Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Let Dialogue & Point of View (Mis)Lead Readers.

Nothing annoys like repetition. “Mom, can I have a cookie?” “No.” “Can I have a chocolate chip cookie?” “Not until supper’s done.” “Can I have a cookie now?” “I said no.” (pause for approximately twenty seconds) “Can I have a cookie now?” (exasperated scream and toss of graham crackers) “Oooh, crackers.” (munching) “Can I have a cookie?” (head bangs wall)

I feel the same way when I read repetition–not just in my students’ essays, but in novels by those who should know better. The characters in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas had some very annoying spells of repetition that revealed no inconsistencies in circumstances or any sort of human nature. They were just part of the interrogation. Other lines had equally annoying bouts of foreshadowing directed at…nothing.

“He’s like the faithful old retainers of fiction. I believe he’d lie himself blue in the face if it was necessary to protect one of the family!”

bookcoverI wanted to believe Christie was better than that with her dialogue. I wanted to see some proof. So I took a risk and picked a story I knew would be more dialogue than anything: Five Little PigsIt’s a cold-case situation: a young woman comes to Poirot asking him to discover the truth about her parents. Everyone says her mother poisoned her father; the mother was tried and executed for it. Yet her mother’s last letter claims innocence. The daughter, now fully grown, wants to know the truth.

The truth must be found in the memories of others, and to get those memories Poirot must dig through dialogue.

 

There is nothing so dangerous for anyone who has something to hide as conversation!

Hercule Poirot, The A.B.C. Murders

Poirot speaks with a few legal members involved with the court case, and then five other people present in the home at the time of the murder. This comes to nearly 240 pages of conversation.

And none of it felt dull, let alone repetitive.

Clearly, Christie’s attentions were more focused on this story. One can feel it in the tight prose and pacing. Her descriptions of the characters are brilliantly precise:

Philip Blake was recognizably like the description given him by Depleach–a prosperous, shrewd, jovial-looking man–slightly running to fat. (58)

[Poirot] would never have recognized [Elsa] from the picture Meredith Blake had shown him. That had been, above all, a picture of youth, a picture of vitality. Here there was no youth–there might never have been youth. (104)

The dialogue also reveals a lot about the characters, such as the governess.

“Men–” said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says, “Bolsheviks,” as an earnest Communist says, “Capitalists,” as a good housewife says, “Black beetles,” so did Miss Williams say, “Men.” (117)

Besides the court personnel, who only witnessed the characters after the murder, there are five perspectives being tapped for details from the same time frame. This should welcome lots of repetition, considering these people are coming to the same house, dining together, conversing together, and so on.

Yet the repetition doesn’t happen. I’ll use one moment in the plot for an example.

Painter Amyas has brought his model Elsa to live at the house while he paints her. His wife Caroline does not like her; it goes without saying Elsa and Amyas are having an affair, which is normal behavior for Amyas and his models. Something seems different this time, though, and Amyas’ friends, the brothers Philip and Meredith Blake, warn him as such. Amyas shrugs them off. Caroline’s teenage sister Angela also lives at the house under the care of the governess Miss Williams.

What follows are four accounts of the same moment in the book: when Elsa announces to all she’s going to marry Amyas…despite Amyas still being married to Caroline. The police officer shares bits and pieces of Philip Blake’s account, so for the sake of sticking with points of view present at the situation, I’ll keep him out.

Philip Blake (considering the length, I felt photos the easiest way to share):

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Elsa: And in the end I broke down. Caroline had been talking of some plan she and Amyas were going to carry out next autumn. She talked about it quite confidently. And I suddenly felt it was too abominable what we were doing–letting her go on like this–and perhaps, too, I was angry, because she was really being very pleasant to me in a clever sort of way that one couldn’t take hold of.  And so I came out with the truth. In a way, I still think I was right. Though, of course, I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had the faintest idea what was to come of it. The clash came right away. Amyas was furious with me for telling Caroline, but he had to admit that what I had said was true. (183-4)

Miss Williams: On this day, September 17th, as we were sitting in the drawing room after lunch, [Elsa] came out with an amazing remark as to how she was going to redecorate the room when she was living at Alderbury. Naturally, [Caroline] couldn’t let that pass. She challenged her and [Elsa] had the impudence to say, before us all, that she was going to marry [Amyas]. She actually talked about marrying a married man–and she said it to his wife! .. [Amyas] came in just then and she immediately demanded confirmation from him. He was not, unnaturally, annoyed with [elsa] for her unconsidered forcing of the situation. Apart from anything else, it made him appear at a disadvantage, and men do not like appearing at a disadvantage. It upsets their vanity. He stood there, a great giant of a man, looking as sheepish and foolish as a naughty schoolboy. It was his wife who carried off the honors of the situation. He had to mutter foolishly that it was true, but that he hadn’t meant her to learn it like this. (194-5)

Angela: The very first intimation I had of the whole thing was what I overheard from the terrace where I had escaped after lunch one day. Elsa said she was going to marry Amyas! It struck me as just ridiculous. I remember tackling Amyas about it. In the garden at Handcross it was. I said to him: “Why does Elsa say she’s going to marry you? She couldn’t. People can’t have two wives–it’s bigamy and they go to prison.” Amyas got very angry and said, “How the devil did you hear that?” I said I’d heard it through the library window. He was angrier than ever then and said it was high time I went to school and got out of the habit of eavesdropping….I stammered out angrily that I hadn’t been listening–and, anyhow, I said, why did Elsa say a silly thing like that? Amyas said it was just a joke. (199-200)

Notice the extensive detail Philip provides as opposed to, say, Miss Williams. Philip’s bias against Caroline and for Amyas highlights special touches of tension in his telling: “Elsa had got under her guard all right.” “Poor old Amyas…he went crimson and started blustering.” Then you have Miss Williams noting how Caroline “did not lose her dignity,” and later “walked like an empress” from the scene (193). Elsa’s telling revolves primarily around her feelings more than anything else, and Angela’s gets into something new: that Amyas  said it was all a joke.

Sure didn’t sound like a joke in that room.

One moment, told again and again, yet with new language and observations every time. This layering through multiple viewpoints gives readers the pleasure of digging for the unknown information and hidden emotions not known from the police account. Christie takes great care pacing out these plot reveals, too–Angela’s account, for example, isn’t given until the second to last chapter of the book.

The key here is that the information differs with each account: there’s always something new to learn. Even the lack of telling can be telling. Notice how Elsa breezes over this moment? You’d think she’d want to rub in how Caroline reacted to being told her husband was leaving her. Yeah, there’s a reason Elsa doesn’t share too much.

(Dunh dunh DUUUUUUUNH)

Now I get that this style of multiple points of view will not fit many kinds of story, nor can every story be told in a series of conversations. But if I’ve learned anything from my own point of view experiment, it’s that one’s got to try different styles of storytelling. Even if what you create isn’t fit for human eyes, you still stretched your brain. All those story-starts I did with Dorjan are going to remain stopped. They’re not going anywhere. But in writing them I did get to thinking about that character’s life, and other pieces that may be worth telling. And then, I got to thinking about other characters from the story and their lives…it goes on.

We don’t always find the right voice for a story in the first go. It might require a process of elimination to discover the true narrator. Or, maybe you’d rather have the different perspectives tell the story together. After all, Christie took a bunch of conversations and wove them into a taut mystery readers couldn’t leave alone. Just imagine what that kind of layering could do for your own fiction.

PS: In the spirit of Sarah J. Higbee’s weekly book cover studies, I wanted to share some of these designs for Five Little Pigs. Frankly, I feel gripped by none of them: not the childish ones, certainly not the giant pig. The one with the flowers is way too busy, and the beer glass of all things emphasizes THE biggest clue in the mystery. I see why later covers tended to focus more on the painting, as it is the catalyst for the murder.

 

Point of View Blows Up in My Face (or, the end of the “Normal’s Menace” experiment)

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(Photo credit:YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Point of View makes–and breaks–good stories. Sometimes omniscience helps move the story along at a good clip, but other times it burdens readers with tangential thoughts and details irrelevant to the story at hand (I’m looking at you, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas…gosh, I hated that book…).  If we choose to write from inside a character, or even alongside one particular character, then we’re limited to that character’s knowledge–or lack thereof. We’re stuck with the vocabulary and worldviews, and we better stick with them, or else. Readers have a knack for calling bullshit on adult terminology coming from a five-year-old, or a character knowing the particulars of past events never actually discussed.

When I first brainstormed “Normal’s Menace,” I imagined it a story for Dorjan, a secondary character from an old WIP. I also wanted to make good on an oath I had sworn to some other indie artists about naming a story “Quiet Mound,” which…um…okay, so that part didn’t happen. I ended up commandeering something else from their work, for which I’m sorry, but it was just too damn perfect to use. Incognito Cinema Warriors, I humbly beg your forgiveness for stealing the most perfect name in the world:

Captain Whiskers.

That’s when the story in my head shifted away from Dorjan and re-centered itself around Millie, a lonely kid who befriends a strange cat that’s able to bring her daydreams to life. Not long after the cat arrives, Dorjan comes to take the cat away.

In my previous post, I shared what happened from Millie’s perspective. The next phase of this experiment intended to re-tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective and mark out each telling’s strengths and weaknesses.

Note the word “intended.”

Oh, I tried. I tried three damn times to get a handle on this story from Dorjan’s point of view. Yet each take, just…it was like trying to hold a snowflake. I had it, it was so sparkly and awesome, and then–plop. Just another drop of water on the cement.

Here’s Take #1:

Nothing sets my hackles off like a stray pissing on the rules. They want all of home’s comforts without the obligations to obey. And who’s to tell them otherwise? The mother, father? One likely can’t talk outside of instinct, while the other is gone completely, or dead.

Well, as an exile, let me just say: no.

You don’t get to play that way.

Our kind treats central America as a sort of wasteland, a place to mow down the strange growths of life and culture they consider unimportant in the big scheme of things. They did it with Rome, with Germany, then got bored and decided to find a new sandbox to trample. The dullest corners they transformed into prisons. My family’s in one. Why not me? Because I was a bloody coward and hiding at the time, that’s why. Shut up, I’m not talking about it.

But a mixed blessing, as Uncle says. No one’s teaching the rules anymore. No one’s tracking the new breeds.

So I do what I can in this land: the Midwest, I heard it called. When I catch wind of a new litter, I teach what I can. When strays wander in, I take them to a crossing to live with others.

I stopped. I didn’t want to get long-winded about Dorjan’s family, as they’re the center of my WIP. This short story needed to focus on taking Thorn down, not Dorjan’s family tree.

Okay, start again. Take #2:

The problem with strays is that they don’t want to understand the rules. They like the taste of a child’s dreams and think nothing of devouring a young soul whole. They don’t care about exposure of our kind, or the impact upon the social mores rippling throughout the class system of various societies and blah, blah IT’S DAMN WRONG.

Thorn learned the hard way. Twice. Not often one survives the first lesson.

 The first time came with his arrival to boundary lands between the prison and the rest of life as you know it. A farm with guest lodgings sits there. If you are fully grown and hold your life in any worth whatsoever, then I strongly recommend guesting yourself elsewhere.

The farm was run by normal human beings, whom I usually left alone in order to avoid being shot. Several more had shown up that day for a party of sorts—lots of children, fire-cooked meats, freshly baked pies, and snowballs everywhere. The air positively reeked with celebration. If I hadn’t stayed to enjoy the smells from behind the barn, then I would have missed Thorn altogether.

He wandered in from the highway, looking like a blown-about broken twig. I caught a whiff of his foreignness, and watched.

The adults ignored him. Just another cat on a farm.

But the children… one little boy waddled over in his pillowy pants. “Kitty!” He said, all precious. The others stopped their snow-battle and ooed and aaahed and starting petting him…

…and they stopped talking. They all huddled about him, barely breathing. All are like that when their dreams are unleashed and souls exposed.

He was going to devour them all without a second thought.

None of the adults had guns.

I had to do it.

I ran.

The children didn’t even scream when my muzzle pushed them aside. Parents did plenty of that, though.

Someone screamed about a shot gun while I chased Thorn down the drive and off the borderland. I would have sunk my teeth in him then and there, but the Lady’s henchman got him first, and flew him off into the prison.

I stopped. Again, this path would take me into the inner workings of the WIP. A short story doesn’t have time for extensive backgrounds or world-building. If I continued this way I’d have to explain who the henchman and Lady are, why they’re in the prison, why Dorjan can come and go from the prison but his family can’t….AAAAARGH!

Ahem.

Start again, this time at Millie’s farm. That should avoid the need for history, yes? Take #3:

I shake the water out and sniff to gauge my surroundings: still winter. Another farm. The little pisser hasn’t left the region, then.

The ground has a lot to offer a nose, too. Cat. Human: female. Rubber. Peanut butter. Something grape-ish. Tobacco. Gunpowder. The last two were faint. The first two were strong, dangerously so. Hope that peanut butter keeps the human stuck to the ground, because humans haven’t the heart’s fire to survive the water road. Curious it comes to a pond rather than a proper exit. Must have been a place of magic for the Old Ways…

I study the land for his path.

DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT.

No. All wrong. I’m diving into terminology I won’t have time to explain. I could treat the situation with the air of magical realism and make readers deal with it, but why should they? They’re not attached to the character or the situation. They’ve no reason to work at keeping up.

By sticking with Millie, we don’t have to explain why things happen as they do. Millie doesn’t try to figure out how Captain Whiskers does what he does; she accepts it and moves on. She lets the mystery remain a mystery for herself, but also lets readers pick up on odds and ends from the details she shares. For instance, readers know the cat is capable of physically changing things, like Millie’s pocket knife. We learn he’s feeding off her somehow, what with all his getting fat by licking her person and eventually her blood. We also know that Millie doesn’t connect the dots because she’s too fixated on escaping reality. Through Millie’s perspective readers receive an intimate look at the power the cat has over her.

This story is about a girl’s life ensnared by a cat.

Were I to tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective, everything alters: the stakes, the motivations, all of it.

Therein lies the reason I stopped time and again: Dorjan has no real stake in this situation. Millie’s the one with, as Shehanne Moore and Sarah Higbee aptly put it, the most to lose. If I wanted Dorjan to be the narrator, then the story needed to center around him.

There would have to be a first meeting and a sin against Dorjan to set him hunting. This would require establishing another setting, the rules Captain Whiskers/Thorn goes about breaking in such a way to motivate Dorjan to wreak deadly justice–basically, a lot of world-building that can’t fit into a short story. Now I admit, it’s tempting to go into that bit of his life. His fierce desire to protect mortal children is a subplot in my WIP, and I wouldn’t mind exploring where that comes from.

But that, as Maz Kanata says in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is “another story for another time.”

Only that IS the case here rather than a cheap cop-out to avoid a plot hole. Millie is the one who interacts with the cat, who suffers at the paws of the cat, and is left to die by the cat. If I tell this story from Dorjan’s perspective, he’d have to witness that whole arc, not just the end. How the hell would that happen? Or something would have to happen to make Millie tell all of this. That sounds as much fun as a sit-down with a librarian over appropriate behavior for children around a microfilm machine.

Experiment conclusions: stick with Millie’s point of view. Oh, and change that title. “Normal’s Menace” sounds…not kid-like, that’s for sure. And while I wanted to use “Quiet Mound” and fulfill my oath, the story isn’t about the mound. It’s about the cat.

“The Stray.”
Ah…now there’s a title…
That snowflake, I caught on my tongue instead of my hand.
Totally worth all the plops.