love Agatha Christie and Golden Age mysteries; and since I started writing a murder mystery myself, I’ve been trying to work out how Agatha did it (or dunnit?!). I’ve had to act like a detective and look carefully at her novels to find clues. So now, I decided I’d share with you how to write a Christie-like plot twist. Just so you know, this article contains several plot spoilers. Namely, I include The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, Then There Were None, and A Caribbean Mystery.
After The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, her breakout novel, Agatha became known for breaking the rules, which is why her plot twists were talked about long after readers closed the books. In fact, a priest who also wrote murder mysteries, Rev. Ronald Knox, mentioned her rule-breaking reputation in his famous “Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction,” demonstrating that very early in her career, she was already ahead of her time.
Knox’s “Ten Commandments”
Ronald Knox's 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction (1929)
1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Although many modern mysteries no longer adhere to these outdated rules, Ronald’s rules are important when we think about how Agatha put her plots together. (These “rules” were already being adhered to in many crime novels of the time, including Agatha Christie’s, and Knox explicitly mentions her in his list.) Rules are made to be broken, and you need to know the rules before you can break them. But because this is an often repeated truism, it’s easy to miss its application. We can break the rules by specifically turning one of them on its head, rather than interpreting “break the rules” as permission to write without any rules at all.
Pick a Rule and Break It
In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd published in 1926, notably before Knox wrote his commandments, Agatha breaks the second part of rule number one: “The criminal [...] must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.” The twist itself is that the narrator committed the murder, something that hadn’t been done before; but the technique she used in this mystery was to take an accepted rule and to turn it on its head. The film American Beauty (1999) does this by using a dead narrator—the victim—to narrate the film, which we could describe as a modern-day equivalent.
The audience of the world’s longest-running play is sworn to secrecy, so I won’t reveal the plot of The Mousetrap; but in it, Christie breaks another of Knox’s rules.
The Least Likely Person Technique
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd uses another technique that is often cited as “Christie-esque.” It has been said that Agatha’s twists are often constructed by making the least likely person into a criminal. As she was the Queen of Crime, she complicates things more than that: usually there are several “unlikely” characters; so even if we’re familiar with the technique, we can’t use it to guess who dunnit. A common mistake for beginning crime writers is to make the culprit too obvious; so having a range of meek and mild characters, who may all be hiding a sinister past or desperate secret, helps to keep the reader guessing.
Often in an Agatha Christie plot, any of the main characters could have committed the murder. Readers feel each of the main character’s (possible) motivation for killing the victim has been fully explored, at least in the background. This is a useful technique that you can incorporate into your own writing. Take your array of characters, and write a brief description of each. Flesh them out once you know their needs, wants, and motivation in the story. Write a feasible plotline (as bullet points) describing how each of these people killed the victim or victims.
“A Christie-eqsue twist is like a magician’s sleight of hand; the reader thinks they’ve been clever and worked out that character X did it, when they’ve been misdirected all along.”
That brings me to another device Agatha Christie uses, and that’s misdirection. Because it is often feasible that any of the main characters could have committed the crime, she is able to trick the reader into believing that the crime has been committed in a particular way. In A Caribbean Mystery (1964), the reader could easily be fooled into thinking that Molly is the murderer and that she is pretending to go mad to trick the rest of the cast of characters, a particular case in point being when she opens her eyes to glance at Miss Marple, and in the same scene, Miss Marple discovers the book on symptoms of mental illness under the mattress.
This misdirection works because several of the characters could feasibly have committed the crime. One of Ronald Knox’s rules of Golden Age crime states that the reader should be given a sporting chance to work it out; but without more than one level to the misdirection, your twist may not work. A Christie-eqsue twist is like a magician’s sleight of hand; the reader thinks they’ve been clever and worked out that character X did it, when they’ve been misdirected all along.
Setting and Confinement
Many times in an Agatha Christie novel, the environment itself will enable the twist to work, especially as she almost always confines her characters to a particular place. The idea that a “jury” of twelve people stab the victim in Murder on the Orient Express (1934), for example, succeeds because they are on a train that’s trapped in a snowdrift. This means there’s a limited cast of people, and so her twist—(almost) everybody did it—works.
And Then There Were None (1939) uses this device, to devastating effect, by trapping a cast of characters on an island, and is possibly the most extreme example ever published because all of the characters are killed. The twist is that one of the apparent victims is the murderer. Intriguingly, this is obviously true if you think about it logically. If there is nobody else on the island, it must be one of the cast of characters we know about, and feasibly, one of them isn’t really dead.
Transportation: What If You Were There?
In And Then There Were None, we are misdirected into thinking that Agatha Christie has broken the first part of Ronald Knox’s rule number one: “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story;” whereas in fact, Agatha plays with the second rule, “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” The reader may start to think supernatural interference must be at hand, believing in ghosts rather than the “obvious” answer, especially towards the end of the book when Vera dies. The author uses a technique known as “transportation.” The reader is “transported” into the scene and identifies with the characters. Because we are imagining what it would be like if we were trapped on the island, we are unable to think logically about the plot.
I first came across the technique called “transportation” in James N. Frey’s How to Write A Damn Good Novel: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling (2002). This is the idea that readers can imagine themselves in the scene, as if they are standing on the boat going down the Nile and hear a gunshot, or on the Orient Express when it hits a snow drift. Readers can look around, experiencing the same things as the characters. It is as if they have been “transported” into the place of action. James N. Frey compares this to a state of hypnosis, and he claims it works through the use of “inner conflict.” Clearly, Agatha Christie was also able to use it as a distraction technique!
“A secret may be a form of misdirection, meaning readers have to work out which secret is most important to the mystery. ”
And Then There Were None uses another common Agatha Christie device: secrets. The characters are all on the island, we eventually discover, because they have killed someone. In her stories, characters always have secrets—this may not mean they are involved in the murder though—and those secrets aren’t revealed to us all at once, but they are dripped in throughout the story. Moments of tension and suspense are created by revealing that certain characters have a secret, but the author is not letting us in on it (yet). A secret may be a form of misdirection, meaning readers have to work out which secret is most important to the mystery.
You’ll find another instance of this in A Caribbean Mystery. The murderer’s secret—that he has committed the same crime before and got away with it—is the crux of the whole plot. Major Palgrave realizes whom the murderer is, which is why he is killed. But the reader doesn’t know whose secret it is and also doesn’t know whether the verbose old major’s story of “the murderer who got away with it” is true (and therefore, important) or an exaggeration on the part of Major Palgrave.
Love is Important: But You Might Not Have Noticed
In most Agatha Christie novels, you’ll find unrequited, frustrated, or blossoming love as a subplot. You may not have noticed this because you were concentrating on how to solve the mystery! Very often, the love story will be resolved or fully revealed when the murderer is uncovered. For example, in A Caribbean Mystery, Tim (the murderer) had been planning to marry Esther Walters for money after killing his wife. Their affair is revealed when Miss Marple catches Tim trying to administer poison to Molly, and Esther refuses to believe he is the killer.
Working a love story into your novel as a subplot makes the characters more well-rounded. After all, many people spend a lot of their life married or dating and may have experienced disappointment or heartbreak—and so should your characters. Agatha often uses love to throw us off the scent!
Why Stately Homes Make the Perfect Setting for a Murder
We’ve already seen how Agatha confines her characters to a particular environment. Often, it’s a stately home. In fact, her habit of trapping people in a stately home (or other location) is so familiar than when one reads Golden Age crime by writers who don’t use this device, it’s almost a disappointment that the characters can move about at will.
You’ve got at least two sets of lives going on in tandem in these scenarios: 1) aristocratic / rich / middle class characters and 2) those serving them. Any environment where you can create two social tiers or environments and confine your characters will work just as well as a stately home.
“Any environment where you can create two social tiers or environments and confine your characters will work just as well as a stately home.”
Using the Modern-day Equivalent of “Servants Below Stairs”
Servants understand their own motivations and circumstances and those of the people who live “above stairs.” That means, they are arguably more knowledgeable than the “master and mistress” who may know little about their servants’ lives. You can translate this into any situation where one set of people waits on or serves another and make use of the “behind the scenes” area that the guests or customers know nothing about.
There are a lot of “two tier” environments you could use. Here are some examples:
- Diners and restaurant staff
- Theatre-goers and people who work backstage
- Hotel guests and those working behind the scenes at the hotel
- Railway passengers and railway workers
All Too Obvious
Because Agatha Christie pioneered or reworked many of the tropes of early twentieth century crime fiction and has inspired many other writers, some of her twists can seem familiar to modern readers. The idea that the narrator committed the crime isn’t as radical now as it was in 1926 when she published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Keen readers of Golden Age crime will also be familiar with locked room mysteries, secret passages, misdirection, characters confined to one location, secrets, and the seemingly unlikely character with a difficult past. In other words, all of her devices I’ve mentioned have entered the popular idiom.
How to Reinvent “Obvious” Plot Twists
How do you reinvent these “obvious” plot twists and make them work today? Don’t use them as starting points. Take one of these tropes and apply it to a setting and dilemma you have already constructed. For instance, what if you set your novel in a hotel, and there’s a staff entrance at the back of an underground car park (parking lot) that only certain characters know about? That’s a modern-day equivalent of a secret passageway. Use foreshadowing. Hint about this underground staff entrance at least a couple of times before it is necessary for the mystery, so it doesn’t appear out of nowhere.
Reading as a Writer
I’m not meaning to imply that I know for a fact that Agatha Christie herself intended to use any of the techniques, devices, or rule breaking I’m talking about here. (In lit crit, that’s known as “intentional fallacy” – assuming that you, the reader, know what an author meant when she wrote her manuscript. When I write, I don’t even necessarily know what I “intend” until several drafts in.) Instead, I’m interested in the techniques we can glean from reading her work. I love to read Agatha Christie for fun, for the pleasure of trying to work out the mystery, and for the chance to escape for a while into the world of the early twentieth century. But then it’s good to go back to her novels to work out how she did it, to read her as a writer, and to adapt some of the techniques she used—and who knows? One day, I may even be able to twist like Agatha!
Learn from the Queen
All in all, if you are writing crime and you want to include a twist—even if your work is not at all Golden Age in feel—you can learn a lot from looking at how Agatha Christie does it. I’ve summed up the ten ways in which you can start to twist like Agatha in the list below.
How to twist like Agatha Christie:
- Turn a rule on its head. Know the “rules”—by reading widely in the genre you love—and subvert one of them.
- The least likely character technique. Pick the characters least likely to commit murder and give them difficult pasts or secrets. Take your most unlikely person, go back in and rework the plot, making them the killer.
- Everybody (could have) dunnit. Work out a feasible way for all of your main characters to have committed the crime, even if you don’t use all of this information in the final version.
- Setting and confinement. Pick a concrete and well-defined setting for the story and build a strong sense of place, making the most of the atmosphere and the implications that the place brings for all of your characters. Confine or restrict them somehow.
- Transportation. Play with our emotions, so we don’t rely on the “objective” truth, but instead imagine what it would be like to be in the environment ourselves.
- Make use of secrets. Secrets cause the characters to act in a particular way, but don’t reveal them all at once. Use them to create tension and suspense.
- Unrequited, frustrated, or blossoming love. To use this technique, create a love subplot or love triangle involving suspects, victim, or culprits. It doesn’t have to lead to a happy outcome.
- Use a two-tier environment. This is the modern-day equivalent of a stately home with servants “below stairs,” although the social mores will be much less defined, and you get to play with status in a much more flexible way.
- Reinvent “obvious” plot twists. Take a well-known Christie trope (like the secret passageway I mention in this article), and reinvent it by thinking of a modern-day setting that has the same function (like the staff entrance in the underground car park).
- Misdirection. Use any of the above as misdirection to avoid the reader spotting your twist.
Louise Tondeur worked as a drama teacher before doing an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She published two novels with Review—The Water’s Edge and The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls—then wrote a dissertation for her PhD, started a family, and became a creative writing lecturer. Her short story collection, Unusual Places, came out in 2018. She teaches on the OU’s creative writing MA, is writing a crime novel, and lives on the south coast of England. Louise blogs at www.louisetondeur.co.uk/blog and www.smallstepsguide.co.uk/blog.
Enjoyed this article? Check out this related article on WOW!:
Mystery, Mayhem, Murder: The Rules of Mystery Writing