Tag Archives: mystery

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.

Hooking Your Audience – The First Ten Pages

Everyone knows that the opening ten pages of your script are the most important because whoever is reading your script, be it a gate-keeping script reader at a production company, a potential director or a Hollywood A-lister, they are making judgements and having an instant reaction to the material.

I recently ran a competition in association with the London Screenwriters Festival for which applicants had to submit the opening ten-pages of a script. It was a real joy to read well over a hundred entries, right across the genre board and each with a different tone and style. However, the problem that seemed to occur most frequently was that those ten pages didn’t raise any questions or propel me in any way to keep reading.

You might think that unless you’re writing a thriller you don’t need to worry about hooking your audience but nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever genre your script is, it’s your job to keep your reader hooked, just as the finished film must keep its audience engaged from one scene to the next. How you do it will vary enormously from genre to genre and will depend upon your style of writing but if want to keep your reader/audience you need to find a way to make them want to know what happens next.

Of course, in the traditional hero myth this early hook is a fundamental part of the story structure and is what makes us want to know the rest of the story. We meet a flawed hero, s/he is called to action – even before we set off on the quest we are made to ask the question, will our hero accept this call to arms? When they do decide to take on the challenge we’re propelled forward by seeing the hero face an obstacle to their goal, making us ask both ‘will they overcome this?’ and ‘how will they overcome this?’. In overcoming the obstacle in front of them (answering that immediate question), a new obstacle emerges/is created, posing another question. And so on…

Thriller, Action, Adventure and Mystery are all genres that are obviously structured in this way, clearly raising questions and in answering them posing another.  Recent thriller box-office hit ‘Jack Reacher’ is a great example of an opening ten minutes that raises question after question, propelling us forward and keeping us engaged. Someone (his face unseen) positions himself with his sniper rifle and kills a number of people. Right off the bat we’re asking ‘Who is he?’ and ‘why has he done this?’.  The police quickly arrest James Barr and we wonder ‘have they got the right man?’. Then instead of confessing as they expect him to, Barr says only ‘Get Jack Reacher’. More questions – who is Jack Reacher and why does Barr want him? Then as soon as we answer the question ‘who is Jack Reacher?’ we pose a new question, ‘can the police find Reacher?’.  TV crime series work in exactly the same way – someone has been murdered and urgent questions are posed – who did it, how did they do it and why did they do it?

Adventure stories can work in the same way but sometimes you don’t want to get your protagonist onto their quest too quickly, you want to spend some time setting up their world first. You might think that if you’re not introducing your driving narrative question yet (how will our protagonist react to this adventure?) then you don’t need to worry about those opening ten pages. As long as you raise that big question in the first twenty pages you’ll be ok won’t you? No, you won’t. Scenes that simply establish a status quo are dull and do nothing to keep a reader reading or a viewer watching.

wizard of oz poster

‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a brilliant example of how, even when you’re not stating what your quest adventure is within the first ten pages, you still need to be raising questions. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ opens with Dorothy upset that Miss Gulch has hurt Toto and wants to call the sheriff. Immediately we’re asking, who is Miss Gulch and can Dorothy stop her taking Toto? Dorothy even says on page 3 “what am I going to do about Miss Gulch?”. Dorothy says she’s not afraid of Miss Gulch. Zeke tells Dorothy that the next time she sees Miss Gulch she should walk right up to her and spit in her eye (p5) thus raising another question – when Dorothy next sees Miss Gulch will she ‘spit in her eye?’! By page eight we’ve got ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and the first hint of the real question that will provide the narrative arc of the film – will Dorothy get to the place of her dreams and if she does will it be all she dreamed of? Then Miss Gulch arrives (p10) with an order to take Toto raising the same question but now much more urgently, ‘can Dorothy stop Miss Gulch taking Toto right now and if so how?’ Next we bring into play the questions ‘what will Aunt Em do?’ and ‘what will Uncle Henry do?’. The questions keep coming right up until we get to Oz and start asking new but related questions which will keep us hooked right to the end.

I’ve written before about the demands of writing in the genre of Drama and the task of hooking your audience is just as vital in this genre as it is in any other. Looking at the opening ten pages of ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ you can clearly see that each scene is designed to both establish character and situation AND crucially to raise questions. We open with Pat (Bradley Cooper) stating that he wants Nikki back – right away we’re asking, can Pat get Nikki back and what went wrong here? Then we discover he’s in a psychiatric facility so while this might answer the ‘what went wrong for Pat and Nikki’ question is poses many more questions – why is Pat here, is he coming out, how can he get Nikki back? Then we meet Pat’s mum Dolores and discover she’s taking him out against the recommendations of the doctors, which raises the question – what will the consequence be of doing this and is it wise? Now Dolores discovers that Pat has lied about Danny. Now we’re asking, how will she react and will she take Pat back to the facility? Then we go to Pat’s family home and meet his dad. We see a picture of Pat’s brother hanging on the wall and a space where another photo used to hang. We’re wondering if in that space there used to be a photo of Pat and we wonder who took it down. If it was, as we suspect, his dad, how will his dad react to Pat coming home?

As with ‘The Wizard of Oz’, what on first glance look like establisher scenes (Dorothy on the farm, Pat’s family circumstances) are actually scenes that raise questions and make us want to keep watching in order to answer those questions. In neither case have we got to the meat of the story – Dorothy isn’t in Oz, Pat hasn’t met Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) – yet within those first ten pages the writers have kept us hooked by raising question after question. If you can do the same in a way that works for your genre, your story and your characters then at the very least you’ll keep your reader reading and that, quite frankly, is half the battle!