I was an awkward thirteen-year-old (a little under ten years before I was diagnosed as dyslexic) when my mother gave me a copy of A Pocketful of Rye by Agatha Christie. At the time I loved the concept of books but I found them so difficult, my reading was so slow and finishing a book seemed like an impossibly difficult task, a mountain too high to climb. This book intrigued me. The cover was macabre, a black bird’s skeleton surrounded by its black feathers, lying on an illustrated sheet music to a child’s nursery rhythm. I began to read it and on the second page was the description of a man dying from poisoning. I was hooked and carried on reading.
What kept me reading it, at my painstakingly slow pace back then, was the plot. At the end of the book, the twist hit me hard; it wasn’t the murderer I thought it was, I’d been certain it was. Then I looked back on the story and saw the clues she had sprinkled throughout the plot, subtly hinting at who the murderer was, and I didn’t feel cheated, I didn’t feel that she had held back important information from me. She had just got the better of me.
I raced out, got another one of her books and started reading it.
As a teenager Christie’s books were the first “adult” novels I read and I loved them. It was their tight plots that kept me guessing who the murderer was and their archetypical but very recognisable characters that kept me reading them.
Those Christie novels were a gateway into the world of literature for me. From her I read some other Golden Age crime writers, some I enjoyed and some I didn’t, and from them I started to read modern day crime writers (modern day when I was a teenager). This was a very mixed experience, many of them were poor or just plain bad, but I also discovered PD James and Ruth Rendell, and later still Joseph Hansen. These authors opened my eyes to the fact that crime fiction can be about much more than just a murder (or two). They all used detective fiction to write about other subjects too and their prose was of such a high standard. They took time setting scenes and developing characters; they gave their detectives a whole life outside of work. Their writing led me to other, non-crime fiction, literary fiction and other genes, though I still enjoy a good detective novel.
As an adult, I still enjoy a Christie novel, occasionally, but I cannot say she is the greatest of writers. Her descriptive prose is poor, just using a few commonly used colloquialisms to sum up a recognisable image; most of her description is left to the reader’s imagination to fill in. She set her novels in a very narrow world, that of the middle- and upper-class English, but her books still had strong and well-crafted plots. It was from reading them that I learnt how to plot and how important plots are in fiction.
Her plots carefully set the scene of the story, introducing the place and characters but not giving away all the details at the beginning. Her plots dripped out the information and clues as the story progressed, they didn’t give away all the information in one go. Her plots give the reader a journey to go on throughout the book.
At first, I thought this plotting style was only useful for crime fiction, where withholding information until later in the story was an important element. Then I read Job's Year by Joseph Hansen. Here he used the same style of plotting but in a non-crime novel. Each chapter gave more information about the central character. Reading it, I felt like a detective finding out more about a character, it was like how I felt in a friendship; over time I found out more and more about that friend, I wasn’t given all the information about them in one go as soon as we met. It felt much more of a natural way to tell a story.
You don’t have to be writing crime fiction to learn from this style. I learnt not to give everything away at the beginning of a story, treat it like a detective story, drip out your information as the story progresses. So instead of telling the reader everything about a character as soon as you introduce them, let the information fall out as the story progresses, as a natural progression. Hold the reader’s interest by giving away clues to a character as the story flows; tell them about the character’s background and history through the length of the story, not as one, rushed chunk of information at the beginning.
I have learnt to give the reader a beginning, middle and end to a story. I introduce the story and draw the reader into the world I’ve created. Like Christie, I don’t let interest fall during the middle of a story, the middle isn’t just there to get from the beginning to the end as quickly as possible. I use that part to build on my story and characters, I let the reader get to know my characters, I let the characters speak for themselves, to set their own motivations. There’s no need for the end of a story to tie up all the loose ends, but I give the story a definite moment where it ends. An example of this is my story The Men Who Took Their Vows Together in East Ham Registry Office. Though this story has an ending I have used a lot, it ends at a certain point of the story, not tying up all the loose ends and giving the characters a neat resolution; instead it ends with the character moving forward. I try to always give a reader an ending, just not always a neat one.
Plot holds so much writing together; even if it is a story/piece that is looking back on a character’s life or following a character’s emotional journey a plot gives me a structure to hang all this upon and, hopefully, to hold a reader’s attention.
At present, I am writing a short story about a man, in his late twenties, who cannot seem to attain an adult, romantic relationship. All he can find is short-lived relationships that crash and burn or casual sex. The story explores how he has got into this situation, what has contributed to him being so poor at relationships, though I want to portray him as a character with little insight into his own situation (I do like a challenge). I could just write it as the character looking back on his life, but this would be a very dry story with me just telling the reader about this character’s situation. I have decided to intersperse this retrospective narrative across one evening of this man’s life when he goes on another first date. With the date, I can show the reader some of this man’s problems, how he sabotages his attempts to forge a relationship. Here I am using a plot as a device to explore a subject.
Agatha Christie was called the Queen of Crime, she is one of the most widely read of English language authors, she is also the most successful English woman playwright, but for me Agatha Christie was a great teacher. Her books taught me how to plot a story and I’m so grateful to her for this.
I also have a strange link to her, not through her books. During the Second World War, Agatha Christie worked as a hospital dispenser at University College Hospital in London. This was one of the hospitals where I did my nurse training, so she and I walked the same hospital corridors, just separated by five decades.
Edited by Drew Payne