How to write a script like Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock famously said that the three most vital elements of a film are ‘the script, the script, the script.’ He worked closely with his writers to construct the film, from the very beginning, on paper. Rarely would he take any writing credit himself, but guided his writers closely through every draft, paying attention to detail, with a preference towards telling the story through visual rather than verbal means.
Hitchcock’s preferred writing collaborators were playwrights, novelists, screenwriters, and short story writers. When looking for source materials for his thrillers, he often turned to novels and short stories from established writers like John Buchan, Maxwell Anderson, Thornton Wilder and Patricia Highsmith.
As the author of three books on 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 and screenwriters when constructing my screenplay, Playing Mrs. Kingston, which I subsequently turned into a novel. The story, set in 1950s New York, is about a woman who is asked to pretend to be a rich man’s wife, but when he is murdered, the woman’s boyfriend is accused. I was particularly inspired by those source novels Hitchcock adapted into memorable films, especially The 39 Stepsby John Buchan, Strangers on a Trainby Patricia Highsmith, and The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestreroby Maxwell Anderson. In tone, my novel resembles some of Hitchcock’s most famous movies such as Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Marnie, Rebecca, and The Wrong Man.
Hitchcock’s films follow the conventional three-act structure in stories as diverse in plot as Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest,Psychoand The Birds. In the first act, it’s setting up who the characters are and what the situation of the whole story is. The second act is the progression of that situation to a high point of conflict. And the third act is how the conflicts and problems are resolved. The third act has the highest point of conflict, just before the resolution, and it builds to a climax that is bigger emotionally than anything that has happened in the second act.
Good writing is subtext, reading between the lines, 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 meaning. Nobody says anything straight; the dialogue is oblique, but perfectly understandable. It’s more interesting to say things through a literary device and have people remember the lines. Good dialogue should have a rhythm and be full of conflict, like Guy Haines’ epic tennis match in Strangers on a Train, a verbal volley match, until someone scores the point. In my novel Playing Mrs. Kingston, there is much verbal sparring between Catriona, the protagonist, and Radcliffe, the detective, who is chasing her in a high stakes cat and mouse game.
Hitchcock always tried to tell the story in cinematic terms, not in endless talk. He was a purist and believed that film is a succession of images on the screen; this in turn creates ideas, which in turn creates emotion, which only seldom leads to dialogue. He also believed that not enough visualizing was done when writing a screenplay, and instead far too much writing dialogue. A movie writer types a lot of dialogue in his word processor and becomes satisfied with that day’s work. There is also a growing habit of reading a film script by the dialogue alone. Hitchcock deplored this method, which he saw as lazy neglect.
Effective visualizing occurs during the opening of Rear Window, an example of Hitchcock working beautifully with his scriptwriter John Michael Hayes. Hitchcock uses a succession of images of items around L.B. Jeffries’ apartment to tell the story of how he came to break his leg, why he’s in a wheelchair and what his occupation is. All this is done with the use of the visual rather than dialogue. In Hitch’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, in the scene at the Albert Hall with James Stewart and Doris Day, Hitchcock and his writer Hayes had written dialogue for Stewart to say when he chases Day up the stairs in the climatic sequence. But Hitchcock felt that without dialogues, this whole final sequence where the assassination is about to take place – of a central figure from some nameless country – would be stronger. He discovered he didn’t need dialogue at all.
What’s the difference between Mystery and Suspense? Alfred Hitchcock is here to answer
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 Windowwhen Raymond Burr’s character, comes to James Stewart’s apartment, Stewart temporarily fends him off using strong flashbulbs from his camera. And Frenzytakes 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 films as a slice of cake, a rollercoaster ride and a trip to the haunted fun house.
5 Tips for Writing Mystery and Suspense
Having written three books on the film director Alfred Hitchcock, the famed Master of Suspense, I specialise in mystery and suspense writing. I used his principles when writing my new novel The Haunting of Alice May set in Monterey Bay, California. Nearly all stories do well with suspense, no matter the genre. Suspense has largely to do with the audience’s own desires or wishes, so getting it right is a very important part of the writing process. Here are some tips when writing mystery and suspense:
1. What’s the difference between Mystery and Suspense?
Many readers become confused by the two terms. Mystery is an intellectual process like a riddle or a whodunit. In a mystery, you don’t need to answer every question, it’s important to leave some questions unresolved, so that the audience will be thinking about them at the end of the book.
Suspense on the other hand, is an emotional process, rather like a rollercoaster ride, or a trip to the haunted fun house. All suspense comes out of giving the audience information. 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.
2. Keep Your Plot Moving
In my mystery and suspense novel The Haunting of Alice May, I dive straight into the action with a kayaking trip in jeopardy, which quickly puts the central character in peril. The sudden switches of location in a book are also very important to keep the reader entertained. 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 story never stops moving. Halfway through, the lead character 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 a speaker. The rapid movement from one scene to another, and using one idea after another, keeps the viewer or reader hooked.
3. Use locations for dramatic effect
Never use a setting simply as background. Use it 100%. 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. When writing my locations, I also thought how they could be used dramatically. In The Haunting of Alice May when Alice climbs the Point Pinos Lighthouse, it twice becomes the setting for her attempted murder. Heather, the high school prom queen’s disappearance becomes the MacGuffin, a plot device that Alfred Hitchcock often used, which is the engine of the story that drives the characters in the second half of the book.
4. Use props for dramatic effect
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’s fruit market. 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, the police discovered a trail that will lead them to the true criminal. So the market really functioned as a character in that film.
5. Avoid clichéd stereotypes
One central rule is to avoid writing clichéd characters and stereotypes. 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 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. “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?”