Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) has for a long time been my favorite film director. I’ve taught two classes in the past about his work. I’ve studied his many films over and over again, particularly Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. I find his storytelling techniques absolutely fascinating, and I do think much of his advice translates to writing fiction.
Here are six quotes to ponder as you work on your next writing project…
1. “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
I thought about this quote all the time when I made my short films during and after college, and I certainly think about it a lot now when I write my fiction — particularly my works of suspense. Since 2015 I have written five novel-length works of horror and thriller, and keeping this quote in the back of my mind has worked wonders.
There is no terror in the bang, only shock. You have your monster jump out of the darkness, and your reader might flinch, might recoil, might even scream.
But then the suspense is gone. The level of interest for your reader might diminish.
The anticipation of the bang — that’s what you want to focus on, and control. The bang can come later. Hell, the bang doesn’t even have to happen.
Keep your readers in your grasp from beginning to end by making them anticipate the bang, and never let them go.
Yes, eventually you do need to show your cards. You can’t write a 300-page horror novel where the reader anticipates something for 290 pages… and in the end, you give them nothing. You do need something. Some kind of bang that resonates and that satisfies.
But be smart about how you utilize suspense in your fiction, whatever kind of genre you may write in.
2. “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”
A fantastic and memorable antagonist can make or break your story. I think long hard every time before I begin a new novel about my villain. About what he or she wants. About why he or she wants it. A lackluster villain in your story, or no villain at all, will bring it down considerably.
And if your villain is just evil for evil’s sake, that doesn’t work either. We all have our viewpoints. Our motivations. There should be a reason your antagonist is going after what he or she wants. And it should go totally against what your protagonist wants.
Great antagonists make for great drama.
They make your stories compelling from beginning to end, especially when we desperately want the protagonist to overcome the antagonist by any means necessary.
Write a great villain, and you’re already halfway there, trust me.
3. “The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.”
Alfred Hitchcock often talked about his fear of the police. As a child he was put in a jail cell for a few minutes, and it scarred him for life. He never got a driver’s license. He never drove a car. He didn’t want a policeman to ever pull him over and haul him off to jail.
So what did Hitchcock do with these fears? He put them in his films. Look at his most famous movie Psycho, in which a police officer trails poor Marion Crane as she leaves town with 40,000 dollars. Look at the themes in many of his films — an innocent man wrongfully accused.
Hitchcock shared his fears with us, and in doing so made his movies rich and memorable.
You should do the same thing for your writing. What are you afraid of? What are you deep down totally terrified of? What are you scared to talk about to other people? Share your fears in your writing. Dig deep into them. They don’t have to be obvious — like fear of death or fear of monsters.
It can be fear of abandonment. Or fear of being unloved. Whatever it is, look deep inside yourself and come up with a story that deals with those fears. Your writing will take off like you never imagined.
4. “Drama is life with the dull bits left out.”
The one thing I love about movies, especially Alfred Hitchcock movies, is that most filmmakers do away with the boring bits and give us only the parts of great drama. We don’t see the person walk out of the house, get in the car, drive across town, get out of the car, walk into the other house. We go straight from one house to the other, and the drama happening therein.
Your writing should work like this, too. A novel can be as long as you want. You don’t have the constraints of a two-hour feature film. You can describe everything in great detail. You can write dialogue scenes that go on for fifteen pages or more.
But you know what makes great writing? Cutting out the dull bits and giving us all the drama.
Just because you can put everything into your story doesn’t mean you should.
Give us only part of the conversation. Cut away from the description and get us to the heart of the scene.
You don’t have to write your novel like a screenplay, but always, always, always think about your story as if it were a movie. Would the scene in Chapter 12 be in the film adaptation? Why or why not? If you lose the scene, does the story change at all?
These are questions worth asking. When in doubt, remember that you want your story to be captivating for the reader. Anything less should be revised or removed.
5. “In films murders are always very clean. I show how difficult it is and what a messy thing it is to kill a man.”
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s weaker films, 1966’s Torn Curtain, has an extraordinary sequence. Two people attempt to murder a man, and the scene goes on, and on, and on, and on. They try everything. The villain still gets up and comes after them. It takes minutes on end for the heroes to finally put an end to him. Even though the film itself isn’t very memorable, this sequence certainly is.
And I think about it whenever I’m writing a scene in one of my novels when a character is killed. Whether it’s the protagonist, or the antagonist, or a side character — doesn’t matter.
Murder is never easy, especially if the character doing the murder has never attempted it before.
One of my recent young adult horror novels has two brothers on the run from a trio of homicidal creatures from a nightmare world, and at more than one point in the story one or both of the main characters has to take down a creature by any means necessary.
These scenes are never easy for my two protagonists. They use every weapon they can find. They struggle, and struggle some more. It takes collaboration and ingenuity for them to take down one of the villains in a gruesome and horrifying motel sequence, and even then they’re not completely certain if the evil creature is dead.
If you have a murder in your story, show the messiness of it, the difficulty of it. And show the messiness of things that aren’t murders, too. Never let something be easy for your protagonist to accomplish. The more difficult it is, the more the reader will come to be invested in your story.
6. “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”
Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed playing his audiences like a piano. Making them laugh one minute and scream the next.
You know what he also did? He made his viewers suffer. In a great way, not a bad way. In the way that compelling drama is made of, in the way that makes you want to keep watching because you have no idea where the story is headed next.
What he means by this quote is that the more your viewer, or reader, is suffering inside, from the anguish of what might happen to the main character he or she loves, from the constant suspense that never lets up, the story itself will only get better and better.
When you can’t put down a book? When it’s so captivating, and you’re so worried about what’s going to happen next?
That’s the magic of storytelling. You’re suffering for those characters you adore, but in a good way.
Don’t let you readers off the hook so easily. Don’t have long scenes where everything is fine. No drama. No conflict.
Instead, make the reader fall in love with your protagonist and then put him or her through the ringer. Make that character suffer greatly.
Hitchcock did this with Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, and Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train, and James Stewart in Vertigo, and Tippi Hedren in The Birds.
The list goes on and on. When you have a connection to the main character, you want everything to go his or her way. And when it doesn’t, when the horror comes, when the unthinkable happens, the story grabs you and never lets go.
Make the audience suffer, just like Alfred Hitchcock did, and there’s no telling the kind of amazing work you’ll be able to achieve!