Agatha Christie’s Plotting Secrets
How to write tight fiction with a twist
Only outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare, Agatha Christie remains the bestselling novelist of all time. Between two and four billion copies of her books have been published and sales show no signs of diminishing. Over the course of her career, she published 66 mysteries and 6 romance novels, as well as countless plays and stories.
So what’s the secret to her success?
Like most great authors, Christie nails the two most important aspects of fiction: plot and character. Of the two, however, it’s her ability to keep readers guessing until the final chapter that makes her mysteries so addictive. Some suspense writers fake out readers in their books but they do so by leaving out fundamental details.
Christie doesn’t cheat: she leaves her clues in plain sight. One of the things that draws us to her novels is that everything we need to figure out the identity of the murderer is as accessible to us as it is to her famous detectives.
Agatha Christie is the first “adult” author I read as a kid and I still remember rushing through chapters to find out who did it. So what if I’d guessed wrong for the last six Hercule Poirot novels I had read. This time I would see through her tricks and get it right.
How did she do it? What gave her the ability to fool her readers again and again? Here are three rules she followed when writing:
She outlined her plots before she wrote a single word
This technique was particularly important because she usually worked on more than one book at a time. Christie always followed the same procedure when plotting and she never started writing before she had everything worked out in detail, including red herrings and specific plot points.
First, she would figure out the murder method and shape the murderer’s character, as well as identify the motive. Next, she would create the other suspects and give them motives for murder as well. Finally, she would add clues and red herrings to divert readers. She especially liked to include a chapter with a climactic scene in which the detective reveals the truth to baffled listeners.
She wrote the first chapter and then she wrote the last chapter
Beginning in the 1930s, Christie composed the final chapter of the book she was working on immediately after she wrote her opening. This all but guaranteed she would stick to her pre-planned plot and not veer off course. Not only did this help her finish her books, but it also forced her to keep her stories tight and logical. Generally, she worked on a book over a relatively short time span until she finished it: a novel would take her from six weeks to three months.
Christie also applied this method to her work as a whole. She wrote the final novels for both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple in the early 1940s, decades before they were published. Upon completion, both manuscripts — Curtain and Sleeping Murder — were locked away in a bank vault.
She read her work to someone she could trust
Unlike her first husband Archie, Max Mallowan was an ardent supporter of her work. Christie’s second husband, an archaeologist, offered lots of encouragement — particularly when she hit the middle of her novels. It was at this point that she often got discouraged and felt she wouldn’t be able to finish the book.
Mallowan helped her work through her doubts and nudge her toward the finish line. It also became a habit for Agatha to share her outlines for new plots with him before she started writing. His feedback helped her close any holes in the story and to make necessary changes before they became problematic.
When she hit the dreaded middle, Max knew the story well enough to offer ideas about how to move forward. Not surprisingly, most of her best mysteries were written during her 46-year marriage to him. Despite close relatives’ misgivings about the match — Agatha’s sister refused to attend the wedding and sent her a box of handkerchiefs as a present — they were happy together. And Mallowan’s role as a supporter was undoubtedly beneficial.
Besides spending lots of time on her plots, Christie also put effort into sticking to a routine. Here are three of her writing habits it still makes sense to follow:
She wrote everywhere
Margaret Atwood isn’t the only author to compose on the fly. Christie wrote wherever she was, regardless of her circumstances. According to the chambermaids who cleaned her hotel room during her famous 11-day disappearance in 1926, she spent a good deal of time at the Harrogate Hydro writing — even though she was the subject of a nationwide search. Christie claimed all her life to have been suffering from amnesia during that week and a half, but apparently the writer in her was immune from forgetfulness.
Agatha also traveled often with Max and conditions at his archaeological digs were far from ideal. She stayed for months at a time in the desert, where she endured drought, dust storms and sickness. It was not unusual to be limited to a single jug of cold water a day for washing up. Yet despite the spartan conditions, she would disappear for several hours a day to work on her latest manuscript.
She recorded her thoughts
As Christie got older it became increasingly difficult for her to write or type her novels so she started using a Dictaphone to compose manuscripts. Some critics believe this caused her books to be less tightly plotted, but it’s also true that the looser style made her late work more personable. Many readers liked hearing her opinions — which were funneled through Miss Marple — on a range of topics, from muffins to armchairs to 1960s fashion. The takeaway is that she didn’t allow physical setbacks to interfere with her writing. She kept going.
Agatha was well known for listening in on conversations and writing down what people said. She used what she heard as dialogue but also incorporated what she learned about interpersonal dynamics into her characters’ psychological profiles. She even based the title of her novel Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? on a snippet she once overheard on a train. Eavesdropping was essential because her writing style relies heavily on dialogue.
She also observed the physical characteristics and mannerisms of strangers, as well as of friends and acquaintances. She made extensive notes and then created composites from what she recorded. These composites would later morph into the characters in her books.
Writing a good mystery is never as easy as adopting the methods of a successful writer. If it were, I’d be a lot richer than I am now.
Christie’s status as all-time bestselling novelist goes far beyond her plotting techniques and writing habits. It’s always the same, in the end, and it doesn’t take a master sleuth to solve the puzzle: she had talent and she worked hard to develop it. That said, the techniques listed above were important tools that helped her do that.