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?
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.