I’ve always been a fan of classic movies. “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “Gaslight,” “Rear Window.” Talk about building suspense. The classics definitely knew how to do it.
I’m a visual writer, so I need a scene to play out in my mind before I can put it into words. But to build suspense, it’s not just about the words. It’s how much to show and how much to leave to the readers’ imaginations. I like to call it my Alfred Hitchcock approach.
Hitchcock was a master at this. He knew how to keep his audience in a heightened state of anxiety. He once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
In the movie, “Rear Window,” Jimmy Stewart’s character, Jeff, is confined to a wheelchair with a heavy cast on his leg and nothing to do but watch residents in the building across the courtyard. Suddenly, he’s convinced he’s witnessed a murder, though he didn’t see it happen. Neither have we. Hitchcock brilliantly keeps it from us, reeling out only pieces of information. By now, we’re feeling as trapped in Jeff’s POV as he’s feeling in his apartment. Our nerves—along with Jeff’s—are tripwire-tight. We can feel his panic and terror, and yet, we still haven’t seen any blood or a dead body.
Building that sort of suspense on the page is a challenge. But it involves the same techniques. I set the scene early on. Drop breadcrumbs. Signal the threats ahead. Build the tension little by little. Let the readers in on some risks that the characters don’t yet know. Then I raise the pulse of the characters, and by extension, the readers. Quicken the pace. Tighten the nerves. I bring the readers right to the ledge…and I leave them there. Leave them to their own imaginations.
If done correctly, the readers’ imaginations take them to places, fears and emotions that I might never be able to put into words. I don’t need to. I just need to trigger their response.
On a lighter side, heightening the suspense isn’t the only thing Hitchcock inspired in my writing.
During my first book tour, I mentioned my love of classic movies to a radio host in Windsor, Ontario. He suggested I do cameos in my books like Hitchcock did in many of his films. We joked about it, but it made an impression on me.
After some research, I discovered Hitchcock considered his cameos a symbol of authorship. I liked the idea of leaving a mark inside my novels, even if it was just for me.
Hitchcock’s first appearance was only because he was strapped for extras. Later the gimmick became so popular he worried audiences would get distracted looking for him, so he appeared in the first minutes of the film.
I certainly didn’t want mine to be a distraction. I didn’t even want it to be noticed, but it did need to fit into each novel. My first job I waited tables in a small diner. I figured I could put a waitress in with little notice. Of course, I couldn’t be so obvious by naming her Alex. Instead, I chose Rita. Honestly, I don’t remember why. I didn’t know anyone named Rita, and that was probably reason enough. And so, with the exception of my first, every single novel has a waitress named Rita.
Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, I know how to lead readers to the bang and leave my stamp on it, too.
As a reader, have you noticed any writer’s signature element? As a writer, have you done it yourself?
What a great analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s skill at building tensions in his movies. I too am a great fan of the old films and would add “Vertigo” to your list of favorites! I’ve never put “myself” into one of my novels, but I do use family names for the various characters. As for your great mysteries, with all of your research, it’s easy to see why they have hit the bestseller lists! Thanks for a most thought-provoking blog!
Karna, that’s a great idea to use family names. And Tosca, what fun that must have been for your sister!
I love this post! So eye-opening to think about what leads up to the “bang” and not just the bang itself! As someone who loves to write, but hasn’t written a novel or anything, I love to see tips and advice like this!
After reading this post, I sort of think giving the characters emotions that the readers can feel and experience themselves relates to a dog handler with their dog. Emotion runs down the leash. 😉 So let the character feel and show their emotions, and in turn, the reader will feel those as well!
Katey, I never thought about using “Emotion runs down the leash” as an author/character/reader experience, but that is such a good way to look at it.
I love this running cameo, Alex! I wrote an appearance for me and my little sister into my first novel and didn’t tell her—and she recognized us on her own after I’d forgotten I’d done it. So fun!
I love this idea!! The only real person who’s appeared in my books was my ex-coworker Carol, who’s the DNA analyst in the Gardiner & Renner series. She was a perfect character to be a character, I suppose!
I will have to figure out a way to work myself into my books.
I love the idea of an author’s signature element gracing each book. I haven’t done this in the past, but I plan to going forward. Great blog, Alex. Welcome.
Thanks, Chris! For me the trick really was that I didn’t care whether or not the readers noticed. Sometimes it’s nice to have a treat tucked inside just for us. I hope you have some fun with it.