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I was reading through Agatha Christie's novels and I found that she literally made me visualize everything in the plot.

How does she do that?

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    How many Christies did you read, please? Do no other writers have the same power to make you visualize? Do any writers clearly fail? Feb 28 at 21:38

1 Answer 1

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In my opinion, aspiring writers often make one typical mistake: they attempt to describe everything they visualize in their minds in such painstaking detail that they can be guaranteed that their readers receive the same mental image. The result are descriptions that are boring and tedious to read.

What Agatha Christie does is quite the opposite.

Let us look at an example from her writing, the opening scene from And Then There Were None, probably her most famous novel:

In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times.
     He laid the paper down and glanced out of the window. They were running now through Somerset. He glanced at his watch—another two hours to go.
     He went over in his mind ... [from here on Wargrave thinks of things that are not present in the current situation].

A reader will quickly read past that passage, but let us slow down and analyze it with a writer's eye. How does Christie describe the scene?

Well, she doesn't! What she does is name a few things that she assumes the reader is familiar with (a first-class smoking carraige, a retired judge, a cigar, The Times, the landscape of Somerset).

I have never been in a first-class smoking carriage, never smoked a cigar, never read The Times and never been to Somerset, and yet Christie's naming of these objects evokes an image in my mind. How does that work?

Well, I have seen old-fashioned trains and British people smoking cigars in movies, and I create my own image of the scene from what I know. In my mind Wargrave is wearing Tweed, because that is what the people in the movies from that time wear, even though Christie says nothing of Wargrave's dress. Outside the window I imagine gently rolling grassy hills, although I have absolutely no idea what Somerset looks like, but the name (summer) and some things I may have read make me think of that kind of coutryside.

In short, the "description" of Agatha Christie works so well because she gives just enough information for the reader to form their own mental image. And that is the most effortless way for both reader and writer and the most satisfying for the reader because he or she will always experience exactly the things that they enjoy the most — whatever they like to imagine.

Of course Agatha Christie didn't write for me but for her contemporaries. Her first target audience – British readers from 1939 – were personally familiar with all (or most of) the things she names, and for them this technique of evoking a mental image by naming objects worked even better.

Only when you want to describe things that lie outside the experience of your readers, such as objects or scenes from foreign cultures or different times, do you need to give more detail. But even then you can rely on your audience having seen documentary movies or science fiction films – or inventing the parts they have no previous knowledge of. There seldom is a reason to describe anything in fiction in scientific exactness.


Also look at point 2 in this answer to a question about how to describe people. I'll repeat it here:

Sometimes telling is better than showing.

If you give a detailed description of the woman's physique, that is both detrimental to the reader's ability to identify with your hero and cumbersome to read.

The more detailed a description is, the more effort it takes the reader to create a mental picture of the object. Try to describe someone sitting at a table without using the word table, and then compare that to "he sat at the table", to understand what I mean. If you can, rely on the reader's knowledge of the world as much as you can.

Also, if you describe the woman in detail, your readers might not think her sexy. Different men (and women) find different looks attractive, and any specific woman will appear desirable only to a part of your readership. To give all readers a sexy woman, do not describe her at all. Instead tell that she is sexy and allow each reader to fill the empty space of the woman's looks with what they themselves find sexy, thus allowing them to better inhabit your narrative.

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    "Well, I have seen old-fashioned trains and British people smoking cigars in movies, and I create my own image of the scene from what I know" minor note here: this analysis is interesting because what Christie names should be something people of the time would be familiar with. However, you say you know these from movies. Which (in a way) wasn't her intention. However, she did name things that have enduring image in the public mind. I suspect there might even be a relation from Christie to establishing these elements in movies and media. Thus these images not remained in the public mind.
    – VLAZ
    Feb 27 at 7:40
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    Agreed. In Richard Adams' The Girl in a Swing, the female protagonist Karin is supposed to be stunningly attractive, but the narrator doesn't describe her appearance at all, no doubt so that male readers can picture their ideal woman. Feb 27 at 11:07
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    Also perhaps, naming a few specific things. Mr. Wargrave is not just "in a train" but "first-class smoking carriage", not just "smoking while reading a newspaper" but "smoking a cigar, reading The Times". Which are not randomly specific but interact to give e.g. the idea that he is a well-off man.
    – Pablo H
    Feb 27 at 12:44
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    I'd also add that "showing" doesn't mean "describing in detail." If Sue is stunningly beautiful, you don't have to describe Sue at all: You can describe people's reaction to Sue. When Sue walks the hall between classes in school, boys stop what they are doing to watch her. People react to Sue as if she is stunningly beautiful. That is "showing" instead of "telling".
    – Amadeus
    Feb 27 at 15:49
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    @PabloH: I also really like her choice of verbs. He is not "smoking" or "reading," he "puffs" and "runs an interested eye" over the paper. He does not "look" out the window, he "glances." These verbs together give the impression of relaxation, perhaps detachment, which is just as important as the nouns.
    – Kevin
    Feb 27 at 22:54

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