Writing Suspense Like Alfred Hitchcock

Award-winning documentary filmmaker and author, Tony Lee Moral, offers some advice for aspiring suspense writers as he breaks down a few key techniques for writing suspense like Alfred Hitchcock. 

What suspense techniques did Hitchcock use that are applicable for fiction writers?

Hitchcock gave the audience more information than the character to create suspense, which I use in my fiction writing. He said that you can’t expect an audience to have anxieties if they have nothing to be anxious about. For example, if there’s a bomb under the table that’s going to go off in five minutes, and the reader knows but the character in the book doesn’t, that’s five minutes worth of suspense.

What’s the difference between mystery and suspense?

Hitchcock was the master of suspense and often outlined the difference between mystery and suspense. Mystery is an intellectual process, like a whodunit, whereas suspense is an emotional process. In Vertigo, the mystery is how Madeleine disappears from the McKittrick Hotel when she is being followed, but the suspense is what will happen when James Stewart’s character, Scottie, finds out that Madeleine and Judy are in fact the same person.

Could you talk about how Hitchcock used setting to advance a plot? 

Hitchcock famously used settings not merely as background but to advance the story. Some of my favorite examples are the crop duster attack on Cary Grant in North by Northwest, the use of screaming “Fire!” to escape from a theater in Torn Curtain, and the windmills turning the wrong way in Foreign Correspondent. Maybe the best use of location and plot occurs in North by Northwest when Cary Grant is surrounded by heavies at an auction. What does he do to escape? He starts bidding nonsensically so that he gets arrested. That’s a really clever use of locale to advance your plot and demonstrates the collaboration between Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Ernest Lehman.

What techniques do you use to keep readers interested and turning pages?

Writing Suspense like Alfred Hitchcock

It goes back to writing suspense, which is an emotional process, so keep your plot suspenseful. I often end each chapter with a cliffhanger so that the reader will want to read just one more chapter. Mystery, on the other hand, is an intellectual process like a whodunit. There are mysteries that run throughout the book, some of which are unexplained. As Hitchcock said, you don’t need to answer every question in a mystery story as it will leave the viewer or reader wondering what happened and talking about it at the end of the film or book. He called this “refrigerator talk,” the moment a couple come back from a movie and reach into the fridge to eat something and discuss the plot.

When writing a suspense novel, do you think it’s important to include plot twists and surprise the reader?

Absolutely, twists and turns are what keep the readers turning pages. Sometimes Hitchcock gave away the plot twists early rather than saving them to the end. The most famous example is in Vertigo, when he revealed two-thirds through the film that Kim Novak’s Judy is also Madeleine. The result is doubly suspenseful as the viewer is left wondering what will happen when James Stewart’s Scottie finds out, leading to the fateful denouement.

Do you have any other advice for aspiring suspense writers?

Read books, watch films, and delve deep into your own lives for inspiration. Reading The Haunting of Alice May makes me realize how incredibly personal it is to me. I drew upon my own childhood fears of drowning, a sense of the afterlife, and also my interest and appreciation of nature.

Tony Lee Moral is an author specializing in mystery and suspense. He has written three books on the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock: Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass (2013) published by MWP books: The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds (2013) published by Kamera Books, and Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie (2005) published by Scarecrow Press. Hitchcock was a master storyteller, using plot, character, location, and props to tell engaging stories of mystery, suspense, crime, and retribution.

Tony was born in Hastings, England, in 1971, before moving to California. He lived in Monterey and Big Sur for two years, which form the inspiration for his latest thriller, The Haunting of Alice May, published in March 2019 in paperback and Kindle.




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