Did Agatha Christie Have a Formula for Success?

Did Agatha Christie Have a Formula for Success?

Reading Agatha Christie books at an early age inspired me to learn French. Hercule Poirot was Belgian, not French, but Christie’s books were sprinkled with enough French phrases to intrigue me. I don’t recall if Poirot ever said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” but it seems appropriate here. The phrase, loosely translated, means, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

In the year since I last wrote a  guest blog for Katie, a lot has changed in my life, including two biggies: I’ve moved back to Chicago after 20 years in Cincinnati, and I’ve become a grandmother. But other things have not changed: I’m still a struggling, unpublished writer and I’m still in awe of Dame Agatha Christie, whose sales of two to four billion books in over 100 countries—second only to Shakespeare—earned her the title, “The Queen of Crime.”

What was Agatha Christie’s secret to success?

Last year, a rereading of Agatha Christie’s Autobiography led me to write a blog I called, “What Would Agatha Do?” I don’t want to bore you by covering the same ground, but I recently saw a television special called The Agatha Christie Code, which I found fascinating. Forgive me if I drop in a few lines of backstory (you might get an idea why I’m not published yet . . .).

I’m an obsessive reader, and my favorite genres are mystery and romance. While rereading some Agatha Christie books recently, it struck me that they were about the same length as Harlequin category romances. Both as a reader and a writer, I was astounded to make that connection. Unlike romances, Agatha Christie’s mystery books are stocked with enough characters to fill a small parlor—which frequently happened at the end of her books, when the detective Explained All. In addition to the detective, the police officers the detective would outsmart and the occasional sidekick, Christie’s books include enough characters to keep readers guessing—and constantly revising their guesses—as they attempt to figure out “whodunnit.” How did Agatha Christie flesh out so many characters and drop so many clues with such a small word count?

Writing by the numbers?

Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do,” and Dame Agatha seems to have mastered that talent. I may have noted Agatha Christie’s talent for packing a lot into relatively short books, but a team of professional linguists in England took their curiosity about Dame Agatha’s way with words to a whole new level. As discussed in The Agatha Christie Code, linguistic experts from three British universities believe a mathematical formula can be used to explain her phenomenal success. One report notes:

Christie uses literary techniques mirroring those employed by hypnotherapists and psychologists, which have a mesmeric effect on readers. It could mean the structure of her novels creates physiochemical responses which cause people to seek them out again and again.

Another report summarized the findings featured in The Agatha Christie Code. Dr. Pernilla Danielsson focused on Christie’s use of plain language, noting her use of “said” almost exclusively, and her use of common, everyday language, which leaves readers free to focus on the plot. Another of the researchers, Dr. Richard Forsyth, looked for patterns in her writing, to see if it was possible to predict whodunnit. He made several discoveries about her books that Dame Agatha was probably not even aware of:

  • If book is less than 55,000 words, it’s nearly always a female killer
  • If book is over 71,000 words, nearly always a male killer
  • Kind of transport first used in book: road=female, air or water=male
  • Lot of “a” and not many “I” probably male

Secret formula vs. good writing

While the scientific methods reportedly used in this research have been questioned (and extensively mocked) in print and online, I still find it interesting. Many of the writing techniques mentioned in the television special would be easily recognizable to anyone who writes for a living. The PR team promoting the show hyped it up, but basically they were describing good writing.

I realize today’s sophisticated readers may find Agatha Christie a little tame. Some even describe her writing as “cardboard.” But for someone who only started writing on a dare from her sister, Agatha Christie still managed to outsell Conan Doyle and just about everyone else writing in her time—or anytime. There may not be an actual Christie “code,” algorithm, or magical formula, but if there’s a magic formula to becoming a bestseller, it would be worth a fortune. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are soon TV shows called The J.K. Rowling Code or Fifty Shades of Code.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but so far it seems these scientists are mining fool’s gold. As a struggling writer, I’d rather believe Agatha Christie just had a way with words. Cardboard? Not to me. I’ve read about a million of her words, and I’m not bored yet.

Tell me your opinion: Do you think there can be a formula to writing success?

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About Becke Martin Davis

Becke Martin Davis is multi-published in non-fiction but is still a struggling fiction writer. This year, three of her short stories, written as Becke Martin, appeared in the Ohio Valley RWA’s Christmas anthology Home for the Holidays. She is part of the Romance University team, moderates Barnes & Noble’s Mystery Forum, and is completing her second term as vice president of the Ohio Valley Chapter of RWA.

Comments

  1. Waaaaay too many variables for a single formula. Then again, so goes the same in math. ??? Possibly. Hmmmmmmm…If you ever find it, LET ME KNOW!!! haha. THanks for the post!!

  2. I think this issue is looked at backwards – people think “Formula” and they assume that the person used the formula to write. It’s the other way around: if a person writes consistently over time, then a scientifica analysis is bound to discover a “formula” – but it’s an after-the-fact description, not a before-the-fact tool. It’s emergent, not determinant. All it really says is that Dame Agatha had a way of writing that worked for her and she stuck to it.

  3. What intrigued me in the report (whose findings apparently used questionable “scientific” methods) was the idea that her use of short, commonly used words might mesmerize readers, lulling them with a sense of familiarity. This seems to be contrary to most advice to writers – we’re urged to dazzle and engage the readers, not encourage them to doze.

    I agree, Michael – finding a formula for her work is problematic. On the other hand, Agatha Christie’s books have been my comfort re-reads for years–they’re a fast read, with enough puzzles to occupy my mind. Even after multiple re-reads, it’s hard to remember all the clues and red herrings, even if I do know who the culprit is.

    After reading Dame Agatha’s Autobiography, I’m convinced she didn’t use any CONSCIOUS code. The idea that the pattern of her words could create the end result of a carefully calculated method of attracting readers is what appeals to me. Any scientific research would have to be extensive, though, considering her books were best sellers in many languages besides English.

  4. Kelly – I think searching for a magic formula to make a book a mega-best-seller can be compared to ancient alchemists’ search for the philosopher’s stone capable of turning base metals into gold. It’s hard to imagine a book written such a clinical approach could ever appeal to readers, though.

  5. I’m fascinated by the idea that there would be a “secret” formula used to write a bestseller. I guess you can rehash plots until you are blue in the face, change some of the window dressing, and you have an instant hit. I can name a few authors who seem to do that. But as far as writing style goes, I can see how a writer would have unconscious habits, sticking to what they are comfortable with, but the idea of them crafting a mathmatical forumla is a little out there for me. Great post Becke.

  6. Thanks, Ryan. I don’t think Christie’s plots are the big selling point, because she often rehashed her plot ideas in short stories before expanding them into novels. Lots of authors have written books in homage to Christie – some have sold well, but I don’t think any come close to her sales. It’s not like Christie is the only mystery author I read – far from it! – but she remains one of the few authors I read over and over again. (It does seem a little sick that murder mysteries are a comfort read for me, but there you have it…)

  7. Great post!
    Interesting subject.
    I think that most of storytelling is formulaic to some degree. We all expect a beginning followed by a middle and then an end. (yes, I know, there ARE exceptions)

    I think this: “the structure of her novels creates physiochemical responses which cause people to seek them out again and again” explains the enduring popularity of genre writing. It’s why people return to detective stories, or romance stories, or thrillers, or scifi again and again.

  8. Hi JB – great to see you here! I think a lot of readers enjoy solving puzzles – I sure do! I’m addicted to mysteries, and part of the fun for me is trying to outwit the author. It seems contrary, but I LOVE it when authors make it difficult or impossible for me to spot the clues.

    In one sense, mysteries are formulaic – in the same sense that today’s romance novels have a conflict and a happy ending. When a book doesn’t meet my expectations, I get upset, but I’m thrilled when an author holds my interest. (Your books are on my keeper shelf, too!)

  9. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Becke!

  10. Fascinating article. I am also a Christie fan and she never, ever wasted a single word. I agree with you. People can talk about codes and formulas. I think it was just good writing, something to which I continually aspire.

  11. I find this particularly interesting:
    “If book is less than 55,000 words, it’s nearly always a female killer
    If book is over 71,000 words, nearly always a male killer”

    How fun to put such details into a book and see if people notice. Intentional? Who knows. Interesting nonetheless.

    Thank you. I enjoyed reading!

  12. Katie – Thank you so much for the invitation! I’m a fan of your site AND your manifesto – I want to frame it!

  13. Linda – I was intrigued by that, too. Assuming Dame Agatha did that unconsciously, I wonder why the books with female murderers required fewer words, and why a male killer presumably needed more explanation?

  14. Steve – One aspect of her writing that the experts commented on, was the way her writing makes the reader speed up as the climax approaches. I know there are techniques that teach how to do this, but it takes skill to get it right. I’m still amazed how much she packed into books that, if they were published today, would be considered almost too short for the genre.

  15. Agatha Christie was probably not aware of any of the formula’s modern researchers have unearthed in her books, which makes me wonder, what WAS she conscious of when writing her books?

  16. Karoline – Amazingly (to me, anyway) Agatha Christie’s notebooks, packed with memos to herself and filled with her handwritten notes, have been discovered and published. Check out John Curran’s two volumes on this topic:

    http://www.amazon.com/Agatha-Christies-Secret-Notebooks-Mysteries/dp/B004E3XI8A

    http://www.amazon.com/Agatha-Christie-Stories-Secrets-Notebooks/dp/B00AF3T6ZC/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0

  17. To be able to kill someone off and solve the murder in so few words is really fascinating. I wonder if there really was an intentional method to her madness. I’ve never read any of her books but now you have my interest piqued.

  18. I think formula is a great basis for building a story. Christie may have had a formula to her plots, but she also added many elements that were fresh and often include taboo subjects. Familiarity creates a comfortable reading style for the audience, but she does then manage to shake them up a bit. I was nearly pulling my hair out by the end of ‘And Then There Were None’! I found in Uni, a lot of lecturers put down her writing, but any mystery writer knows, creating a coherent plot with the right amount of twists, clues and herrings is a LOT of work. I admire Christie’s incredible talents.

    I hadn’t known of the word count or mode of transport rule before, interesting.

  19. Melissa – I read my first Agatha Christie when I was 15 (Funerals Are Fatal). I like some of her books better than others, but I definitely think her books are worth reading. I don’t know if this link will work – I’m posting a link to a search for “Agatha Christie” at Barnes & Noble’s blogs and forums. We’ve had so many conversations about her books at B&N’s Mystery Forum, it would be hard to post all the links here. We’ve also had many, many guest blogs from authors about their favorite Agatha Christie books.

    http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/forums/searchpage/tab/message?filter=labels&q=agatha+christie

  20. Charmaine – You’re right, Agatha Christie’s books were often controversial, particularly THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD. AND THEN THERE WERE NONE and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS were famous for their unique endings, and her long-running play, THE MOUSETRAP, also has a classic ending.

  21. Hi Becke,

    I’ve read a few Christie books and I’m a huge fan of Poirot. The draw for me is the strength of her characters. Formula or not, selling 2-4 billion books in 100 countries is phenomenal. Checking out the links. Thanks!

  22. Hi Jennifer – I could have sworn I responded to this, but my comment has vanished. I’m a fan of David Suchet as Poirot, but in the books I tend to prefer Miss Marple. I do count CARDS ON THE TABLE as one of my all-time favorite Christie books, though, and that’s a Poirot mystery. So is MRS. MCGINTY’S DEAD, another favorite.

  23. Despite the critics, I´m a great Agatha fan! I loved your post and I do think she had a way with words (she knew a lot of stuff too! I was always amazed by that) But if there was anything else to amaze me it was her natural way to make characters flow… I never found two identical ones :O

  24. Meryl – I agree! I loved her character names, and the way she could set up cues that enable readers to easily recognize and differentiate between even marginal characters, with very brief descriptions. And even when I watch for clues, I have to really focus. That’s a clue in itself. She never wasted words – if she mentions something in a story that seems inconsequential, you can bet it will turn out to be important.

  25. I tried a few AC novels, but gave up after a few had the giveaway clue being something like, “He claimed his brother was killed in the 155th Infantry’s battle at Beaujolais. Everyone KNOWS that battle belonged to the 264th Infantry. He is a fraud!” Then there was the story in which I slogged through eight solid pages of French, only to discover that the criminal was obviously not a real Frenchman because he’d used the masculine article ONCE for a feminine noun. So long, Agatha!

    • Carol – I’m so sorry you were unhappy with your venture into Christie-land. Her books are my comfort reads – if I’m stressed, I’ll pull out my very worn copy of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead or The Mirror Crack’d and I quickly forget whatever I was worried about.

      The thing to remember when trying to solve a Christie mystery, is that she almost always plays fair – laying out the clues so anyone can find them. Once I realized that, partly because her books are short by modern standards, if she mentions an apparently random bit of information – a shepherdess lamp, for instance – you can bet it will be important later on.

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