Always have variety in scenes? Agatha Christie and repetition.

Repetition leads to boredom. Even high-adrenaline action can become draining if we don’t have time to slow down occasionally.

One common piece of writing advice is to mix up scene types. If one scene has two characters talking in an office, the next scene should have more action. If one scene concentrates on a single character, the next should focus on a group. Scenes should move between different, varying locations.

Then there is ‘scene and sequel’‌—‌after a burst of action, the next scene should involve the characters processing what they’ve just been through. There should be a mixture of movement and dialogue, of open reflection and private musing.

In short, readers appreciate variety.

So how come Agatha Christie, in Murder On The Orient Express, has over half the book consisting of Poirot asking characters questions in the dining car of a train?

Cover of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express

After the set-up and crime, we’re presented with a whole series of chapters all titled ‘The Evidence Of…’, followed by a character’s name or title. In these, Poirot asks each character similar questions to ones he’s asked others. Even when the action moves to various other carriages and rooms in the second half of the book, it soon returns to Poirot’s interviews in the dining car.

Despite this repetition‌—‌of setting and of action‌—‌the story keeps moving forward. As I read the book, I never felt bored. In fact, I was eager to hear how the next character would respond to Poirot, and how they’d answer his repeated questions.

How does Christie pull this off?

There are a couple of considerations here. The first is genre. Murder On The Orient Express is a mystery, and mysteries are puzzles. The enjoyment in these books comes from trying to solve the case before the detective does‌—‌and when we fail to do this, there’s the enjoyment of finally seeing how all the pieces fit together anyway. In order to solve the puzzle, we as readers need information. We need to learn as much about the case as we can. So as Poirot asks similar questions to each character, we’re looking at their responses, trying to decipher their unsaid meanings, trying to see what others have missed. We live these scenes through the detective, wanting to beat them at their own game.

The second consideration is this‌—‌mysteries like this are about people, not fast-paced action. We don’t read a Poirot story to experience a high-speed chase, or to have the sedate Belgian detective fight for his life. Yes, there’s action in Murder On The Orient Express, but it’s ‘soft’ action, very downplayed. The train grinds to a halt because of snow. There’s a murder, but it happens off-page‌—‌we only see the aftermath. There might be conflict between the characters, but rather than show fights Christie will give hints‌—‌subtle clues that Poirot (and the observant reader) will pick up on.

The ‘action’ is small stuff‌—‌a stumble when answering a question, a glance to one side before answering another. And by keeping so much of each scene the same (or similar), Christie allows readers to focus (if they can) on these tiny clues, just as Poirot does. The repetition highlights differences. And it is these differences that keep the reader engaged.

Christie knows exactly what she’s doing. The mystery is a ‘closed-room’ one, so the limited settings pull us tighter into the real story‌—‌who the characters are, their motives and their actions. The variety here isn’t in action or setting. It’s more intimate than that. Too much variety in setting and action would drown out the important stuff.

And Christie pulls it off like the master she was. As with all skilled storytellers, she knows the rules of writing and‌—‌more importantly‌—‌knows exactly how and when to apply them.

Play safe or take risks? John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series

There are, very roughly, two types of series. First, there’s the on-going arc, where the end of one story feeds into the start of the next and it’s necessary to experience the individual books in order. Examples of this would be The Hunger Games or The Wheel Of Time. Then there’s the ‘adventure of the week’ series, where a character (or cast of characters) take part in a new adventure in each story. Lots of mystery and detective series have this format‌—‌think Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Jack Reacher. Series like these don’t need to be experienced in order, because each story is a stand-alone.

Of course, there are variations. An ‘adventure of the week’ series might include character arcs and story arcs that slowly develop over several stories (an example might be The X-FIles). An on-going arc series might include side-stories that exist as their own thing (think of the relationship between Rogue One and Solo, and the rest of the Star Wars films).

But in any series, there is usually some kind of continuity, in character, story and style.

Style? Yes. It’s important. Expectations set in one book shouldn’t be cast aside in the next.

Let’s take Star Wars as an example. The first film is full of action. If the sequel had focused on political machinations within the rebellion, with action played out predominantly off-screen, fans of the first would feel betrayed. Another example‌—‌imagine how readers would feel if a new Jack Reacher book turned out to be a slapstick farce, or had Reacher battling aliens. Or what if a new Hercule Poirot story portrayed him as an action hero fighting terrorists?

For a series to satisfy fans, it can’t afford to stray too far from the promises and expectations set in the opening.

Of course, there are always story-tellers who take risks. Think of the Alien franchise‌—‌the original film was a claustrophobic horror, whereas the second was a military action film. But there were enough similarities‌—‌enough continuity‌—‌for fans of the first to accept and enjoy the second.

I was reminded of this when reading John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. If I understand things correctly, this started off as a stand-alone book (Old Man’s War), became a trilogy, and then grew into a six-book series. What I find fascinating is how Scalzi makes each book different yet still managed to tell an over-riding story.

The first book is a military adventure, following the 75-year-old John Perry as he is given a new body and becomes a soldier for the Colonial Defense Force. But the second book, The Ghost Brigades, is a mystery story, and only mentions Perry a couple of times. It still follows on from events in the first book, and is still written in a similar style, but there are many differences between the two books.

Scalzi took a big risk here. If readers of the first book wanted more of Perry, they’d be disappointed. A fan of the military aspects of Old Man’s War could feel let down by the change of focus in The Ghost Brigades.

And in the third book, The Last Colony, Scalzi changes things up again. Perry returns as the main character, but now he’s leading a new colony, and the story focuses on the politics involved in his new role. Again, same story universe, different type of story.

But it works. There’s an over-riding arc to this trilogy, a through-story that binds them together.

Scalzi, from his notes at the end of the third book, intended to stop the series at this point. But he received questions about certain aspects of The Last Colony, and he wrote a fourth book. This is Zoe’s Tale. Again, he took a fresh approach. Zoe’s Tale is a retelling of The Last Colony, but from the point of view of Perry’s adopted daughter.

While I admire Scalzi for pushing himself here, I have to admit that this book didn’t work for me. Reading it straight after The Last Colony, the repetition of events bored me. Yes, there are a couple of new sequences, both important to the overall story, but that only covers about fifty pages. I also wasn’t convinced by his portrayal of the teenage girl.

This is only my personal opinion. Reviews suggest that others love Zoe’s Tale. But it was with trepidation that I started on the next book, The Human Division.

And I think this might be my favourite of the series.

Once again, Scalzi takes a different approach. By now, the overarching story has grown from that initial old man’s tale, and it now encompasses many planets and hundreds of alien species. The story is epic. But rather than write an ‘epic’, Scalzi focuses in on tiny details.

He does this by using short stories. Yes, the fifth book in the series is a collection of shorts. But they’re all tightly connected. They’re chronological, and they fit together like a jigsaw.

Scalzi could have combined all these stories into a single multi-faceted narrative, but I don’t think it would have worked. Some of the slighter arcs would have become lost. And the sheer fun in some of these tales would have been lost if they’d been mixed in with all the serious stuff.

The final book, The End Of All Things, uses a similar idea, but this time the book consists of four connected novellas. And it works very well‌—‌the novellas are long enough to sink into, and when taken together they give a fitting conclusion to the larger story.

Could Scalzi have written Old Man’s War as a straight-forward narrative? Possibly. Would it have been better or worse that way? I don’t know. Even in his serious moments, there’s a playfulness about Scalzi’s writing, and the changes in story style throughout this series are another aspect of that playfulness. He’s one of those authors whose willingness to try new things is a part of the appeal. Fans pick up a new book unsure what to expect. If it’s too similar to something he’s done before, they’re likely to be disappointed.

Which means this approach to writing a series wouldn’t work for every author. But it works for Scalzi. And it serves as an example that writers don’t have to stick to what is expected. Yes, experimentation doesn’t always work‌—‌but when it does, it gives something far more memorable than anything ‘safe’.

Listen to ‘The Reason We Run’ on ‘Pocket Pulp’ podcast

I’ve been listening to podcasts almost as long as I’ve been writing seriously, and I’ve recently been enjoying ones dedicated to short-stories. Listening to a whole novel doesn’t appeal to me, but short fiction’s a different matter. It’s a great way to explore new authors.

One of those podcasts is Pocket Pulp, where professional audiobook narrator Eric Bryan Moore reads a new story each week, across a range of genres. Because he knows what he’s doing, both with narration and with audio, the quality’s very high.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I was thrilled when he accepted a story I submitted.

That story is The Reason We Run (which first appeared in the anthology It’s Behind You), and he reads it in this week’s episode.

Pocket Pulp is available through loads of the usual podcast apps and services, including Spotify (there’s a link to the show on PodBean here), and there’s also a YouTube channel.

Check it out, leave a comment — I’m sure Eric would love to know what you think. And if you want a new short story each week, I recommend subscribing to Pocket Pulp.

(Eric’s also on Twitter @EricBryanMoore)

What I learnt from writing a nine-book series

Back at the start of 2015 I got serious about writing, publishing the first three book in my Dominions series in mid-2016. And now (May 2021) the series is complete‌—‌nine novels, and a few short stories and novellas.

It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve learnt a great deal in these six years‌—‌about writing, editing, story, marketing and so much more. There have been a few sudden moments of realisation, but many of the lessons have been gradual.

I thought I’d take a moment to go through some of these.

Improving as a writer has a down-side

After putting out well over a million words, my writing’s improved, on both macro and micro levels (story-wise and sentence-by-sentence). This is clearly a good thing, but it does have a draw-back when writing a series‌—‌later books are better than earlier ones.

I want people to read and enjoy this series, and the natural place for them to start is at the beginning. This means they’re starting with the weakest books. If that first book doesn’t grab the reader, why would they bother continuing?

This hit me a couple of years ago. In preparation for a new book, I re-read the series so far, and wasn’t happy with the first book (Dark Glass). I pretty much re-wrote the whole thing, producing a second edition that was far stronger in both story and writing than the original.

This meant I had a stronger starting point for the series. But the next couple of books still had issues. And the ones after them‌—‌well, they’re not bad, but in retrospect there are things I could improve. And even though I’ve recently finished the ninth book, I’m certain that, if I re-read it again later this year, I’ll cringe at some of the amateur writing.

That’s the nature of improving‌—‌older stories will be inferior to current ones, which in turn will be weaker than future writing.

But I can’t continually improve already-published books. I need to work on new stories. In retrospect, working on a nine-book series as my first serious writing project was a mistake. I should have gone for a trilogy, or even a stand-alone. But I can’t change that now. I have to accept the situation, and move on.


Things won’t go to plan

When I grew serious about writing, I realised that I couldn’t make up a story as I went along. I tried, and that book was a mess‌—‌too many character viewpoints, too many pointless diversions, too sprawling. So I planned. I worked out the story, the characters and the settings before I started writing.

Planning was the key to finishing Dark Glass, and I’ve planned every book since.

But nothing ever goes to plan. The final version of a book is always different to that original plan.

Take Dead Flesh, the second book in the series. The original idea had Rodin saving Genna at the end. But for Rodin to do this, he needed to change. I planned a few early scenes where he was forced to confront his own beliefs, but it was only when I started first-drafting that I realised such a radical change couldn’t be glossed over so quickly.

The first half of the book grew and grew as I followed my new ideas. If I’d continued, Dead Flesh would have come in at around six hundred pages‌—‌twice the length of Dark Glass.

I stopped, and returned to my planning. I focused on Rodin’s change, and set Genna’s part of the story to one side. The new version, solely Rodin’s story, was far stronger. And, even at the end, Rodin wasn’t quite ready. So the third book continued his character arc. At the end of Deep Water, he’s finally ready.

And the discarded story-line concerning Genna? That was merely put aside, and used as the basis for book four, Riled Dogs.

Plans are useful tools, but they’re never set in stone. Writing is a constant process of change.


Inconsequential details can be important

When I came to write Rogue Wolf (the fifth Dominions book), I introduced a new character, Vanya. She was tough, and would become an important ally for Rodin. As I developed her, I recalled a character in Dead Flesh (the second book). I hadn’t named this earlier character, and she only appeared in two scenes, but she was important to the story.

I realised these two characters, the unnamed one and Vanya, were the same. Rather than invent a completely new character, I could develop a supporting character from earlier.

I’d like to say I planned this all along, but it was a happy accident.

When I came to write the final three books, I re-read all the older ones, looking for characters and settings I could re-use‌—‌not to be lazy, but because it would tie the books together. Incidental characters in earlier books became major players, and events and locations from earlier rose again. Because of this, the series became rounded, rather than being a string of actions.


Perseverance is the key

Writing is easy‌—‌put one word after another. Writing a book‌—‌a complete, coherent story‌—‌is another matter entirely. The first draft is only the start. Most ‘writing’ is editing and re-writing. Moulding those initial words takes longer than putting them down in the first place.

Once the first book is complete, there’s an expectation that the second will be easier. In some ways it is‌—‌you’ve done this once, so there’s no reason you can’t do it again. But there’s a drive to improve, to make the next book better than the previous one. And if that first book doesn’t reach readers, or doesn’t get rave reviews from the start, doubts can start to rise.

There are always doubts. There are always problems.

But the only way to overcome these doubts and problems is to keep working. To have a finished book, or a finished series, it is necessary to write. One word, then the next.

While writing Dominions I’ve also produced other stories. Six years on one project is intensive, and I needed diversions every now and then. I wrote short stories, and a sci-fi/horror trilogy. Once the sixth Dominions novel was out, I intended to take a break and work on something else.

I tried. I wrote the first draft of one story, and started another. But I couldn’t focus. Dominions lurked at the back of my mind. Eventually, I realised that I needed to complete that project before moving on.

I had to persevere. And I did, throwing myself into the final trilogy of Dominions. It was tough, but I think those final three books are the strongest of the series.

I succeeded. And this proved that I can persevere. Next time I’m struggling, I can remember this, and keep pushing through.


Finishing Dominions is bitter-sweet. For all it’s faults, I’m proud of the series. I’ve played in this world for the last six years, and a part of me doesn’t want to leave.

But it’s time to move on. I’m not ruling out a return to Dominions (I can see how I could expand the series quite easily), but for now I need a fresh challenge. I need to dive into a new world, to explore some different characters. I need to take the lessons I’ve learnt and apply them to my next series. And when the work is hard (as I know it will be at times), I can look back at Dominions and remind myself that I can do this. I can keep learning, and keep writing.

The end has arrived!

Dominions is over. Final Target (Dominions IX) is released today.

When I started work on the very first book (way back in 2015), I had a rough plan for the whole series, but the details have come over time. Characters have taken detours I didn’t expect, and even up to the end I wasn’t totally sure what would happen to everyone. But this is a definite close to the series, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. I hope you enjoy it too.

You can get Final Target from all the usual ebook stores (99c for a couple of days), and the paperback from Amazon.


Everything has changed.
The Dome is no longer the safe, perfect society its residents once knew. The districts are in the hands of the enemy. Authority continues to build its forced, ready for one last devastating assault.
But the rebellion continues. While there’s life, there’s hope. Those who oppose Authority will fight to the death.
The dark glass will shatter, and the final target will fall.

The penultimate Dominions book is out now

Fallen Domain (Dominions VIII) is now out, in ebook from all the usual stores and paperback through Amazon. It’s only 99c (or your local equivalent) for a couple of days.

Cover of Fallen Domain (Dominions VIII)

Can old adversaries become allies?

Rodin knows Authority must be stopped, and that means returning to the Dome. But the only one who knows a way in is Cat, the one-time Authority agent who has been manipulating Rodin for years, playing with Rodin’s life for his own suspicious ends.
To the south of the Dome, Authority relentlessly push Genna back, forcing a retreat into the heart of her district. Soon, she will be surrounded and outgunned. But there’s one man who could help‌—‌the same man who once betrayed her, who was responsible for the near-destruction of her district, who stood by and watched as she was tortured close to death.

With so many lives at stake, can Rodin and Genna do the unthinkable and work with their enemies?

Fading Control (Dominions VII) is out now

The start of the end is here! Fading Control is now available to purchase, through all the usual places. Grab it now for 99c (or your local equivalent), but be quick – the price goes up in a few days.

They might have won the battle, but the war is only just starting.


Rodin heads west, into a fractured district, on the verge of collapse unless he can pull disparate forces together, once more putting his life on the line.


Cat, to the north, walks a tightrope deep within Authority, where those above him surely know of his betrayal, where he can trust nobody and nothing, where any wrong move may be his last.

And behind it all Authority moves, bringing pieces into play, dividing their enemies and preparing for victory.

Impact is out now

Cover of Impact (A Dominions Story)

Rodin has the contract under control, drawing the target in, ready for the removal. Not a simple job, but nothing too complicated.
But nothing happens in isolation, and Rodin has no idea how this contract will impact others‌—‌or himself.

Impact is a new release in the Dominions series, a set of four connected stories. It’s available from all the usual ebook stores, and is currently free*.

*If you come across a store charging for this book, please let me know (twiain@yahoo.com) and I’ll sort out a free copy for you.