#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: one #narrative #pov does not fit all #stories.

In Wisconsin, summer is a time for nature immersion. Whether you hike in the woods, take to the lake in a boat, or hunt for bugs’n’birds’n’fairies, this is the season for journeys into the wilderness of the North Woods.

Every venture “Up Nort'” requires mysteries for road reading. Since Bo had gotten me some Poirots for Mother’s Day, this seemed like the perfect time to catch up on them. (Bo can’t read in the car because a)motion sickness and b)my driving style freaks him out.) What was meant to be a little simple escapism turned into a reflection on narrative point of view and how it helps–or hurts–a story’s ability to hold a reader.

Back when I was researching the nonfiction writing workshop I had to give at my university last month, I came across an article that referenced “Fleming Method.” This method, the author said, called for blasting through a story by writing only key elements: the dialogue, the action, etc. All the other elements were to wait for the next draft. Doing this allowed Ian Fleming to complete the initial draft of Casino Royale in a few weeks.

After reading Sad Cypress–published years before Casino Royale–part of me now wonders if Christie came up with the Fleming Method before Fleming did.

The premise is clear-cut.

Beautiful young Elinor Carlisle stood serenely in the dock, accused of the murder of Mary Gerrard, her rival in love. The evidence was damning: only Elinor had the motive, the opportunity, and the means to administer the fatal poison.

Yet, inside the hostile courtroom, only one man still presumed Elinor was innocent until proven guilty. Hercule Poirot was all that stood between Elinor and the gallows.…

The story itself is divided into three parts: Elinor’s flashback through all the events preceding the murder, Poirot’s investigation of the murder, and then the trial. Again, clear-cut.

Yet when I finished the book, I let out a “hmph” and tossed it onto the car’s dashboard.

Bo’s not used to me doing that, especially after what was, by all accounts, a good morning. We had successfully completed a walk and lunch at a beer garden with the kids–a HUGE accomplishment when two out of three are picky eaters. “Wasn’t the book okay?”

The mystery itself, I explained was fine. There’s a love triangle of sorts, a girl gets murdered, Poirot eventually shows up to investigate, yadda yadda. But the way Christie tells it was weird.

Bo gave me a look. “What do you mean?”

I show him a thick pinches of text–Part 1, the flashback. It’s all quite narrative, with descriptions, exchanges, changes of scene. Part 2 changes point of view character-wise, from the accused murderess to Poirot. Again, we’ve got multiple elements of storytelling. Grand. Part 3, however, drops almost all pretense of story-telling and moves forward almost entirely through dialogue–that is, through the exchanges between witnesses and lawyers during the trial. After 200 pages of “traditional” storytelling, 50 pages of almost pure dialogue jolted me so much I found myself nothing but irritated with the story when the mystery was resolved.

Bo considered. “Has Christie done that before?”

I don’t think so, I said. The cynical teacher in me imagined Christie was on a time crunch, didn’t much care for the story, and decided to just slap together the ending so she could move onto something she did want to write. Or maybe she was so mentally drained from writing And Then There Were None the year before that she needed to put out SOMEthing to appease the publishers. But I don’t know for sure, I said with a shrug, and the reception on this road sucks too much for me to do any deep digging.

“So how does Christie normally write a mystery?”

I stared at Bo so long that Biff scolded me. “It’s rude to stare, you know!”

How did Christie “normally” write a mystery? Was there such a thing as “normal”?

I looked at the other books I had packed along: Dumb Witness, After the Funeral, and Death on the Nile. I thumbed through them, sharing observations with Bo as I went…

Dumb Witness

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…

On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…

This story had a mix of methods I both liked and disliked. The first few chapters involve a lot of head-hopping amongst the characters of the victim-to-be’s family. I have written about this head-hopping before–nope, not a fan of this “I’m thinking murderous thoughts” to “and I’m thinking murderous thoughts, too!” to “oh, we’re just aaaaaaall thinking murderous thoughts, aren’t we?”. After those opening chapters, however, the unreliable-yet-charming Captain Hastings takes over as narrator until the end of the book. I’ve also written about benefits of the unreliable narrator for mystery writing, and in Dumb Witness those benefits were seen once again: clues quickly dismissed by the narrator Hastings carry crucial importance, and characters Hastings suspects or respects often tend to be something else entirely.

I always enjoy a trip alongside Poirot and Hastings; the two have a wonderful chemistry that allows for light-hearted moments, such as when the victim’s intelligent dog takes such a liking to Hastings that Hastings feels he knows what the dog is saying.

If Christie had written every Poirot mystery with Hastings, though, the misdirections would grow tedious, the joviality stale.

In other words, we’d get bored.

After the Funeral (also known as Funerals are Fatal)

“He was murdered, wasn’t he?”

When Cora Lansquenet is savagely murdered, the extraordinary remark she had made the previous day at her brother Richard’s funeral suddenly takes on a chilling significance. At the reading of Richard’s will, Cora was clearly heard to say, “It’s been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it. But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”

Did Cora’s accusation a dark truth that sealed her own fate? Or are the siblings’ deaths just tragic coincidences?

Desperate to know the truth, the Lansquenet’s solicitor turns to Hercule Poirot to unravel the mystery. For even after the funeral, death isn’t finished yet . . .

I hope you like head-hopping, because this story moves from character to character in an entire family tree throughout the whoooole novel. For the record, I didn’t throw this book out the car window because a) I recalled some of the plot from the David Suchet adaptation, but not all the bits and that was really irritating, and b) the kids would have yelled at me for littering, which would have been even more irritating.

But, I must admit, there was something else here, a good something that kept me wanting to remember the solution. For all the head-hopping, there remained a consistent uncertainty between characters, a singular dread of not feeling entirely comfortable around one’s own family, of relief for getting money and the simultaneous guilt for being thankful someone died so that money could be given. By giving these characters that mutual guilt and suspicion, the narrative no longer jostles readers about. We’re still following that dread, catching the little things that make the characters unique instead of having those things hit us in the face page after page after page to remind us who’s who.

Death on the Nile

The tranquility of a cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.

Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet in this exotic setting nothing is ever quite what it seems.

I feel like this is the mystery that inspired spoofs like Monty Python’s Agatha Christie sketch or the movie Clue–you know, where someone says, “I saw the ___ who did it!” And just before that someone says a name, the lights go dark, a shot rings out, someone groans, and thud–another murder.

(I’m likely quite wrong on this, but that sort of scene is in Death on the Nile, so it’s all I can think about now.)

Blessedly, Death on the Nile is told with an omniscient narrator who mostly follows Poirot about, only occasionally lingering with other characters if there’s a romance arc to propel along.

The narrator never focuses readers away from what Poirot’s doing, nor does the narrator give unnecessary attention for the sake of distraction or red herrings. Being a third person limited point of view, readers don’t get insight into Poirot’s head, either, so we still don’t learn the full solution until Poirot’s ready to “do his thing,” as it were. And that’s fine.

It’s all fine.

Honestly, it is. The head-hopping, the unreliable narrator, the traditional omniscient–each are appropriate approaches to telling a story. Even a chapter of pure dialogue has its place. What matters is that the chosen method encourages readers to continue the story. Can the reader get the information by following one character around, or are multiple viewpoints needed in order to get the big picture? Would readers enjoy the guessing game that comes with unreliable narrators, or does the plot require a more neutral voice to share it? Does the scene’s power come in what is said, or what is not?

It never hurts to experiment and find which approach is the best fit for the story at hand, for like our kids, every story is different. So long as we consider the heart of the story–spurned love, broken family, desperate greed–we can take a step back and consider how readers should reach this heart. We don’t want it to be a simple straight path, nor the path we know so well we could write it blindfolded. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the understanding in that?

So, try directing readers to different characters to help them appreciate the multiple relationships. Let them follow the outsider to reach that inside perspective. Leave them with one soul and see if they will trust that character–or not.

Just don’t commit the Unforgivable Writing Sin, one that leads to readers abandoning your story to the Did Not Finish shelf, never to be journeyed again:

Thou Shalt Not Bore.

Have you ever been intrigued by an author’s choice in narrative point of view? Befuddled? Disappointed? I’d love to hear about it!

STAY TUNED!

Interviews, music, and fantasy fiction lie ahead! I’ll also provide more updates regarding my new novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen and how YOU can get your hands on an ARC.

(Yes, I know this says 2019, but IT’S HAPPENING, dagnabit, and that’s what counts!)

Thank you for companionship on this writing journey. You help make my corner of the world a brighter, saner place. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

54 thoughts on “#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: one #narrative #pov does not fit all #stories.

  1. It’s a long, long time since I read Christie’s book – and even then, I only concentrated on the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot mysteries. But I confess, I’d forgotten just how freely she changed up her viewpoints. And it’s THE defining decision from which all other decisions flow regarding the writing style, tone, plot structure and approach, in my humble opinion. A really fascinating article, Jean – and these days I think long and very hard about which pov to adopt BEFORE I plunge into my writing.

    As for unusual viewpoints… Hilary Mantel’s almost stream of consciousness, using present tense and second-person pov in her award-winning Thomas Cromwell series. There are times when she doesn’t make it completely clear when Cromwell’s musing breaks off and his speaking begins. I found it a bit of a scramble to get to grips with for the first dozen pages – and then I was caught up in the adventure

    Liked by 3 people

    • I was surprised, too! I forgot how *few* books, really, were written with Hastings’ pov. And you’re absolutely right that everything else in the is impacted by that narrative style. I’m going back over my Middler’s Pride book with the mindset that I need to redefine the pov style, and HEAVENS is that going to alter things if I change it too much.
      Oooo, stream of consciousness is such a tricky duck. I admire it and fear it all at once. Like you said, there’s going to be the stories we do love in this style so long as we can jump in–rather like jumping into double-dutch. Either you’ve got the rhythm and it’s amazing, or you get tangled up in the ropes and end up angry with skinned knees. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes… it takes an absolute belief and huge writing chops to pull it off, I think:)). It’s something I do want to play around with a bit more – but the pov has to serve the story, rather than the other way around. And there are times when I think the cart gets put before the horse, when a writer gets so far into the story – and then doesn’t want to alter things too much.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I think you’re quite right. We the writer don’t want to be bored writing, but if we want the story to be read, then the story itself must also benefit from the pov choice we make. Otherwise, we wind up making art for art’s sake, its process enjoyed, but not necessarily the final product, if that makes sense.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes – and as a writing tutor, trying to get newbie writers to rethink their pov is the hardest thing to do… Because it seems to take quite a while for the penny to drop that the pov MUST serve the story.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That was a heck of a lot of books to write. Wow. It was interesting reading your comparisons of her writing style… useful food for thought too as I embark on reviewing the first draft of my latest novel. At least I know what it’s actually about now 😉

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I don’t mind novels told with different points of view if the approach is consistent, but proceeding from first person narratives to an omniscient narrator to wrap things up just feels like cheating, somehow — I think you compare it with the author getting a bit bored.

    I’ve just reread Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and that has alternate chapters told from one of three characterss’ point of view, rather like a video camera following behind them as they go through a day or a sequence, with a running commentary on what they say, how they feel, what they think of one of the others. That works well, I think, especially with a story where reality changes according to the dreams one person has. It would work with a crime novel, obviously, but maybe Christie wanted to experiment but also had to keep up her output of books.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I do honestly wonder that, especially with Sad Cypress. It was such a strange progression of writing styles for a single story that I just couldn’t stay in the story for long. A shame, too, because the clue used to reveal the truth of the crime is a great clue.

      I’ve seen alternate chapters work exceedingly well–Merlin Conspiracy comes to mind–and done awfully–Allegiant, the third book of a YA dystopia series. OH MY GOSH, that book’s interchanging pov was awful. The two leads take turns narrating the story, but they sounded EXACTLY same! I had to keep paging around to find out who was talking.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyable article Jean, I visited Christie’s house in Devon, it’s not that far from where I live. The boathouse was used in Suchet’s Poirot (Dead Man’s Folly). The house is kept as Christie had it, more like a home than a museum.
    The things that struck me most in the piece were firstly the great commandment- thou shalt not bore. Secondly,the description of Fleming writing Casino Royale. Just the inspiration I needed for a new project I could not for the life of me think how to start. Jump right in- stick with it to the end and stort the mess out afterwards. GREAT!
    There is another piece of Fleming’s advice I treasure. I heard it once on a ducumentary about him, but have subsequently never found the quote, so here is a rather free paraphrase: at any time in the novel the reader should be able to tell who is speaking, where they are and why they are having this particular conversation. It is something like that anyway, but when you are struggling it is a great way to get your feet back on the ground.
    Best Paul

    Liked by 4 people

    • WHAT?!?! I can’t believe the boathouse is still around!! Oh, to journey to the other side of the pond on a literary pilgrimage…someday…
      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Bo chuckled when he saw me sharing Fleming–he’s a big Fleming fan, and has read all the books. He’s also amused about Casino Royale’s writing journey, as it’s not one of Fleming’s best by any stretch. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • More Gossip. Although the house in Dead Man’s Folly (Suchet TV show) is supposed to be the Christie house it is not. It is listed as such on WIKI but in the show the house is double fronted with a huge conservatory to the side. The real Christie is single fronted with two portico wings and no conservatory. We know coz we saw the show just after visiting and were scratching our heads.
        As for visits across the pond it is certainly a case of the grass is always greener. I adore America- a country the size of a continent that is a whole world is an endless source of fascination.
        I have never read Fleming, from what I have read I would have thought his all time stinker goes to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I think the plot of the film and stage was plot tarted up considerably! Px

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I wish I could be like Flemming, but as I write, I realize there’s something that came before that needs reworking and I inevitably “take it from the top.” To each his own, I guess. Have a great day, Jean!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Pingback: Sunday Post – 19th July, 2020 #Brainfluffbookblog #SundayPost | Brainfluff

  7. This is thought provoking Jean. I’m fascinated by the way Christie has stayed so popular. Is it wicked of me to admit that these days I prefer her stories when they are dramatised on the radio?

    There was a year (long ago), when I was living away from home and there were collections in the house where I stayed, when I devoured Christie and Fleming novels. These days I’m much more selective, have you read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? We studied that one at university, and Christie went up considerably in my estimation.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hey, radio theater is a special art, Cath! You need emotion and character given purely through voice, creative special effects to inspire visuals with sound–radio rules!

      Yes, I have read Murder of Roger Ackroyd, though it’s been a while. I was spoiled by that one in seeing the David Suchet adaptation first and then reading it…hmm, maybe I should add that to my 2021 reading schedule…
      thanks so much for reading! I FINALLY just finished grading finals, so I’m excited for a few days of just catching up with you and other lovely souls 🙂 xxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

      • Congratulations on completing the grading, Jean. That must be a big relief.

        I don’t think I’ve seen David Suchet in that one, though I’ve enjoyed a lot of them. I might have to take a look, and see how they did this one. The book relies so much on the narrative technique.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Well, if you are reading while driving, tyhe is reason to be a little worried. LOL
    I found this so interesting. You thoughts on these stories. These change of point of views
    if not done subtly can distract a reader, which is the last thing a novelist wants to happen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • YES!!! And I think that’s what really bothered me about Sad Cypress–it was SUCH a dramatic shift, and it didn’t have to be *that* jarring. I know I complain about head-hopping, but of course it can be done right. As you say, if it doesn’t distract the reader and it helps keep the story humming along, then go for it!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. That does make me wonder whether you felt uncomfortable with the change in storytelling because you were used to a specific style of storytelling up to that point the way our bodies build a tolerance for certain types of food.

    But dear God it’s pretty apparent when an author has rushed their next book purely to get something out without really editing the next book. You can tell when it’s sloppy and the author just wanted to release anything and you can tell when an author is really truly passionate about their next book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh yes, I do agree with you about the reading “comfort zone.” I tend to read certain kinds of stories and/or authors because I like the writing style, characters, setting, etc. so I pick it up with a certain set of expectations. When the writing moves outside the comfort zone, I get very crabby (as this post shows) wondering, “Why’d they go and do something different?! How dare they!”

      But as you say, there’s a difference between doing something different and doing something to get it done. Rush jobs drive me nuts every time I see them–the sudden exposition dump at the end, the total lack of “onscreen” justice/comeuppance for the villain, the lack of “onscreen” thread-tying of character threads, plot threads, etc. It’s not that these are books in some sort of series where the NEXT book is supposed to “tie it all up.” It’s just sloppy storytelling.

      I think that’s why I’m still going to say SAD CYPRESS was a rush job. I can’t prove it, but that trial portion written almost entirely in dialogue is so, so out of character with anything else I’ve seen Christie write that I have a hard time coming to terms with that narrative choice.
      Thank you so much for commenting!

      Like

      • I can’t help but think of the final season of Game of Thrones and how much better it could be if they included more stuff from the books that were pivotal to explain Dany’s paranoia and how much a few more seasons would have helped instead.

        Yes, but I do think Agatha Christie generally fares well when it’s cosy and very British mysteries. But I’m sure I’ll eventually see for myself how sloppy Sad Cypress was!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve never read Game of Thrones, but from what I understand of the television’s adaptation, I think there’s something to be said for giving the primary creator primary control.
        You may love it! I know my ornery cuss of a reading self doesn’t always agree with others, lol. Thanks again for stopping by! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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