As the author of three books on Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, including a ‘how to’ write a thriller, called Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass, I was naturally inspired by his stories when writing my mystery thriller, Ghost Maven, about a teenage girl who falls in love with a ghost in Monterey Bay, California.
Hitchcock often outlined the difference between mystery and suspense. Whereas mystery is an intellectual process, like a ‘who dunnit’, suspense is an emotional process that involves the audience or reader. In all suspense you must give the reader information otherwise they will have nothing to be anxious about.
If you tell the audience that there is a bomb in the room and that it’s going to go off in five minutes, that’s suspense. Hitchcock knew how to mix the ingredients of suspense so that emotional tension became almost unbearable. “We’re sitting here talking,” said Hitchcock in an interview. “And we don’t know there’s a bomb hidden inside your tape recorder. The public doesn’t know either, and suddenly the bomb explodes. We’re blown to bits. Surprise, but how long does it last, the surprise and horror? Five seconds no more.” The secret Hitchcock maintained, was to let the audience in on the secret, the ticking bomb. In that way, instead of five seconds of surprise, you’ve created five minutes of suspense.
In the same way, I sometimes gave more information to the audience than the central characters to keep the suspense going in my novel. For example, when Alice climbs the Point Pinos lighthouse with Henry, the reader knows that something terrible may happen, but Alice doesn’t. Good suspense should actively involve the audience in the telling of the story to keep them turning pages.
Although Hitchcock was the master of suspense movies, his general approach to storytelling applies to all types of genres, not only films that are explicitly suspenseful. Traditional films that share elements of suspense and manipulation of information to create suspense include dramas, action adventures and romantic dramas.
Hitchcock often likened his films to a rollercoaster ride. The sudden switches of location were very important to keep the viewer entertained. So when writing my novel set in Monterey Bay, I made sure to keep the reader interested by rapidly changing locations around the bay. I shift the locations from the Monterey Aquarium, to Point Pinos Lighthouse, to Big Sur, and to the mysterious island.
Hitchcock believed that if you are using a unique location, it should be used to its utmost. He 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 North by Northwest, Cary Grant starts bidding crazily in an auction room to escape the heavies who are closing in on him. Later he is taken to a deserted prairie stop and is famously attacked by a crop dusting plane. Never use a setting simply as background. Use it 100%. When writing my locations, I also thought how they could be used dramatically, as the Point Pinos lighthouse twice becomes the setting for an attempted murder.
As well as locations, use your props dramatically. In Rear Window when Raymond Burr’s character, comes to James Stewart’s apartment, Stewart temporarily fends him off using strong flashbulbs from his camera. And Frenzy takes place against a backdrop of Covent Garden, a famous produce market in London. When the villain Bob Rusk hides his latest victim in a potato truck, Hitchcock uses the milieu to the fullest and it even provides the clues to solving the murder. “Thanks to the potato dust one says to oneself, that perhaps the police will discover a trail that will lead them to the true criminal.” So the market really functioned as a character in that film.
Most of all, Hitchcock relished a good yarn, he described his stories as a slice of cake, a rollercoaster ride or a trip to the funhouse. I had a great deal of enjoyment writing Ghost Maven.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass is published by Michael Wiese Books
Ghost Maven is published by Cactus Moon Publications