Inspiring Alfred Hitchcock
How to write a novel that may inspire Alfred Hitchcock by Tony Lee Moral.
When looking for source materials for his thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock often turned to novels and short stories from established writers like John Buchan, Maxwell Anderson, Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith.
So when writing my latest novel, Playing Mrs. Kingston, I was inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, particularly those source novels he 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 believed the formula for an exciting story is to find a single problem, which is sufficiently enthralling to hold the attention of the audience while the story unfolds. When writing my novel, I paid particular attention so that the reader will be invested in Catriona’s predicament from the start. They’d ask questions such what will happen when Miles’ family find out that she’s not really Mrs. Kingston? Will the Detective catch Catriona? Will Leiobesky expose her to the Kingston family? Will Mario go to jail? All of these questions arise from a single problem that Catriona is pretending to be someone she is not.
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 audience information so that they become anxious. A good murder mystery states in the opening three chapters the book’s central theme and dilemma. I write about these principles of suspense building in my book Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass, which I applied when writing my novel.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass is published by Michael Wiese Books
Catriona, my novel’s central character, resembles the duplicitous blondes of Hitchcock’s films from Madeleine Carroll to Grace Kelly. The wrongfully accused man was a subject Hitchcock repeatedly returned throughout his career from The 39 Steps to Frenzy, and is reflected in Catriona’s boyfriend Mario. And the serial killer or psychopath has long fascinated Hitchcock ever since The Lodger through to Psycho, he becomes my novel's chief villain.
I also needed a MacGuffin, which Hitchcock described as the red herring or engine of the story, the object around which the plot revolves and motivates the actions of the characters. In Notorious, the MacGuffin is the uranium ore inside the wine bottles, and in North by Northwest, it is the statue that holds the secret microfilm. In the case of Playing Mrs. Kingston, the MacGuffin is the stolen artwork that drives the story.
Locations are very important in Hitchcock’s films, not only for locale but to drive the plot. Hitchcock loved public and everyday places where chaos can erupt at any moment. Similarly I set my novel in New York’s trendiest restaurants, hotel lobbies, theatres, art galleries and ball rooms. I place Catriona in theatrical situations, like the Whitney Gallery, the Metropolitan Opera House, and other Hitchcockian motifs such as wine cellars and spiraling staircases.
As well as locations, Hitchcock believed in using props dramatically, such as the famous gas oven in Torn Curtain. I literally borrowed the dressmaker’s scissors from Dial M for Murder, for one of the killings in my book, which is fitting since Catriona is very much involved in costume and high fashion.
Most of all, Hitchcock loved a good yarn, he described his films as a rollercoaster ride or a trip to the funhouse. I made sure I had a lot of fun when writing Playing Mrs. Kingston.