Bob and I just finished and released the second book in the New Adult Scandals suspense series. When Bob completes his first draft of our plot and character study, his anxiety is over. As he would say, his book “is now in the hands of the professional, the real author, to do her thing and make it read like a book.” Killer Date ramped up the suspense from book #1, Due Dates. While Due Dates had to spend a lot of time on introducing the characters and the situation, Killer Date was able to jump immediately into the case…and the romance. Once Reno, Jenny and Nick were hot on the trail, it became a race against time with a life-or-death finish.
As I neared the end of the rewrite, blow-out work and polish that I do to each book, Bob always asks, “How do you like the book?” And I always say essentially the same thing. “I can’t tell. I’m too close to it.”
This kind of got Bob wondering if that ever happened to Alfred Hitchcock, the amazing filmmaker, director and writer who will forever be known as The Master of Suspense. Much like an amateur golfer will dive into golf lessons and suddenly discover their 20 handicap can’t be improved without first tearing apart every aspect of their existing game, Bob explored how Hitchcock managed to improve the genre with each film.
The first thing Bob’s research discovered was this quote that clearly justifies how I feel when I finish a book. Hitchcock admitted to an interviewer, “It’s only after a picture is done that one can judge it properly.”
Sort of sounds like “I can’t tell. I’m too close to it.” Right? Maybe I’m on the right track. But while my books pulse with suspense, they always have a touch of humor. What would Hitchcock say about that?
He was credited to having said “In the mystery and suspense genre, a tongue-in-cheek approach is indispensable.”
Many have said that his films were the equivalent of a roller coaster ride in which the passengers scream wildly on the way down but laugh when the ride rolls to a stop. He also said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible” and that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” I love roller coasters, and I love Hitchcock. Now I understand why I my characters always have a sense of humor, even when they’re knee-deep in blood.
So blog fans, let’s look at the five most commonly found elements of humor buried in the foundation of Hitchcock’s stories. He found a way to make his suspense unbearably fun for his audiences in five ways.
I appreciate the work of Bays J. M., 2007, Humor: Hitchcock’s Secret Weapon, Borgus Productions, <http://borgus.com/hitch/hitch-humor.htm> in providing this information.
Exploit trivial character traits
“I’ve always found that, in a moment of crisis a person invariably does something trivial,” said Hitchcock, “like making a cup of tea or lighting up a cigarette. A small detail of this sort adds considerably to the dramatic tension of the situation (Gottlieb, 1997).”
Create situations of irony
In the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “One More Mile to Go” (1957, directed by Hitchcock) a policeman has stopped a man because of a burned out tail light on his car, completely unaware there is a dead body in the trunk. The more obsessed this policeman gets with fixing the light, the more uneasy the murderer gets. Hitchcock pushes this situation to the level of unbearable absurdity as the policeman continues worrying about the light, and gets closer and closer to noticing the body.
Surround drama with a happy setting
“The more happy-go-lucky the setting, the greater kick you get from the sudden introduction of drama,” said Hitchcock. (Gottlieb, 1997)
One of the best examples of Hitchcock’s use of whimsical environment is in The Trouble With Harry (1955). All is normal in this small town with grassy meadows, sunshine, and orange autumn leaves, until a dead body shows up. Harry Warp becomes everyone’s problem – what can be done about Harry?
“It’s the juxtaposition of the norm, of the accurate average, against the fantasy… that’s what makes the thing interesting.”
Include a burlesque character
One of Hitchcock’s characters must never take murder seriously, mocking it in full delight. The most memorable is probably Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) getting laughs around the family dinner table figuring out various ways to murder without getting caught. The shocking sense of humor often disturbs and confuses a gullible person nearby, unsure of whether they are serious. In Stangers on a Train (1951) Robert Walker teaches a woman at a party how to strangle someone, and she gets quite a laugh out of it. In Rope (1948) Constance Collier laughs hysterically at Rupert’s (James Stewart) idea of murdering people for sport. In Rear Window (1954) Thelma Ritter is having a great thrill out of the possibility of a murder across the courtyard.
Balance laugh and tension
Hitchcock used a delicate combination of tension and relief in his suspense sequences. Often a laugh was inserted at a key point to release some tension. “…when you have comic relief, it’s important that the hero as well as the audience be relieved,” said Hitchcock. (Gottlieb) This assures that the audience maintains sympathy for the character.
North By Northwest (1959) is one of the best examples of the use of humor involving a chase. Early in the film Cary Grant is intoxicated and becomes comical as he nearly drives off a cliff. He looks down over the edge and laughs drunkenly as he pulls away. Later when he is held by captors at a public auction he becomes a heckler in order to get picked up by the police.
From the suspense master who really knew people well and who said “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture,” there are three interesting questions that will not be answered here.
- Obviously we find suspense to be very appealing. What is so appealing about uncertainty? In our everyday life uncertainty is anything but an inherently pleasant experience.
- If suspense is uncertainty, then why is it possible to enjoy seeing a movie or reading a book more than once? Have you ever read a book two or more times or sat down and watched the same film more than once? You already saw the movie, you know what is going to happen, but were you still sitting on the edge of your seat. How can this be?
- Why is it that we can care so much about the fate of a movie or book hero that we know perfectly well does not exist?
I can’t give you the answers, but it should be in your book. I try very hard for it to be in all of mine.
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