity of the villain, or to discover whether the protagonist will put aside her pride, forgive her love interest, and find true love. 

The rule-of-thumb I've adopted is this: have each name begin with a different letter and make sure they sound different. The only exception to this is if you want to use similar names as a clue. (Agatha Christie does this to great effect in A Murder is Announced.)

2. Gender

One of the ways Thomas Harris characterizes Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs is by making her a trainee in the, at that time, male-dominated FBI. That Ms. Starling could survive and thrive in what Harris portrays as a hostile environment shows us her drive, her intelligence and her determination.  

Since gender is part of certain stereotypes it can also be used to subvert them. For instance, take the idea of a stripper with a heart of gold. I plugged that phrase into Google Image Search; all the images of strippers that came back were female. 

What would happen if we created a kind-hearted stripper who happened to be male? Here's an example of where gender can be very important, not in perpetuating a stereotype, but in breaking one and, at the same time, creating a unique, interesting, story person.

3. Approximate Age

Personally, when I meet people I only notice whether they are much older or younger than I am. When I read a book I don't need an exact age, but I do appreciate knowing what decade they're in since that influences so many things. For example, one would not expect a person in their mid-20s to hold a high level position in, say, the CIA. 

I went looking for an example of how one can use a dominant impression to characterize a person's age without actually telling the reader their numeric age. But I found much more than that. First let's look at the example and then I'll say a few things about it. 

Here's how Stephen King introduces George Denbrough in It

"A small boy in a yellow slicker and red galoshes ran cheerfully along beside the newspaper boat. The rain had not stopped, but it was finally slackening. It tapped on the yellow hood of the boy's slicker, sounding to his ears like rain on a shed roof ... a comfortable, almost cozy sound. The boy in the yellow slicker was George Denbrough. He was six."

This is masterful. Not only does King use tags and traits (small, boy, yellow slicker, red galoshes, cheery) but King uses free indirect speech to give the reader a peek inside the character's mind (something that, ordinarily, we can't do when using a third-person perspective). He does this when he writes: "sounding to his ears like rain on a shed roof ... a comfortable, almost cozy sound." That's giving us George's interior feelings and thoughts.

Taken together, King, using only a few lines, has conjured a picture in our minds of an adorable child, cheerily running through the rain absorbed in watching his newspaper boat, being serenaded by the rain as it dances, rat-a-tat-tat, on his yellow slicker.

King's description gives us an excellent idea how good descriptions can be. But, back to my point about age. In the passage, above, Stephen King tells us George's exact age but, even if he hadn't, I think we'd still have had a pretty good idea how old he was.

And, yes, as you can likely tell, Stephen King is one of my favorite authors. 

4. Primary attitude/Dominant feeling

I was at a party the other day and fell into conversation with someone I knew slightly. This wasn't the first time we'd met, but it was the first time we had a chance to exchange more than awkward pleasantries.

After a minute or so my dominant impression of him was fixed: he was not a person who suffered fools gladly. It was an observation that didn't set me at ease since I was keenly aware that what constitutes a fool in someone's mind is distressingly relative. For example, my great-grandfather thought that anyone who believed a human would walk on the moon was (and this is a polite way of putting it) being silly. 

Keeping in mind that our characters are pseudo-people and so tend to be more black and white than their flesh-and-blood counterparts; if a character's primary attude is fearfulness, then that trait, that quality, will find a way (or should find a way) to insinuate itself into everything he or she does. If a character is, say, irascible then he should snap at other characters over minor slights or inconveniences. Other characters might be prone to gossip about him behind his back and his house should be the one school children are gently but firmly steered away from on Halloween. 

This isn't to say that an irascible character can't be kind or considerate, but there would have to be a reason. It would require an explanation. For instance, perhaps one of the neighborhood children reminds him of his daughter as a young girl and so he has a soft spot for her. He's sentimental. It's the child's birthday so he bakes her his daughter's favorite cookies--chocolate chip with extra chips. 

Here's another example, this time from the TV show Friends. I would say that Monica Geller's primary attitude was that of being obsessive compulsive when it came to cleaning. Informally, we would call her a neat freak. Everything had to be just so and she'd clean and scrub and re-arrange until it was. She was compulsive about it. Monica didn't need a reason to clean, no explanation was required. If she didn't clean up a mess, that would require an explanation.

One last example: Mr. Monk from the TV show Monk. Mr. Monk's primary attitude was, I would say, fearfulness. He was obsessive compulsive with an uncanny knack to remember even the most minute detail of his environment, but he was also scared of just about everything. Even milk. Milk! I think that one reason for the success of that show is that, in practically every scene, they demonstrated Monk's primary characteristic and tied everything else to it.

The point is that once you've picked a character's dominant attitude it should be shown, reinforced, in practically every scene.

*  *  *

This post will end up as a chapter in my upcoming book, Parts of Story. If you'd like to read other sections I've placed online, go to the index, here: Parts of Story.


1. Creating Characters: How To Build Story People, by Dwight V. Swain.
2. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, by J.K. Rowling.

How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs

How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs

Today I examine certain structural elements of Agatha Christie's murder mysteries. Specifically, I look at two things. First, how soon the initial murder tended to occur and, second, a common plot device; namely, a way she diverted suspicion from the murderer early on in the story.

This is the third and last instalment of my series on Agatha Christie--though, that said, I've had so much fun writing these articles I'm sure I'll blog about her, and the secret of her remarkable success, again. In case you want to read them, here are links to the first and second articles:

The Murder Tends To Occur Later In The Story

As I mentioned in my first post, though many (perhaps most) murder mystery authors have a corpse turn up within the first few pages it was not uncommon for Christie to hold off introducing the first murder until well into the second act. 

To double-check this, I looked up where the first murder falls in a few of Agatha Christie's novels. Here's what I discovered:

(1920) The Mysterious Affair at Styles: 14%
(1923) The Murder on the Links: 8%
(1924) The Man in the Brown Suit: 9%
(1926) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: 1%
(1927) The Big Four: 6%
(1928) The Mystery of the Blue Train: 30%
(1930) The Murder at the Vicarage: 15% 
(1931) The Sittaford Mystery: 9%
(1932) Peril at End House: 34%
(1933) Lord Edgware Dies: 20%
(1936) Murder in Mesopotamia: 24%
(1937) Death on the Nile: 46%
(1941) Evil Under The Sun: 23%
(1944) Towards Zero: 48%
(1950) A Murder Is Announced: 13%

The percentage indicates how far into the novel the first murder occurred. If I were doing this scientifically I would list all of Christie's 66 mystery novels. As it is, from this far-from-random sample, the average percentage is 20%. It seems that, on average, Christie waited until the end of the second of the three acts to bump off her first victim.

It seems as though the more Christie wrote the more comfortable she became with delaying the first murder, sometimes even until the middle of the book!

Her reasoning for this? For Christie, the murder was the culmination of the murderer's plot and so needed to be built up to. It wasn't the beginning of the story, it was the middle; the first part belonged to the murderer (though his/her identity was hidden from us) while the second belonged to the sleuth. 

It's a trade-off. Risk losing your reader by not providing something exciting up front or risk losing them because they don't care enough about the characters for it to matter one was snuffed out.

A Common Plot Device: The character whose life appeared to be in danger was really the murderer.

Although this doesn't happen in all or even the majority of Agatha Christie's stories it does happen in quite a few. (Spoiler warning.)

a. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

The victim, Emily Inglethorp, dies of strychnine poisoning and her husband Alfred Inglethorp, a man many years her junior, is immediately suspected. He will benefit financially from her death and he was seen purchasing strychnine in the village. Poirot, though, proves that Alfred could not have purchased the strychnine and the suspicions of the police settle elsewhere. However, it was Alfred Inglethorp who, along with Emily's companion Evelyn Howard, killed his wife.

b. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

When Colonel Lucius Protheroe is killed the first suspect is his wife, Anne Protheroe. Lawrence Redding, her lover, confesses to the murder (we are led to believe he did so because he thought Anne was the murderer and wanted to protect her). Then Anne Protheroe confesses (ostensibly to protect her lover, Lawrence). However, after many entertaining twists and turns, we find that Anne and Lawrence are, indeed, the murderers.

c. Peril at End House (1932)

This is one of my favorite and, I believe, best plotted, Poirot mysteries.

Shortly after Poirot meets Magdala "Nick" Buckley he comes to believe that someone is trying to kill her. But, really, Nick has planted false clues to give Poirot that impression. Her goal is to prevent her prize possession, End House, from going to reck and ruin. To this end she murders her cousin, Maggie Buckley, to gain access to a fortune the girl recently inherited. This plot is complicated by several factors, not the least of which is a drug smuggling ring. But Poirot unravels this knotty problem and arrives at the truth.[1] 

d. Lord Edgeware Dies (1933)

When Lord Edgeware is found dead in his study his estranged wife, Jane Wilkinson, is immediately suspected of the murder. After all, she had come to his house the night before, announced herself, and visited him in his study at around the time he was killed. 

The problem: Jane couldn't have killed him because she had a cast-iron alibi: at the time of the murder she had been at a dinner party with thirteen other people. Poirot believes the true killer hired a master of disguise to impersonate and incriminate Jane. The plan went wrong because the mastermind hadn't known Jane was going to be at the dinner party. 

In the end it turns out that Poirot was correct but he'd gotten it the wrong way around. The killer had hired an impersonator to pretend to be Jane, but that person was Jane herself! While everyone thought she was at the dinner party she had actually been murdering Lord Edgeware.

e. Three Act Tragedy (1935)

The murderer, Sir Charles Cartwright, tests his method of murder at his cocktail party. He puts poison in a cocktail and then watches as a random guest, Reverend Babbington, drinks it and dies. Although Cartwright does his best to get Poirot to suspect murder, since no poison is found in the glass, the Reverend's death is ruled to be due to natural causes. 

Emboldened, Cartwright (wearing a disguise) uses the same method to kill his lifelong friend, Dr. Bartholomew Strange. His motive: Love. He wanted to marry Hermione Lytton Gore (called "Egg") but was already married to a woman he could not divorce. The only person who knew this was Dr. Strange.[2] 

Here are a few other novels where Christie used this motif:

f. Death on the Nile (1937)
g. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)
h. Towards Zero (1944)
i. The Hollow (1946)
j. A Murder Is Announced (1950)
k. Ordeal by Innocence (1958)
l. The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962)
m. At Bertram's Hotel (1965)
n. Curtain (1975)

3. The Reveal

Though I don't believe it was unique to Agatha Christie, it was a mark of her stories that all the suspects gathered together, at the end, to await the sleuth's dramatic unravelling of the case. The sleuth generally did three things:

a. Recounts all the clues and reveals whether they were irrelevant, a red herring, or genuine.

b. As the sleuth recounts the clues he exposes the secrets of all those gathered. Perhaps this is a kind of payback for everyone lying to him! 

c. The sleuth unmasks his hidden adversary, the killer, and turns them over to the police. (Occasionally the killer will kill himself rather than be apprehended and hanged.)

Now, as their evil deeds are laid bare, the murderer shows his/her true face. Where before they seemed sweet and caring now they show themselves to be self-involved and contemptuous of others.

Agatha Christie's Plot Devices

At some point in the future I would like to write another post--or series of posts--on the plot devices Agatha Christie used. In the meantime, here are a couple of excellent articles on the subject:

Thanks for reading!


1. As in A Murder is Announced, Christie uses nicknames vs real names to set up a vital clue early on.
2. Another motif in Christie's stories (this is evidenced in A Murder is Announced as well) is that often the murderer is forced to kill someone they love dearly in order to obtain something they love even more.) 

Photo credit: "Ghost..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.