Writing lessons from The Count of Monte Cristo

I was already reading The Count of Monte Cristo on a friend’s recommendation when I signed up for a “read like a writer” challenge on Gabriela Pereira’s DIY MFA website. The challenge suggested we dedicate a notebook to the project, and gave us ten prompts for examining our chosen book with an eye towards improving our own writing. CofMC turned out to be a great choice—all except its length, which meant I was nowhere near the end by the time the challenge was over.

Warning – this blog post is riddled with spoilers for the book.

Reading The Count of Monte Cristo

The blurb on the abridged Enriched Classic version calls the story a “thrilling adventure of one man’s quest for freedom and vengeance on those who betrayed him.” The unabridged Penguin Classics blurb suggests a deeper meaning: “On what slender threads do life and fortune hang.”

All-around good guy Edmond Dantès is wrongfully accused of a political crime and ends up in a dungeon for 14 years. After his escape, he tracks down the people responsible so he can get his revenge—not simply killing them, which would be too easy on them, but making them suffer as he did.

As a reader, I was fascinated and drawn into the story, all 1,243 pages of it. I was horrified at what happened to Dantès in the beginning…but once he escaped and began his revenge, I was equally horrified by what he did. Dantès believed himself to be Providence, the embodiment of justice, doling out rewards and punishments. The dividing line between who deserved those fates wasn’t innocence or guilt, but friendship with Dantès. 

My review on Goodreads gives the book 5 stars for readability but discusses at length my disagreement with some of the author’s choices. These weren’t choices about the writing, but about what happens in the story, how it’s resolved, and whether the characters including Dantès deserved the endings they got. The emotions the book inspires, 170 years after it was first published, and the life in the characters, far removed from our own world, suggest that I can learn a lot about writing from Alexandre Dumas.

A character to root for

Gabriella says one of the promises books make in the beginning is a character to root for. Given that by the end of the book, our hero has been responsible for several innocent deaths and a variety of other terrible consequences, how does the author keep us engaged?

  • He gives us a thoroughly good character at the beginning. Edmond Dantès is a fine lad in every respect, as shipowner Morrel says.
  • He makes us sympathize with Edmond’s plight, accused of a crime and unfairly imprisoned because of one man’s professional jealousy, another’s romantic envy, and a third’s selfish concern for his own position.
  • He gives us a ‘moral vacation’ – we can root for Edmond’s revenge, thinking about the people who’ve done us wrong.
  • He makes Edmond’s new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo interesting, à la James Bond or Batman. He’s brilliant, invulnerable, admired, confident, and infinitely wealthy.
  • He shows us the count helping now-impoverished Morrel and his family, rescuing young Albert from Roman bandits, and saving Valentine’s life when her stepmother tries to poison her.
  • He provides glimmers of introspection that suggest in the end, the count will find redemption. 
  • He lets us spend time with other characters who are more sympathetic, like Albert and Maximilien, giving us a break from the count’s misanthropy.
  • He stays outside the count’s head, for the most part. The narration is omniscient third person, so we do get various people’s thoughts from time to time, including the count’s, but it’s not a steady bitter stream that might turn us off on the character.  

Portraying a complicated world

The book’s setting is complex and unfamiliar. It’s been a couple hundred years, and it’s France. Politics are messy, and the way money works is indescribably foreign.Yet the reader needs to at least have a sense of both to understand why Edmond ends up in prison and how his revenge plots work. How does the author convey these things?

  • He drops hints in the dialogue, like when the plotters are discussing how to bring him down: “…if someone were to denounce him to the crown prosecutor as a Bonapartist agent…”
  • He includes documents, like the letter the plotters write to the prosecutor, that lay things out more clearly.
  • He uses dramatic language to draw our attention. “If a bolt of lightning had struck Villefort, it could not have done so with greater suddenness or surprise. He fell back into the chair and drew out the fatal letter, on which he cast a look of unspeakable terror.”
  • He makes the hero as ignorant as we are. Edmond himself doesn’t understand why he’s been thrown into prison; the wise Abbé Faria explains it to him. 
  • He uses straightforward summary exposition in the narrative. There’s no need for us to see all the dramatic events that put Napoleon back in power for 100 days and then put the king back on the throne—all we care about is whether Edmond will get out of prison. Dumas gives us a couple of pages of this, keeping it from feeling like a history book by mentioning what the characters we know are doing, and then dives back into the action with a scene showing how Villefort’s refusal to act keeps Edmond in the Chateau d’If.
  • He uses dialogue again to help us understand the money. The count has an unlimited letter of credit, whatever that is. The lengthy conversation with banker Danglars shows at least vaguely what that means, while at the same time illustrating how enormously wealthy the count is now: Danglars proposes he could even give the count a million, and the count pulls a million in cash out of his wallet, as though to him that’s just walking-around money.

Juggling subplots

The main plot is easy to summarize: innocent man is sent to prison for 14 years, escapes, and takes revenge on the people who sent him there.

Within that main plot, we have three primary strands—one for each of the people mainly responsible for his imprisonment—and countless others, including the fiancee who didn’t wait for him, the good shipowner who tried to help, and the landlord who saw the whole thing. The primary strands are complicated by the addition of the villains’ children, who are linked by a web of marriage plans and romance. 

And then there are the tangents, the subplots. There’s a story of the Borgia pope, the Medicis, and the treasure, and how that ends up in the hands of the good Abbé Faria. Another story tells about the Roman bandit Luigi Vampa, and how he took over Cucumetto’s gang and became friendly with the count. A third tells how Haydee’s father, the Ali Pasha, was betrayed and killed, and Haydee and her mother ended up enslaved. The political context gives us other subplots, like the story of General Quesnel’s death. Altogether, there are over 100 named characters in this book, many of whom have their own stories.

With so much going on, and particularly since the book was originally published in serial form, how does the author make sure we can keep track?

  • He gives us vivid scenes that live in our imagination. Grassy fields of sheep, mysterious caves full of gleaming treasure, campfires surrounded by evil men waiting to take their turn with the captive girl, lavish opera houses full of well-dressed patrons who talk through the first act, bloodthirsty crowds gathering to see a public execution, the lonely telegraph operator in his garden.
  • He links everything to the main story, one way or another. Even General Quesnel, who seems like just a bit of historical color, turns out to have been killed in a duel with the prosecutor’s father, and that revelation destroys the prosecutor’s wedding plans for his daughter.
  • He explicitly reminds us when he thinks we might have forgotten something important, or might need help to connect the dots. “This man was our old acquaintance, Gaspard Caderousse.”
  • He doesn’t use a regular pattern of alternating between the storylines, but he doesn’t abandon any of the primary strands for more than a few chapters. For instance, Danglars (the jealous coworker) is the main focus of chapters 65-66, 70, 76, 81, and 87, among others.
  • He connects the characters to each other, so we may see them even in chapters mainly devoted to a different character. Danglars’ daughter is meant to marry Edmond’s romantic rival’s son; the prosecutor’s daughter is in love with the worthy shipowner’s son; Danglars’ wife and the prosecutor had an affair years ago and had a baby who was adopted by Caderousse’s sister-in-law.

The rules can be broken

The biggest lesson from The Count of Monte Cristo? You can break the rules, and still write a book people will love.

Plotting rules

Trying to map the book to the plot beats outlined in Save the Cat and other writing craft books was an exercise in futility. Apparently Hollywood had the same problem; all the hero’s journey analyses I found online mapped to the movie, not the book. 

Even something as basic as the three-act structure was a challenge. Here’s how I think it plays out:

Chapter 1-7: Edmond Dantès in his normal life, the plotters deciding to bring him down, and his arrest.
Chapter 8-20: Edmond is in prison, in the Chateau d’If, for 14 years.
Chapter 21-30: After escaping, Edmond finds out what’s been happening back home.
Chapter 31-82: Ten years later, Edmond has become the Count of Monte Cristo, and embarks on an elaborate plan for revenge.
Chapter 82-111: His revenge comes to fruition and the people who wronged him suffer.
Chapter 112-117: The count takes pity on one villain, finds love with his slave girl Haydee, and sails off into the sunset.
The Count of Monte Cristo in Three Acts

That’s one l-o-n-g second act, if I’ve put the breaks where they belong. 

The plot works, though. It isn’t just a series of events, but a unified story. It starts with young Edmond sailing into Marseille, and ends with a bookend image: “on the dark-blue line on the horizon that separated the sky from the Mediterranean, they saw a white sail, as large as a gull’s wing.” In between, even if the character arc isn’t quite what I wanted it to be, it’s a gripping tale.

Style rules

You can’t expect a book written in 1845 to follow the style rules that apply in 2021, and it doesn’t. Info dumping, for instance: chapter 3 starts with three paragraphs of background about the Spanish colonists who settled a little spit of land near Marseille. But I think even in a current book, this might not be flagged for cutting, because of the way it’s written. The language is colorful—“clinging to it like a flock of seabirds,” “this bare and arid promontory,” “these gypsies of the sea”—and personal to the story. It begins, “A hundred yards away from the place where the two friends, staring into the distance with their ears pricked, were enjoying the sparkling wine of La Malgue, lay the village of Les Catalans, behind a bare hillock ravaged by the sun and the mistral.” 

Dumas was paid by the line, and he certainly didn’t try to use three words when seven would do. Even though the prose might be padded, it doesn’t feel that way, except in a few sections where the count is explaining his philosophy. (These are notably absent from the abridged Enriched Classics version.) I think the difference is that things are happening in all those words—Bertuccio is hiding in a closet and the warm rain that falls on him is blood; Mme Villefort is creeping into her stepdaughter’s room to put poison in her drinking water; Andrea is lying in wait to kill Caderousse as he exits the count’s dressing room. 

Give the reader something to think about (and maybe argue about)

The Count of Monte Cristo offers more than a thrilling tale of revenge. At the outermost level, we can imagine what it would be like for us to suffer alone in a dungeon, and then how it would be to have that bottomless treasure, and how it would feel to take revenge on the people who’ve wronged us. But as we see that “fine lad,” Edmond Dantès, become the cruel vengeful count, watch him torment even the people he helps to see if they’ve become “unhappy enough to deserve happiness,” and follow him as he visits the sins of the fathers on their children, claiming to be the agent of God, we begin to think deeper thoughts. What is justice? Can the count be redeemed after he commits so many terrible acts? Could the villains have escaped their fates if they had lived better lives after what they did to Edmond? What about the women—Mercedes, who’s destined for a convent; Haydee, who fell in love with her possessor; Valentine, the ideal woman in the eyes of male romantics; and Eugenie, who got her happy ending with her girlfriend—did they deserve their fates? Did the count do enough to earn his happy ending?

I’m glad to have read The Count of Monte Cristo at long last. There are many more lessons for writers to be found within those pages. If you’ve read it or had a similar experience with another classic, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.