Saturday, March 24, 2007

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

So for all you spinsters out there who’ve read a decent thriller and thought, “I could do that too,” I’d recommend you start by taking a look at Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. I haven’t exactly read all her novels, but I loved The Talented Mr. Ripley, and I’ll definitely try to read some of her short stories after this (as for Strangers on a Train, I’ll probably just cheat and watch the movie, which has been on my “Hitchcock to Watch” list for a while, but keeps getting bumped since all I like to do is watch Vertigo and Rear Window and Rope over and over).

Highsmith writes about development, plotting, drafts and revisions, the dreaded snags a writer may encounter, and about what she calls “the germ of an idea.” She talks about the need to have a basic story trajectory, if not necessarily an outline. As she puts it, “Early in development, the writer must ask these crucial questions: ‘Is the hero going to emerge from this victor or vanquished?’” Highsmith uses an instinctive form of plotting, in which she’ll let a story sit, like photographic paper in a chemical bath, until the plot comes into focus. This is a method of writing that may seem to involve long stretches of doing nothing, but as Highsmith says, “Writers are always working … [They] are either developing an idea or they are questing, even if unconsciously, for the germ of an idea.” This agreed with me greatly, mainly because it’s so close to the way I work – you sort of leave yourself open to ideas, you let your fancy and imagination wander and soak up the inspiration all around you – with the only difference being that Pat Highsmith eventually sits down and gets to work instead of daydreaming and making cookies all damn day.

Aside from a few basics, Highsmith’s book is very light on technique and tends more toward frank and commonsense advice, and a good dose of inspiration. She cautions us not to be lazy, not to go with situations and resolutions that are predictable and boring – challenge yourself, she says – and reminds us that the key to good writing is enthusiasm. If it isn’t fun for you, how will it be fun for the reader? Writing for her isn’t some soul-rending task; it’s a well-played game that one takes immense pleasure in playing and observing.

To this end, a good opening is vital, for a strong first sentence, page, and paragraph make the difference between a browser and a reader. One should revise an opening as many times as need until it is just right. In editing, she says, ruthlessness is essential. Equally important is practice – writing is a muscle that atrophies when it isn’t exercised, and a lazy writer will never write sharp prose if she only works at it sporadically. Here’s where the concept of the sacred space comes in – whether it’s a few hours every day after work, or eight hours on a Saturday, a writer must have a time and space without distraction or interruption, where writing comes first, and it must be done regularly and consistently if one hopes to see any results at all.

Highsmith writes about the joy that comes from telling a good story and keeping your audience in suspense – which are always one and the same, regardless of genre, since, after all, every narrative has an element of suspense in it, or should – and it is when she lets herself go a little on the joys of the craft that the book is most inspirational. There are many points during the reading of it that a beginning writer will get the sense that she is definitely on the right track, and all that needs be done is to sit down and write what’s in her head. I think a lot of beginning writers over-prepare, study too much theory and technique, make too many character studies and outlines, as a means of procrastinating. Highsmith’s book will let you know that you simply can’t go wrong if you have even one story-telling instinct in your entire body, because “The writer’s mind has a way of arranging a chain of events in a naturally dramatic, and therefore correct form.”

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