7 Suspenseful steps for writing Successful Thrillers like The 39 Steps

Step 1. Use a MacGuffin to propel the plot

A MacGuffin, which Hitchcock described as the red herring or engine of the story, is the object around which the plot revolves and motivates the actions of the characters. Often a MacGuffin is central to thrillers, spy stories, and adventures. Most of the characters in the story will base their actions on the MacGuffin, although the final result will usually be of greater significance than actually getting, controlling or destroying the MacGuffin. In The 39 Steps, the MacGuffin is the secret formula inside Mr. Memory’s head which the foreign spies are after, but the audience aren’t really too bothered about. They are more interested in the blossoming love story between Robert Donat’s character Richard Hannay and the heroine Pamela played by Madeline Carroll. In Notorious, the MacGuffin is the uranium ore inside the wine bottles, and in North by Northwest, it is the Colombian statue that holds the secret microfilm.

Step 2. Keep a Suspenseful Plot Moving

Locations are very important in The 39 Steps, not only for locale but to drive the plot. Hitchcock often likened his films to a rollercoaster ride. The sudden switches of location were very important to keep the viewer entertained and the atmosphere suspenseful. The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock’s favourite films because of the rapid and sudden switches in location. Once the train leaves the station, the film never stops moving. Such movements takes time to plan out, especially to blend the characterization with the action. Halfway through, the lead character Richard Hannay leaps out of a police station window with half a handcuff on, and immediately walks into a marching Salvation Army band. To escape the police, he marches with the band, then slips into a public hall, and ends up on oratory platform and is mistaken for an oratory speaker. The rapid movement from one scene to another, and using one idea after another, keeps the viewer or reader hooked. The sudden switches of location in a chapter are also very important to keep the reader entertained and the atmosphere suspenseful. 

Step 3. Use locations for suspense

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. Never use a setting simply as background. Use it 100%. Hitchcock loved public and everyday places where chaos can erupt at any moment, such as the oratory public hall in The 39 Steps and the London Palladium which ends the story.

When writing your locations, think how they can be used dramatically. The first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was filmed in Switzerland, and the opening was based on Hitchcock’s frequent trips to St. Moritz. He thought about what there was in Switzerland and decided that everything in the film should be relevant to the country. A chocolate factory turned out to be a nest for spies, the lakes were used for drowning, the Alps for people falling off and the chocolate for choking on. In Foreign Correspondent, the use of the windmills is a good example of using your locations dramatically. The windmills in the movie aren’t just scenery, they become part of the plot–a windmill is turning the wrong way as a signal as to where a person is being held captive.

Hitchcock often set action against strong, famous landmarks, such as the United Nations, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Piccadilly Circus. They are combined with his best set pieces. Blackmail features a chase from the dome of the British Museum. The climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much takes place at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Saboteur atop the Statue of Liberty and North by Northwest on Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock enjoyed placing his characters in great danger in symbols of order and great institutions.

Step 4. Use props for suspense

As well as using your locations to build suspense, use your props also. The most classic prop in The 39 Steps are the handcuffs, which bind Richard Hannay and Pamela together as they are chased across the Scottish moors. When the handcuffs come off, there’s a lovely image at the end of the film, when their hands join together in unison to show the arc and growth their characters have gone through.  In the Cold War thriller Torn Curtain, Paul Newman’s character uses all the instruments available in a domestic kitchen to try and kill the spy Gromek, finally settling on a gas oven. Frenzytakes place against a backdrop of Covent Garden’s fruit market. When the villain 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, the police discovered a trail that will lead them to the true criminal. So the market really functioned as a character in that film.

Step 5. Avoid clichéd stereotypes

Characters in Hitchcock’s films often fall into types. Robert Donat’s character Richard Hannay sets the template for the wrongfully accused man in The 39 Steps. Other such films are the The Wrong ManNorth by Northwestor Frenzy. The serial killer or psychopath to counterpoint the wrongfully accused man is often seen as charming. One central rule is to avoid clichéd writing characters and stereotypes.  “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. “In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Very often you see the murderer in movies made to be a very unattractive man. I’ve always contended that it’s a grave mistake, because how would he get near his victim unless he had some attraction?”

In The 39 Steps, the leader of the spies is missing the top joint of his little figure, but otherwise he is debonair and charming. Evil is attractive. Hitchcock has given us some of the most memorable villains such as Ray Milland in Dial M for Murder, or James Mason in North by Northwest. That’s because he avoided the cliché through character and made his villains handsome and seductive.

Step 6. Crosscut scenes for suspense

Hitchcock used crosscutting to evoke suspense. Crosscutting your scenes for suspense is the juxtaposition of scenes of parallel action, and by rapidly cutting between scenes taking place in different locations, communicates to the reader that the action is happening simultaneously. Think of a chase scene where a man is being chased by another man. The most common and effective use of crosscutting is in scenes of horror. In such instances, the protagonist whom the viewer identifies with, and the threat are presented in tandem. This way, the audience knows information that the protagonist doesn’t and find themselves in a state of anxiety about the plight of the character. The 39 Stepsis full of cross cutting scenes between Robert Donat’s character Richard Hannay, and the police and the spies who are chasing him.

Step 7. Involve Your Reader in the Suspense

The 39 Steps marvelously involves us in the predicament of the central characters, often by giving the audience more information than the characters. It goes back to giving the reader information and anxieties. When Madeline Carroll’s character Pamela overhears the foreign spies talking, what will she do now that she knows that Robert Donat’s character is actually telling the truth? Two-thirds of the way through Vertigo, the audience discovers that Madeleine and Judy are in fact the same person. Hitchcock was first criticized for revealing the plot twist early, but the result is actually much more suspenseful, as the audience is asking what will James Stewart’s character do when he finds out? You don’t always have to save your twist until the end of the book, sometimes it’s more suspenseful to reveal the twist earlier on. 

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