Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Tony Lee Moral is the author of three books on Alfred Hitchcock: Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie; The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass. His new novel, a Hitchcockian suspense mystery, Ghost Maven, is published by Cactus Moon Publications.
When plotting my new novel Ghost Maven, I could find no greater inspiration for my mystery and suspense than the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was dubbed the ‘Master of Suspense’ for good reason. He pioneered many techniques in the suspense and thriller genre, but his general approach applies to all types of genres, not only stories that are explicitly suspenseful.
It’s been my good fortune to have something of a monopoly on the genre. Nobody else seems to have taken much interest in the rules for suspense.
– Alfred Hitchcock
His films were full of macguffins, serial killers, secrets, and spies, but we can also observe subtler devices at work and incorporate them into our own writing. Here, then, are seven secrets to remember when writing suspense.
Secret 1: Remember the ticking bomb
Give your reader information. You can’t expect a reader to have anxieties if they have nothing to be anxious about. If you tell the reader that there’s a bomb in the room and that it’s going to go off in five minutes, that’s suspense.The difference between mystery and suspense is how much the reader knows in advance.Click To Tweet
Suspense is an emotional process that drives the narrative and invites readers to keep turning pages. Mystery, on the other hand, is more of an intellectual process, like a whodunnit.
Secret 2: Use counterpoint and contrast
“Suspense doesn’t have any value unless it’s balanced by humor,” said Hitchcock, who was famous for his macabre sense of humor. In Frenzy, Hitchcock liked the extremes between comedy and horror, and used humor to great effect between the chief inspector and his wife. “I invented the chief inspector’s wife so as to permit myself to place most of the discussion of the crime outside a professional context,” said Hitchcock. “And I get comedy to sugar-coat the discussions by making the wife a gourmet cook. So this inspector comes home every night to discussion of the murders over very rich meals.” Comedy can make your writing more dramatic and give your reader a chance to reflect on the suspense.
Secret 3: Write subtext
Good writing is subtext rather than on-the-nose dialogue. Much of the dialogue in Hitchcock’s best screenplays, such as Notorious, Rear Window and North by Northwest, is indirect, with layers of hidden meaning. Nobody says anything straight, and the dialogue is oblique.
Establishing stakes and context early makes writing subtext a piece of cake. Click To Tweet
In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant talk about a chicken dinner, and who is going to wash the dishes after, but the subtext is really Grant’s preoccupation with asking Bergman to marry another man so she can spy on him. The real theme of Notorious is the conflict between love and professional duty, but Hitchcock finds a way to express this without being too direct.
Secret 4: Never use a setting simply as background
Use locations 100%. Hitchcock was adamant that the backgrounds must be incorporated into the drama and made it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with a location. In Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock used windmills, which are famous in Holland. But they aren’t just scenery, they become a pivotal part of the plot – a windmill is turning the wrong way as a signal as to where a person is being held captive. When writing my locations, I also thought how they could be used dramatically and how they would advance the plot.Give your setting a job; it needs to pull its weight or be replaced.Click To Tweet
Secret 5: Use locations for contrast
At the same time, avoid the obvious in your locations, such as staging a murder in a dark alleyway or at night. Hitchcock loved contrast, and he would often stage his most macabre scenes in the most congenial of settings, such as the murderous dinner party in Rope, or the attempted assassination of Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest, which takes place in a field lit by brilliant sunshine. This sense of the unexpected, and the idea that turmoil can erupt at any moment, will keep your readers on their guard and keep them turning pages.
Secret 6: Keep your story moving
The same could be true for narrow stairways and high towers. In North by Northwest, Hitchcock wanted to stage a scene on Mount Rushmore, and like The 39 Steps, wrote a quick succession of scenes that led up to the exciting denouement. Similarly, I start my novel with a quick succession of chapters, with locations and settings that will be crucial for the action later on. This literal change of scenery can introduce key ideas while also establishing a sense of pace.Suspense and pace are interwoven, so keep your events (and characters) moving.Click To Tweet
Secret 7: Avoid the cliché
Whether it’s in character or plot, avoid the stereotype. Hitchcock has given us some of the most memorable villains to grace the screen. That’s because he avoided the cliché through character and made his villains, like Brandon in Rope, or Bob Rusk in Frenzy, attractive. “All villains are not black, and all heroes are not white. There are grays everywhere. You can’t just walk down Fifth Avenue and say he’s a villain and he’s a hero. How do you know?” said Hitchcock. Make your villains attractive so they can get near their victims, or find another way to subvert the expectations of an experienced, canny reader.
Writing great suspense
Hitchcock followed these secrets of suspense to create a recipe which he used again and again to create stories which have stood the test of time, and many (like North by Northwest and Vertigo) are often polled as the greatest films of all time.
Remember, though, that he didn’t do it all in the first draft. It takes time to distill great suspense – maybe you’ll need a solid plot outline before you can bring setting into the mix, or to write a straight-forward version of a scene before you can convert it to subtext. Rest easy that Hitchcock worked the same way, and the reader will be just as impressed no matter how many drafts it takes to nail your suspense.
What elements of Hitchcock’s work do you love and want to use in your writing? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more on writing great suspense, check out 5 Popular Misconceptions About Story Pacing, or check out How To Make The Reader Trust Your Villain for some very Hitchcockian advice.