Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Master of Suspense

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."
~Alfred Hitchcock

Last night, I watched director's commentary on a DVD from one of my favorite movies, Somewhere in Time, and Jeannot Szwarc referenced a technique used by Alfred Hitchcock to increase the tension. According to Hitchcock, the audience must earn the right to the character's first meet, an idea that seems to be grounded more in romance than murder thrillers. When Richard Collier is finally transported back to 1912, he must endure being caught in the wrong room, ignored by the play's cast at large, barked at by the director and must dodge the advances of an amorous cast member before the audience is rewarded with the moment he first meets Elise McKenna. The technique, so simple and effective, made me wonder which of Hitchcock's other tricks might translate into the author's relationship with the reader. Here are a few tidbits:

1. The Mind of a Reader
According to Hitchcock, nothing is more important than how each scene engages an audience. Every aspect must reel them in. Characters tease and pull them along, leaving them desperately wanting more. Readers come to our pages because we provide them a safe element of danger, much like riding a rollercoaster. At the final page, a writer's greatest achievement is when the reader comes screaming into the station, smiles with delight and heads straight for the nearest bookstore to devour anything else the author has written.

2. Emotional Framing
Hitchcock often played with the audience using the "theory of proximity." His shots zoomed in on details and relaxed in far away angles, every movement a calculated control of the audience's intensity. When staging scenes, writers can use the reader's physical proximity to the characters and the character's proximity to each other to tap into that intensity.

3. Visual Storytelling
This one could be a stretch from screen to page, almost counterintuitive, but Hitchcock preferred using a succession of images or details to tell the story rather than relying on dialogue. The element of reveal, an art in itself, captured the audience far better than a hoodwinked detective laying out the pieces. In a publishing climate where the white spaces of dialogue are king, visual storytelling can give the narrative that does remain on the page greater impact.

4. Dialogue Means Nothing
"People don't always express their inner thoughts to one another," said Hitchcock. "A conversation may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person thinks or needs." He accessed this through the actor's eyes. Writers access this through subtext. The focus of a scene should never be on what the characters are actually saying. The power lies in drawing the reader's attention to everything else that shows truth.

5. Characters Break Cliche
Hitchcock always gave audiences the opposite of what they expected. Dumb blondes who were smart. Cubans with French accents. Rich criminals. Unexpected personalities cemented the bond between character and audience.

6. Two Things At Once
Another technique Hitchcock used to build tension was to have two contrasting or unrelated situations playing out simultaneously. While the reader is focused on the momentum of one, they are diverted by another. Jack Bickham cautions that while it is an effective technique to increase dramatic tension, the writer must use it sparingly to avoid frustrating the reader.

7. Exploit Trivial Character Traits
Hitchcock observed that in moments of crisis, people invariably do something trivial. Light a cigarette. Make a cup of tea. One small detail can add considerable tension and offer insight into character. The more awkward and fresh the detail, the better. Hitchcock often looked to exploit elements connected to a character's location.

8. Sunlight Abounds
Hitchcock loved the juxtaposition of the norm. He contrasted the darkness and drama of his story with settings of brightness and apparent happiness. In North by Northwest, he drops his protagonist on a sun-drenched field of wheat only to be hunted by a crop dusting plane. In this way, the drama is even more vivid and the writer avoids cliched settings.

9. Surprise and Twists
Hitchcock's rule: The story must never end the way the audience expects. Never. Lead them in one direction, then pull the rug out.

10. Humor Adds Tension
The delicious irony Hitchcock often put his characters in is his own form of humor coming through. He envisioned the worst possible thing that could go wrong for the character and built his stories from that irony.

As writers, we know most of these things, both intuitively and through the learning curve we've traveled. For me, reminders of those tiny little nuances that lay at the bottom of my bag of tricks are like a shiny, forgotten penny. Okay, maybe something that spends better, but priceless nevertheless.

"I am scared easily, here is a list of my adrenaline - production: 1: small children, 2: policemen, 3: high places, 4: that my next movie will not be as good as the last one." ~ Alfred Hitchcock

Nice to know even the greats shared that fear.

What's your favorite Hitchcock moment and why?


Charles Gramlich said...

Great advice. I love his statement about Visual storytelling. I too find it so much more powerful than dialouge after dialogue after dialogue. Good point about the telling details too.

Sandra Ferguson said...

I adore Charade. It's a movie I can watch again and again for all the nuances. He was truly a master, and how interesting that he feared, after all his success, that he would fail.

Intertesting point about the dialogue -- say one thing on the surface and another with actions, conscious and unconscious.

I really liked adding the detail of the Alex's father whittling in HARM'S WAY. It was a tiny thing, but totally ground the moment and gave insight into his father's patience personality without ever being obvious. Wow! wonder if I can manage to duplicate that feat again?

Have a great weekend, LA.

Sandra Ferguson said...

Can you tell I've been sitting at the computer too long? Sorry for the typos, honestly, you'd think I'd catch them!

Anonymous said...

Man does not live by murder alone. He needs affection, approval, encouragement and, occasionally, a hearty meal. - Alfred Hitchcock (quote seen 35 times in the theater while waiting for WALL-E to start).

However, I must disagree with one point. Visual images would certainly trump dialog in a visual medium. But words on the page?

I think a character's dialog will tell the reader more than a physical description of how they look or what they are doing.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Todd...point taken.

Maybe part of the reason beloved books don't always translate well to the screen is because of the rich writer-reader contract, a sharing of images to arrive at an ideal. The dialogue will always be the same, but the director's images steal away the interpretation.

Sandra...I've seen a lot of Hitchcock, but never Charade. I'll be sure to watch for it.

Charles...maybe I agree with Hitchcock because I'm always battling dialogue. I think 80 percent white space sacrifices a lot.

Melanie Atkins said...

What a great post, LA! I love Hitchcok, too. My two favorites are Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. I haven't seen Charade either, and will definitely look for it.

Fascinating subject...and very thought provoking. I'm thinking of it in terms of my current WIP as I type this. Thanks!!

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking on this since yesterday (more proof of the quality of LA's blog posts). Dialog done well will certainly trump flat description, and vice versa.

In both, the key might be the 'element of reveal' in item #3. Or rather what is not revealed. What is left out of the description/dialog is more telling about the characters than what is left in.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Melanie...Rear Window is one of my favorites, too.

Todd...I think you're on to something. It's probably completely situation-dependent. Thanks for your insight :)