Updated: Aug 4
The Story Spine of Murder on the Orient Express
(Spoilers to Murder on the Orient Express included)
Inciting Incident – This is the event that kicks off your story. The possibilities are endless, but it often begins with a strange knock at the door. In master detective stories as well as noir it is usually a client asking your sleuth to solve a case. It can also be some unusual event that has taken place and upsets the natural order. Think of Hawthorne’s arrival in the Anthony Horowitz series, featuring the author as the hapless sidekick. Horowitz’s character has endless projects to work on, but Hawthorne keeps pulling Horowitz into things that could get him killed.
Also, don’t forget to give the reader a taste of what makes your sleuth special in your opening. This is your chance to showcase the skills your sleuth will use to solve the case. Think Sherlock Holmes in Hound of the Baskervilles, when he identifies the characteristics of a visitor they missed, based on the cane he left behind.
In Murder on the Orient Express, it is Poirot’s getting called home on business and having to book passage on a crowded train.
Complication – Generally, it’s a murder, but if you opened with murder, then it can also be a ratcheting up of stakes. Solving a murder is never cut and dry. There must be complications. In Murder on the Orient Express, it’s the murder of a man on the train. Plus, the train has been stopped by a snowbank. You’re trapped on a train with a murderer. What are you going to do about it?
Crisis – How does your sleuth respond to the complication? They have to make a choice about how they’re going to approach this. What is that choice going to be? Are they going to solve the case? How are they going to go about it? If you’re Hercule Poirot, your going to investigate.
Climax – Okay, so our sleuth has decided to take the case. What actions does he take? In our Murder on the Orient Express example, this is the moment when Poirot decides to conduct a little experiment to try and read the burnt piece of paper and makes a startling discovery. Ratchett’s true identity was Cassetti, a man responsible for the kidnapping and death of a little girl.
Resolution – What does the big reveal about Cassetti mean? This is where we metabolize that information. Poirot gives us the details of the Anderson Kidnapping Case that resulted with the ransom being paid and the little girl being found murdered anyway.
Inciting Incident – For a murder mystery, this is typically when the detective begins interviewing the suspects. Our example is no different, Poirot begins to question everyone on board.
Complication – This might be a Red Herring. Perhaps, your main suspect seems to have an airtight alibi. You can also put a time constraint on solving the crime. If your determined sleuth doesn’t solve the case, will the killer strike again? Will his own life be in danger? In our main example, the complication is that several people on board are discovered to have had a reason to want Cassetti dead. That certainly complicates matters. We can’t just find the one person connected to the Anderson case and have our killer brought to light.
Crisis – How does Poirot respond to this complication? He keeps digging. He doesn’t stop until he reveals the truth about the Countess Andrenyi and her true identity.
Climax – Time for another big reveal. In the case of our main example, Poirot reveals that the smashed watch was a ruse. Our time of death was actually when he heard the initial cry. We are reminded that Cassetti didn’t speak French. So, it was actually the voice of the murderer we heard speaking to the conductor through the door. Ooohhhh.
Resolution – This is when your detective goes back over the clues at hand. In our example, Poirot hands M. Bouc a list of ten questions. Then he does what Poirot does. He sits back and uses his little gray cells to think. This is the reader’s last chance to study the clues and try to solve the crime.
Inciting Incident – This is usually the scene in a classic mystery when everyone gets called into a room. The detective is about to give us the big reveal. This is a great place for a speech in praise of the villain. Every great murder mystery has one. If you don’t believe me, look for it the next time you pick up a whodunit. Poirot calls everyone into the restaurant car and offers them two explanations to the events that have taken place.
Complication – The jig is up. Poirot knows the truth.
Crisis – How does our criminal react. Does he confess? Does he run? In the case of our main example, it’s the classic confession. Mrs. Hubbard reveals that she was the grandmother of the murdered child. In fact, everyone on board came together for the purpose of killing Cassetti.
Climax – The big reveal of how it was done. Each Passenger went through Mrs. Hubbard’s train berth and stabbed Cassetti.
Resolution – This is usually the scene where justice is done. The bad guy is taken away. In our example, it is decided that justice was already done. Agatha Christie really innovated here by twisting things around in this way. Whatever way you choose to spin it, the reader must feel that justice has been served. There is a reason, Christie chose twelve passengers and twelve stab wounds. It’s the same number of people on a jury.
I hope you found this helpful in your journey to write a masterful murder mystery. Studying the greats is an excellent way to improve your own work.
I am currently working on a Masterworks Guide to Murder on the Orient Express for Story Grid Publishing. Be sure to sign up to my email list if you would like to receive a notification when it comes out.