Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Fleshy Plotting With Agatha Christie

I mentioned in the comments of my last article that I had thrown a book across the room because its pedestrian plot vexed me so. That book is And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Indians, as my copy is titled) by Agatha Christie. Since we've been learning how to spice up a boring plot, this gives us a perfect opportunity for a demonstration.

To refresh your memory, this is the basic plot outline of And Then There Were None:
  1. 10 victims arrive on a deserted island
  2. A victim is murdered
  3. They sleep, and someone is found dead in the morning
  4. Someone wanders off alone and gets killed
  5. Goto #3
Christie does mix it up a bit at the end, when Vera Claythorne, a victim, kills another victim, Phillip Lombard, and then hangs herself. The basic plot, though, is horribly clichéd and uninteresting. I can't count how many books I've read or movies I've seen in which a bunch of people are stuck in some kind of locked room and die off one at a time. Christie's book even ends with a final girl, the idea for which she probably got from watching too many slasher movies.

It's derivative in the same way ex is derivative of ex. Really, she should have stopped after she realized that her novel was almost identical to the movie Clue, albeit much less interesting.

Let's fix it. We'll start by reviewing the lessons from the last article:
  1. Make your characters true-to-life (we made Aunt Marge and her family into heroin addicts)
  2. Launch major subplots with out-of-character moments (Aunt Marge strangles her boyfriend's hamster)
  3. If your characters are too smart, use puppet stupidity (Aunt Marge runs off to Hollywood and becomes a disgrace to society)
Christie appears to get #3 exactly right, but the problem is she never does anything interesting with it! Yes, these characters wander off alone rather than stick together--but only to get killed immediately afterward! When the last two characters end up together and they know that neither of them could possibly be the killer, one of them shoots the other! Properly stupid, yes, but also boring. What a waste of a perfectly good device.

We're going to combine #1 and #2 into one small tweak that will totally change the story. Here's our new outline:
  1. 10 victims arrive on a deserted island
  2. A victim is murdered
  3. They sleep, and someone is found dead in the morning
  4. Someone wanders off alone and gets killed
  5. Phillip Lombard bites Justice Wargrave, who contracts rabies and dies
We'll stop there for now. Recall that, in the book, Justice Wargrave was the murderer. (If you think I just spoiled something for you, don't worry--you're not missing out on much. The book is dreadful.) If he dies, the whole story changes, because only three people are murdered.

How is this a real out-of-character moment? Remember, for the moment to work, it has to actually be in-character, but the reader doesn't know it because he can't read your mind. (Your reader should never presume to, or he's an uppity Philistine.) In this case, Phillip Lombard was raised by wolves. Of course he'd bite a cranky old judge. Cranky old judges run rampant in wolves' natural habitats, and young wolves are taught by their elders to kill them to keep their population under control.

(We can insert additional man vs. himself conflict if we like: Lombard's wolf-issued cranky-old-judge-hunting license has expired, and he spends most of the time struggling against his baser nature, but succumbs.)

What does this have to do with being true-to-life with your characters? Well, as it turns out, one out of every ten people is raised by wolves. There are ten people on the island. We should expect one person to have been raised by wolves, and if we don't put it in the story, we're lying to our readers.

There's a wide variety of places to go now that the story has been freed from Justice Wargrave's iron grip. Take Emily Brent, the pious one. She's so pious that she fired a servant of hers for getting knocked up. That's incredibly pious, and I wish I had the courage to be pious like that. And the thing about pious people--at least if you want to be true to life--they're all heroin addicts. (I also wish I had the courage to be a heroin addict.)

We could explore Emily Brent's heroin addiction and withdrawals, or Phillip Lombard's struggle against his desire to rip people's throats out. Or both! Maybe the six left alive decide to band together to create a comedy troupe and tour Russia. Or we could change the story around completely--a blatant, but brilliantly-done rip-off of Gilligan's Island.

The possibilities are endless. Agatha Christie was born way too early.

1 Comments:

At 12:40 AM, Blogger Clarissa said...

Rabies! That's totally genius.

And exactly what I need in my alternate history novel about Abraham Lincoln and the robots and the pirates.

Thanks, Mr. WRiting Person!

 

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