I recently went to see a community theater production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There are two endings to this theatrical production—Christie’s original ending for the novel and the ending she rewrote in 1943, when she adapted the play for stage (she and the producers agreed the book’s ending was too grim for theatergoers).
Our community theater alternates the endings; the night I attended, we got the grim ending (which I didn’t like). A quick Google search gave me the alternate ending, which I now envision as the end.
No matter. Watching Christie’s play, and the audience reaction, reminded me of how great a writer she was. Yes, there are some who criticize her wooden characters and say she wasn’t “literary” enough. Yet the Queen of Crime remains the top-selling mystery author and her books are only increasing in popularity, with sales growing 50 percent in the last 10 years, according to novelist Andrew Taylor in The Independent. Christie obviously did some things right.
Through the eyes of And Then There Were None, here are five elements that Christie got spot-on:
1) Gave us characters we cared about. There are two we especially care about in the play. As all the other characters are killed off, part of the suspense is in wondering whether these two will survive.
You can carry this lesson through to your protagonist. If you are writing a mystery or thriller, you need to put your protagonist through the wringer—either physically or emotionally (or both). You may feel you need to protect the protagonist, but in doing so you may be sucking the tension out of your novel. A reader identifies and empathizes with a character who faces difficult choices or a hard journey (either external or internal). You may need to step back and ask yourself whether your character has faced enough conflict.
2) Provided plenty of suspense. One after another, the characters are killed off in Christie’s play. Can the killer be caught before all are dead?
From the beginning, we know that the killer (unrevealed) has plans to kill off all 10 of the guests, who have been brought to an isolated island. The killer believes—rightly or wrongly—that all of them have caused the death of someone else and gotten away scot-free. As if that’s not bad enough, a raging storm outside keeps everyone from leaving, or anyone from coming in to rescue them. And then the guests realize that the killer has to be one of them. Christie not only introduces a mystery, but she continues to ratchet up the suspense through the ending.
In traditional British mysteries, by the way, there’s the initial murder, but then that’s followed by another (or a few more others). This may be formulaic, but it does keep the suspense high. You don’t always need multiple murders in a mystery, but if your action is lagging, look to the classics to see how tension is kept at a high.
3) Kept the whodunit front and center. During intermission, the theatergoers batted theories back and forth. Everyone had a favorite for the role of villain (a great thing about the play was that every character was both potential villain and potential victim).
Christie was brilliant at constructing puzzle plots—who was with Character X when he was killed? Who was out of the picture? Since there were several murders by intermission, this truly was a puzzle with many different pieces. The audience, from their conversation, enjoyed putting these pieces together.
If you are writing a traditional mystery (rather than a thriller, for example), your reader may be the type who wants a puzzle she can play along with. Make sure you sprinkle in enough clues, as well as the occasional red herring.
4) Played fair with the audience. The clues were all there—at one point, a little light clicked on for me, and I knew part of the solution, though not the who. When the villain was revealed, it was so simple and made so much sense. Of course that person was the killer!
5) Made sure to misdirect. While she played fair, Christie was the master of misdirection. There have even been academic papers written about her use of misdirection. Like a magician, she has the playgoer focused on one thing, while something else is happening right in front of our eyes. Christie also did this very successfully in her books, which may be the greatest reason for her continued popularity.
Misdirection may be the hardest element for a new writer. I often see beginning writers get everything else right—wonderful characters, enough clues, even a red herring or two, yet the mystery itself is transparent. That’s because, in planting the clues, the author has failed to employ misdirection. A reader who figures it out midway through the story might wade through to the end, but they will still come away dissatisfied. And they won’t buy your second book.
Look to Agatha Christie for misdirection. In Five Little Pigs (aka Murder in Retrospect), two characters are having a conversation that is overheard by a third character. But the third character misinterprets, drawing the wrong conclusion—as does the reader.
Mystery writer Margot Kinberg, who often gives workshops and classes on Agatha Christie (and other writing topics), says Agatha Christie remains popular today because her novels deal with “essential human characteristics, faults and virtues.”
Says Kinberg: It doesn’t take a bizarre plot or a serial killer to move the action in a story along. Christie’s stories (well, the best ones, anyway) don’t make use of a lot of gore, explicit sex, or some of the other things you so often see in a modern crime novel. But nor are they too ‘sweet and frothy.’ They simply tell human stories of greed, fear, and some of the other motives that real people have for murder. Everything in each story serves the plot. It’s not there for shock value.”
That sounds like another very good lesson we can take away from Agatha Christie’s works!
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.