THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
This past month I reread Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (also published as Ten Little Indians). My purpose was to see how Christie handled a cyanide poisoning. Lightly, I’d say—the poison is slipped into the victim’s drink, he chokes, turns purple, dies and that’s that.
In rereading this book, often cited as the most popular mystery novel ever written with over 100 million copies sold, I discovered something far more interesting than the poisoning scene. As writers, we’re told that certain rules exist and to break them is to sound a death knell to our publishing hopes. One of these “rules” is don’t have too many characters at the story’s beginning, or you’ll confuse the reader.
In Indians, by page twenty, the reader has met eleven characters—count ‘em, eleven--and these are not flat characters with walk-on parts. They’re major players, the ten victims and the skipper of the boat who brings them to the island where they will be killed. Even this boatman, in his cameo appearance as a symbolic Charon ferrying the doomed across the River
Styx, has a passage of chilling interior
Now have you, in your WIP, introduced eleven characters in the first twenty pages? Probably not. I haven’t dared to either. But Christie did, in a world-famous book that has been translated into multiple languages, produced as a stage play and made into a movie. If you’re tempted to say, “Well, a famous author can get away with breaking the rules, Indians was first published in 1939 when Christie was a relative unknown. And today, seventy some years later, it has morphed into an e-book currently selling for $6.99 on Kindle.
Wait . . . there’s more. Backstory. The plot of Indians is based on isolating ten people so they can be murdered in punishment for crimes they committed in their pasts. So as each character is introduced into the story, the nature and circumstances of his crime have to be revealed to the reader. Backstory, backstory, backstory.
On page two, we meet one of the victims, Vera Claythorne, as she touches on her past: She was indicted in the accidental drowning of a child in her care. She swam out to save him but didn’t reach him in time. As she thinks of this, she remembers a Hugo who loved her.
That’s all. So though the possibility of something having gone wrong is dropped into the plot, we’re only given a teaser. There is no information dump, nor are there any in the tales of the other nine characters. All is anticipation, from scene to scene, as past transgressions are revealed a little at a time, luring us on like the proverbial rabbit with the carrot.
Twenty pages later, for example, the second time we meet Vera she murmurs to herself: “Drowned . . . Found drowned . . . Drowned at sea . . . Drowned . . . drowned . . . drowned . . . No, she wouldn’t remember . . . She would not think of it! All that was over.”
Now reading that passage, aren’t you intrigued? Don’t you wonder what happened? Why won’t she think of the drowning? Was she responsible? As in this instance, Christie handles the backstory of each victim so masterfully, clue by clue, that she keeps the reader panting for more until finally, at last, all secrets are revealed.
The point here is that you can introduce a plethora of characters up front and get away with doing so. You can write a book larded with backstory and succeed in that as well. This is your world, and in it you can do anything you like.
Success, however, lies in how you handle your material. Handle it well and you’ll get away with literary murder. In fact you might not even have to explain
a) where a character obtained the cyanide,
a) if he hid it in his luggage or on his person,
b) or how he disposed of the poison vial after he bumped off his victim.
But don’t take my word for it. Look to Agatha!
(This blog first appeared on the Barnes & Nobles Mystery Forum. Jean Harrington is the author of the Murders by Design Mystery Series—her latest release is Rooms To Die For. All books in the series are available on Amazon.com.)