Monthly Archives: May 2015

Writing Like Alfred Hitchcock by Tony Lee Moral

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.

Writing Like Alfred HitchcockHitchcock’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 Steps by John Buchan, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, and The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by 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, Psycho and 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.

Tony Lee Moral is a documentary filmmaker and author of three books on Alfred Hitchcock, (including ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass’  published by Michael Wiese Books) and specializes in mystery and suspense. His novel ‘Playing Mrs Kingston’ has just been published by Zhamae Press.

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Creating Your Character Mix Using Temperament Theory by Phil Lowe

After last month’s look at what drives your character, this time we’re back to the fundamentals of personality, thanks to an old chestnut that goes right back to the ancient Greeks – the idea that the human race can be divided into four temperaments (“temperament” being defined here as “a configuration of observable personality traits”). The most famous four-way classification came from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who believed that an imbalance of bodily fluids (hold the “ewww”s, we’re not going there) caused each of us to be one of Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic or Sanguine.

Character mix - Four temperamentsIn the 1970s David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates popularised temperament theory by linking it to arguably the most widely used personality questionnaire, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (also a favourite of writers). Presumably because of some drama of their own, Keirsey and Bates went their separate ways; for our purposes I’m going to use the terminology from the former’s most recent work on the subject. As always, think about a character or group of characters you’re working on as we take a whistle stop tour of the four temperaments.

The Guardian: Guardians see themselves as dependable, loyal, and hard working. They are “good citizens”, conservatives (with a small “c”) who respect authority and like structure. In a relationship they are supportive, as leaders they go for stability. George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life is a great example of a Guardian protagonist, holding tradition and community together in the face of a greedy antagonist.

The Artisan: Artisans, like Guardians, dwell in the real world, but are constantly changing it rather than preserving it; they tend to take a playful, sometimes unconventional approach to what they do, and are prone to spontaneous and impulsive behaviour. They make great troubleshooters and adaptable companions. The narrative energy in Far From The Madding Crowd comes from Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) trying to remain an Artisan in a world which expects women to be Guardians. She shuns convention, and behaves with an inconsistency which confounds the men in her life.

The Idealist: Ideas rather than reality are the concern of Idealists, and the ideas they work with are to do with the growth and development of people and society. They work from intuition and are happy dwelling on deep philosophical questions about the nature of existence – so they can be intense as friends or lovers. Where the Artisan will take you on an unexpected but practical journey, the Idealist will take you on a limitless spiritual one. Tom Hollander’s eponymous character in Rev and Giselle (Amy Adams) in Enchanted both demonstrate the Idealist’s struggle to bring harmony and optimism to the grimy imperfect world they inhabit.

The Rational: Problem solvers, lovers of complexity, seekers after knowledge – the Rationals share with the Idealists an impulse to turn away from the here and now, but in the Rationals’ case it’s in order to build logical theories and models. The old joke (don’t get too excited) about a scientist who takes apart a thing that works in practice to make sure it works in theory (OK, you can stop guffawing now) could have been said of a Rational, who is likely to be ingenious, sceptical and independent. They don’t have to be maverick, but in drama they often are: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) in Age Of Ultron allows his quest for scientific perfection to get in the way of his fellow superheroes’ unity.

Fictional characters are not interesting in themselves, but become interesting when they rub up against other characters who are not like them. And this is where temperament theory can give you a quick and simple way of testing the variety of your character mix, since the last thing you want is a group of characters seeing the world the same way. I’ve been thinking about the BBC series W1A, and how skilfully writer John Morton subtly differentiates characters who at first glance are all doing the same thing – talking bollocks and passing the buck.

In a typical meeting scene, the obvious Guardian is Neil Reid (David Westhead), rejecting anything that isn’t practical; but Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) also acts as a Guardian, aiming to build consensus and make things work in practice. Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) plays a largely Artisan role, spontaneously introducing new schemes and threatening the existing order. Purists might say she doesn’t dwell sufficiently in the real world to be a true Artisan; an alternative candidate is Lucy Freeman (Nina Sosanya), the producer who will always pull a creative but implementable idea out of the hat. The resident Rational is Anna Rampton (Sarah Parish) whose laser stare is generally followed with a focused demolition of a proposal; and the Idealist in the perennial meeting is Simon Harwood (Jason Watkins), totally divorced from the real world but relentlessly positive in taking everyone somewhere nebulous. Outside of the meeting room, hapless intern Will (Hugh Skinner) is also an Idealist, totally impractical but always looking for a chance to bond.

The joy of being a writer rather than a psychologist is you aren’t trying to help characters make the best of their personal traits; until we get to Act Three, we’re far more interested in characters bringing out the worst of their temperaments. It could be through comic exaggeration, as in W1A; or through meeting opposition from a different temperament: a Guardian trying to get an Idealist to be pragmatic, or a Rational trying to cope with an Artisan’s unpredictable spontaneity. Remember, there are more than four types of people in the world, so be careful of cliche; but if you have four main characters and are looking for a starting point to differentiate them, temperament theory can be a lifesaver.

For more on David Keirsey’s work on temperament, visit www.keirsey.com.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.