March 25, 2019

Your Narrator’s Temperament Can Create Pacing & Scene Structure Problems: Teaching by Example with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Most narrators are willing to work with their authors to achieve balance in their stories to increase reader engagement.

But not all narrators are amicable.

Depending on the subject, an uncooperative narrator may refuse to unite forces with the author, which means the story may suffer in various ways, such as its pacing and Scene structure.

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In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the narrator ratchets the story at a wearying pace, without regard for the reader. If Agatha Christie had tried to help him create a more even pace, by utilizing techniques that slow the reader’s eye, he would have resisted, despite his concern about others’ perception of him.

Sometimes, it’s just not possible for even the best of authors to have a completely balanced story. And it’s all due to the narrator.

*This review contains spoilers for the purposes of helping aspiring authors master writing craft.*

What the Book is about:

In the gossip-prone village of King’s Abbot, the widow Mrs. Ferrars confesses to her secret fiancé, Roger Ackroyd, that she had poisoned her abusive first husband.

Ever since, someone has been blackmailing her and she won’t say who it is. Roger gives her one day to make things right before he goes to the police.

The next evening, while still reeling from her unexpected suicide, he receives a letter from her identifying the blackmailer. Before the night is over, he is found murdered in his locked study.

Famous detective Hercule Poirot is persuaded to leave retirement by Roger Ackroyd’s niece, Flora, to unravel the mystery of his death. With the village doctor, James Sheppard, as his companion, he rules out the many suspects one by one.

Narrator & Point of View:

Dr. James Sheppard is both the narrator and protagonist of the story and tells this story retrospectively. Thus, this story’s point of view is Central First Person, Past Tense. In the third act, the reader learns the story is actually his manuscript, which was begun a day or two after the actual start of the story’s events.

As a narrator, Dr. Sheppard is completely unreliable. His shrewd character knows the reader will question his reticence, so he quickly plants a morally upright explanation for his extreme reserve—that it naturally stems from his professionalism. 

Because he is reluctant to share more than a minimum level of the details in his world, the multiple Scene elements that convey those details are minimized. The one Scene element that isn’t minimized, and is actually in abundance, is dialogue. Dialogue generally contains short sentences, which are very quick to read. Too much of this and it becomes numbing.

As a control and manipulation tactic, excessive dialogue supports his many motivations for his unreliability, which distill into the single ambition of controlling his reputation. He wants the reader to believe he is a good and honorable person and crafts his writing in such a way to elicit reader trust.

Voice (Personality) & Tone (Style): 

Narrator Dr. Sheppard’s voice conveys an unaffected propriety, which results from his duplicitous persona. He successfully shapes his words to model natural civility without the artificial pretension of high society to show that he is a pleasant and easygoing individual in society.

His tone aims for the middle ground, so he is seen as honorable and respectable by everyone. The sentences are grammatically straightforward, simple, and somewhat plain which reflects his desire to be seen as dull, approachable, and non-threatening.

While the tone is slightly educated from the occasional sophisticated word choice, it is still accessible and unpretentious because the syllable count of his word choices is consistently on the lower end.

Theme:

Courage equals freedom. 

Worldbuilding & Setting:

The story takes place in a fictional village called King’s Abbot, which is located in England. Because one of narrator Dr. Sheppard’s concerns is to restrict information given to the reader, very little of the world and three main settings are described.

Much of the book is spent at Fernly Park, where the victim, Roger Ackroyd, lived. Narrator Dr. Sheppard includes two drawings to help the reader understand the investigation’s proceedings. The first is of the first floor and grounds of Fernly Park. The second lays out Roger Ackroyd’s private study.

The house and grounds are described to a limited degree to help the reader follow the murder investigation. Even less description is given for Dr. Sheppard’s home and the Larches’ home, which Hercule Poirot rents. 

While the story was written in 1926, the time period would have been considered “present day” based on how narrator Dr. Sheppard relays his environment to the reader.*

The reader is able to determine a general time period based on a handful of technological, professional, and societal references, such as a Dictaphone, Dr. Sheppard’s black bag, and Caroline (his sister) dressing for dinner.

*Historical or fantasy novel narrators tend to share far more external details of their world and habits to remind the reader the story is of a time past.

Characters:

Dr. James Sheppard has a negative-change (corruption) character arc. Before the story starts, he already understands what the truth is, consciously rejects it, and knowingly lies to himself.

Even though he has passed the point of no return before the story begins, he is still given opportunities to change. At the end of the story, he ends up in a far worse position than either he or the reader could expect. 

Hercule Poirot has a flat character arc. He consciously follows the truth and tries to encourage the world do the same.

Agatha Christie crafted the remaining cast, each with a distinctive dominant trait. While the characters are somewhat one-dimensional, their purpose is to aid the story’s development, while distracting the reader through their antics. I have included two characters from the large cast to show a couple of Christie’s clue-planting techniques in action.

Dr. James Sheppard

Dr. James Sheppard is a sociopath.* He is the epitome of a double-faced nature, focused on presenting himself as an honorable and respectable individual to both the reader and his world. Deep within his core, he is a cowardly character, afraid if people knew who he really was, they would reject him.

He has multiple fears, such as the fear of leaving the safety of his village to travel the world (he mentions adventure more than once), fear of being rejected by a woman who would’ve gone with him, fear of being discovered as a coward, and fear of being exposed for his crimes.

Ultimately, he has a fear of people’s opinions, also known as an approval addiction. This fear underpins his entire focus of the book: preserve his carefully-crafted reputation. 

At some point before the start of the book, his fears developed into an inferiority complex. Dr. Sheppard masks his inferiority through a superiority complex, which is framed as a moral standing for the reader. This contemptuous attitude slices at random intervals towards his sister, Caroline, for gossiping, even though he is just as guilty.

In as much as he narrates his revulsion for gossip, his love of gossip is subtly revealed by his use of an occasional inclusive pronoun (“we” versus “they”) and his justification for sharing certain information with other characters.

Besides Caroline, he also views Poirot with contempt. Instead of despising someone for doing what he does as well (but tries to hide), his arrogance towards Poirot originates out of jealousy. Poirot is everything he wants to be but is not—Poirot has traveled the world, has an interesting life, and has a famous reputation.

After his fears developed into an inferiority-turned-superiority complex, he started lying to himself to numb the pain from knowing he was a coward. He told himself the excuse of working his way across the world, as a means to support his travel, was below him. He told himself people would disapprove.

His entitled attitude took full effect when he began telling himself he deserved to be rich so he could travel the world. This final lie is what spurs the story into action when he chose to blackmail Mrs. Ferrars for poisoning her late husband. 

When the story actually begins, his character has already devolved into a cold and unfeeling individual. For the most part, the reader is unaware of his true nature as he adopts an innocent, helpful persona towards the very people he wants approval from (including the reader).

When his duplicity is revealed, it is then the reader learns of his extreme lengths to preserve his reputation. He is willing to set up his young friend, who is almost like a son, Ralph Paton, to take the fall for murdering Roger Ackroyd. His actions are premeditated, shrewdly calculated, and controlled. He is an unrepentant master manipulator.

*Neither he, nor the story, are creepy. Agatha Christie’s focus was the puzzle of the murder. Only the very end is a little off-putting, when narrator Dr. Sheppard reveals his true personality and concludes his manuscript with a suicide note. (He chooses to overdose on sleeping medicine.)

Dr. Sheppard's Appearance

Interestingly, the reader learns very little about narrator Dr. Sheppard’s appearance, or his past, as he wants to draw attention to what he can control and manipulate. There is no description of Dr. Sheppard’s appearance, either by him or another character.

While this is unusual for a first person point of view, the absence of his description is appropriate due to his overarching fears of rejection—presenting his physical makeup to a possibly judgmental audience is out of the question.

Christie cleverly navigated around this limitation and prevented the “faceless head” conundrum by ensuring narrator Dr. Sheppard’s pretend personality and interrelational dynamics were presented quickly and strongly. By doing so, a semi-image of Dr. Sheppard’s character himself can be imagined.

The reader learns his approximate age through his interactions with Caroline, Roger Ackroyd, Flora Ackroyd, and Ralph Paton. The reader’s general idea of his age is further supported when he is referenced as an “old fogey” at the end of the first quarter of the book.

Dr. Sheppard's Character Arc Foundation

While you might think his character arc foundation should be about his confession, it is more important to understand his mindset when he took his first steps into corruption.

If that part of him is understood, then it is easier to grasp the lengths he takes to protect himself and does what he does at the end of the book.

The Thing He Wants: To leave and have a life of adventure
The Thing He Needs: To make do with what he has while living abroad
The Lie He Believes: He deserves to be rich so he can fulfill his dream of adventure

His Deep Need: To be courageous and live the life he dreams of
His Wound: Sees other able-bodied men leave King’s Abbot while he stays behind (or, after he returns from medical school)
His Belief: He deserves to be rich so he can fulfill his dream of adventure
His Fear: He will be seen as a coward

Hercule Poirot

Hercule Poirot is a self-important but brilliant detective. He relies on logic and lateral critical thinking skills to arrive at a solution, instead of being swayed by preconceived notions like the police.

Out of a desire to be the first to arrive at an answer, while also intentionally breaking down suspects’ defenses, he often uses his puffed-up attitude in a comical manner to distract them while he gathers information. When Poirot finds the truth, it fulfills both the Thing He Wants and the Thing He Needs.

Poirot appreciates Caroline’s understanding of human psychology as there are few close to the level of his mental acuity. It is out of compassion for her that Poirot suggests Dr. Sheppard take a sleeping medicine overdose.

At first, his suggestion seems out of character, but he is only concerned with catching and holding criminals accountable. He is not concerned with how criminals are held accountable, just that they are.

Caroline

Caroline is an unrelenting gossip, who seeks out information about anyone and everyone in her village. As she is an old spinster in a small village, her time has been spent cultivating an “Intelligence Corp” network comprised of her friends, servants, and tradesmen. Her one enjoyment is discovering people’s secrets.

As Caroline is eight years older than Dr. Sheppard and considers it her duty to look after him, it is likely they have been each other’s only family for many years. It would make sense that her excusing his contempt for her is partially rooted in a fear of being alone.

She also believes he has a weak manner that cannot be helped. She knows he pretends to be a certain way but is completely unaware of the extreme length of his duplicity.

Agatha Christie used Caroline’s uncanny ability to figure out the truth to plant clues about the murder case. To prevent the reader from catching on so quickly, Christie used both Dr. Sheppard and Caroline herself to discredit Caroline’s character.

Dr. Sheppard’s narration and dialogue often reflects a rational viewpoint and his disdain for gossip, while Caroline occasionally guesses incorrectly, exhibits dramatic flair, or adopts a know-it-all attitude.

Geoffrey Raymond

Raymond, as he is generally referred to, is the private secretary of Roger Ackroyd. He is a young man, both charming and debonair, whom Dr. Sheppard admires.

While his character is known for his constant positivity, Raymond rebounds into a genial attitude far too quickly after dire matters occur, which makes him appear simultaneously naive and cavalier.

Most likely, his inappropriately-timed behavior is to mask his insecurity. It’s possible Raymond reminds Dr. Sheppard strongly of himself before he “lost the quality of resilience.”

Agatha Christie used Raymond to plant both clues and a mislead about Roger Ackroyd’s mysterious conversation before his untimely death, after his household had been told he wanted to be alone for the evening.

She had Raymond first admit he heard Roger’s voice and, then a few sentences later, use the plural “voices.” (In the book, he only heard Roger Ackroyd’s voice.)

She capitalized on the human assumption that if one voice is heard, there will naturally be two voices as it would be abnormal to converse out loud alone. By itself, this mislead redirected the investigation for the majority of the book.

Pacing & Tension:

Narrator Dr. Sheppard needs to control what information is given to the reader. He can’t control external details or other people’s actions, but he can control his narration (for the reader) and his actions towards the other characters to manipulate both the reader and characters in how they respond to him or specific circumstances.

The easiest way to manipulate both the reader and characters’ opinion of him towards a favorable direction is to control Scene elements. Narrator Dr. Sheppard minimizes the slower-pace Scene elements (discussed below) to prevent the reader from making a well-informed opinion of him.

Dialogue is all that’s left, which is why there is so much of it in the story. This results in a speedy pace without sufficient pauses to give the reader a break.

Christie's Clever Use of Tension

While foreshadowing creates heightened suspension throughout a novel, this story creates tension through more direct means. As narrator Dr. Sheppard minimized the planting of details because he did not want the real killer to be found, Christie had to use the interrelational dynamics from the cast to generate tension in the story.

First, Christie used the large cast’s individual personality traits to create everyday interpersonal conflicts. A key example would be Roger Ackroyd’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd. She is the epitome of self-involved drama and exasperates many characters, including Dr. Sheppard, who finds her particularly obstructive to anything in life.

Second, Christie used Poirot’s ego to delay the surprise reveal of various parts of the murder case. While this did create some interrelational conflict, the emphasis is placed more heavily on the when for revealing the mystery.

For example, Poirot enjoys the dramatics of arriving at a revelation. He keeps the insight to himself until he is ready to share it, when the only choice is to look to him for the answer.

Plot & Scene:

Christie constructed the story’s plot with refined technical precision, which leaves the reader in awe. The subplots logically support the main plot and conclude in increasing order of stakes.

Elements That Slow the Reader's Eye

Scenes are constructed properly but are significantly unbalanced due to characters’ dialogue dominating the Scenes. If narrator Dr. Sheppard had had an agreeable disposition, Christie could have likely persuaded him to incorporate a little more narrative, relevant description, and stage direction to create more balanced Scenes, thereby preventing reader fatigue.

Narration slows the reader’s eye down because the sentences tend to be longer and in more sizable blocks of text. In addition, narration slows the mental process down, to an extent, because some thoughts are more picturesque than others.

Description also slows the eye down because sentences tend to be somewhat lengthier. The reader’s mental process slows down because significant visualization occurs.

Even though stage direction often has shorter sentences, the reader’s mental process slows because it causes the reader to visualize what is occurring.

However, as narrator Dr. Sheppard is focused only on controlling others’ perception of him, it makes sense he would refuse to increase these Scene elements as they would substantially increase his risk of exposure by providing more details about him and the mystery’s settings—keeping the reader in the dark is the key to his success.

Why Dialogue Creates Such Speed

Alternatively, to speed up a story’s pace, dialogue is extremely efficient due to its shorter sentences. If dialogue does not have sufficiently detailed body language or action tags for the reader to visualize (slowing the mental process down), as in this story’s case, the eye passes over it faster than usual.

Additionally, as dialogue is an audio element in real life, the reader’s mental processing of dialogue occurs more rapidly because the brain does not visualize dialogue to the same extent that narration, description, and stage direction tend to require.

The Plot's Breakdown

The story’s events are outlined below, per the 2011 paperback edition. The key points align with industry guidelines and are relatively consistent in their individual impact in the chain of the story’s events.

Inciting Incident (4%) [page 11]: Roger Ackroyd needs to speak with Dr. Sheppard about something terrible and invites him to dinner that evening.
Key Event (25%) [page 72]: Flora Ackroyd wants Hercule Poirot to solve Roger Ackroyd’s murder.
First Plot Point (26%) [page 75]: Dr. Sheppard is forced to accompany Flora to help her persuade Poirot to take the case.
First Pinch Point (35%) [page 100]: Dr. Sheppard wishes he’d thought of who inherited Roger Ackroyd’s estate. When he tries to recover, Poirot stops him because he has a knack for discovering things. Dr. Sheppard quotes him by stating everyone has something to hide.
MidPoint (50%) [page 143]: After Poirot implores the group to reveal Ralph Paton’s whereabouts, Mrs. Ackroyd declares her belief in Providence shaping people’s ends, that people aren’t responsible for their actions, and they lose control without being able to help it.
Second Pinch Point (62%) [page 177]: After Parker and Flora Ackroyd reenact a scene, Poirot refuses to share his findings with Dr. Sheppard.
Third Plot Point (76%) [page 218]: Flora Ackroyd admits she never saw her uncle the evening of his murder.
Climax Begins (88%) [page 253]: Dr. Sheppard offers his manuscript (written record of the case) to aid Poirot.
Climactic Moment (98%) [page 280]: Poirot reveals Dr. Sheppard’s motive for murdering Roger Ackroyd.

***

Sometimes it’s just impossible to step in and assist your narrator, even though your intentions are for the best.

Agatha Christie accepted this about her narrator, Dr. Sheppard. She stepped back and let him narrate the way he wanted in order for the story to be completed.

While she couldn’t do anything about the pacing, she realized she could do something about the story’s tension.

To a point, Christie saw it was possible to circumvent some of her uncooperative narrator’s minimization. She utilized the other characters’ personalities to cause tension in their story world, which created greater depth to the puzzle.

Do you have a begrudging narrator? How might you work around your narrator to help your novel be the best it can be?

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