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The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (and what writers can learn from him)

by Lorena Hughes

RopePoster2The other day an old college friend of mine invited me to the Hitchcock Film Festival in a downtown theater I thought had closed  years ago. This art-deco building (circa 1927) has been presenting some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films every Friday night for the last two months.

The movie we watched was Rope (1948) with James Stewart. It’s already been three weeks since I saw it and I’m still thinking about it. Funny because that same weekend I watched Gravity—an expensive display of special effects that Hitchcock could have only dreamed about—and a story that values life above all (almost the exact opposite of Hitchcock’s film). Yet, the movie that keeps popping into my head is Rope, one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known films and produced over 65 years ago. Perhaps if I explain more, you’ll understand why this film impacted me.

Rope was inspired by a famous murder trial from the 1920s. Two affluent college students decide to kill one of their classmates for the simple thrill of killing. As followers of Nietzsche’s philosophy, they believe themselves to be intellectually superior to other mortals and, therefore, above the moral laws of “ordinary” men. They think they can plan and execute the perfect crime and, to make it more thrilling, they hide the corpse inside a chest of books and invite the victim’s friends and parents to a dinner party. In very Hitchcock fashion, they set the dinner buffet on top of the chest.

James Stewart plays the clever schoolmaster who inadvertently instilled this philosophy in the two murderers. Of course, one of the guys is terrified of getting caught, but the other one seems to almost want his former teacher to discover them so he can admire their “masterpiece” crime. The success of the film is in the juxtaposition of tension (anyone could open that chest since the hinge is broken), dark humor (not only in the party set up but also in the dialogue), the motive for the murder (I’ve never heard of something more original) and the Big Question of whether or not the guys will get caught.

But this film was fascinating in both content and form. The entire story develops in real time, in one single setting, and the cuts are nearly imperceptible—one continuous scene with very subtle transitions (Hitchcock focuses on a jacket or an ornament to make his cuts seamless.) It’s no surprise that the film was adapted from a play. In addition to this novelty, we have another element that struck me as original: the camera tells its own story.

Let me explain without ruining the film for those of you who’d like to watch it. Have you noticed how in children’s picture books sometimes there is the story the text tells you, but there are minor stories that you can only see in the illustrations? (this is where a very talented illustrator can thrive). Well, Hitchcock does something similar twice. While the characters are speaking, the camera is moving around them or is focused on another object, making the conversation inconsequential and the visual action what really matters. This is something I haven’t seen in contemporary film making. When dialogue is present in a film, it always supersedes anything that may be going on in a scene.

Because I have a tendency to write complex novels with abundant characters, I always admire writers and directors who can tell simple stories. The plot here is simple: will the guys be successful at hiding their crime?

So here are some of the lessons I learned (as a writer) from this film:

1.  It’s okay to write a story that develops in a short amount of time (and how challenging that is!).

2.  People can have the strangest motives for committing a murder (and the more original, the better).

3.  Keeping the tension in a story is key.

4.  Add humor whenever you can (even if it’s dark).

5.  Plot twists and complicated storylines are not always required to write a gripping tale.

6.  Build a complex backstory (even if you don’t mention all the details), and the story and characters will seem more realistic and believable.

7.  For your ending, keep your audience guessing until the last possible moment.

8.  Suppress the desire to make your main characters a) always sympathetic and b) always safe. Let them make mistakes.

And here are some of the lessons I learned (as a human):

1.  Life is extremely fragile and can end in an instant.

2.  There are a lot of crazy people out there.

3.  Never befriend someone who admires Nietzsche!

And just for fun (and because I like lists), some of the trivia I learned about this film:

1.  James Stewart was not happy with this role.

2.  Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for Stewart’s role, but he declined.

3.  The real-life case which inspired this film, Leopold and Loeb, was never discussed or acknowledged by Hitchcock to any of his writers or cast members.

4.  The attorney who defended Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow, delivered one of the most famous speeches there is against capital punishment—and saved their lives. Both got sentenced to life in prison (plus 99 years each for kidnaping).

5.  According to several online reviewers and the scriptwriter himself, there is a homosexual undertone in the film between the main characters (Leopold and Loeb were allegedly a couple). This may have been the reason why the film didn’t do so well in the box office and why Stewart was not entirely happy with it.

6.  This film is said to have been a reaction to WWII and Hitler’s belief in the superiority of one race (man) over another.

Are you a Hitchcock fan? Do you think there’s a contemporary director who compares with him?

LorenaHughes2Lorena Hughes was born and raised in Ecuador. At age eighteen, she moved to the US to go to college and earned a degree in Fine Arts and Mass Communication & Journalism. She has worked in advertising, graphic design and illustration, but her biggest passion is storytelling. Her historical novel set in South America, The Black Letter, took first place in the 2011 Southwest Writers International Writing Contest (Historical Fiction category), an Honorable Mention at the 2012 Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, and was a quarter-finalist for the 2014 Amazon Breakout Novel Award (ABNA). She is represented by Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency and is a freelance writer for What’s Up Weekly. You can find her on Twitter at

This article was originally published on The Writing Sisterhood blog and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

10 Rules for Imitating Author Ken Bruen

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1

In an effort to procrastinate writing this article, I did some research on the internet (read: randomly surfed the web for stuff) about my favorite author, Ken Bruen. Bruen is an Irish author of hard-boiled/noir fiction, and his Jack Taylor series is my weakness. In fact, I would sleep with the existing ten volumes under my pillow each night if it weren’t so uncomfortable and didn’t cause such violent dreams. When asked “What would be your advice to new writers?” Bruen responded: “[W]rite every day and read like a bastard. Imitate freely.”

The clouds parted and the writerly muses sang traditional gospel songs—I had found a reason to write about my favorite author. (Irrefutable evidence that procrastination works.)

I have heard the advice on more than one occasion—as have you—that imitating the writing of a highly stylized writer can be a great exercise to help an author get the hang of unique and distinctive rhythm, word use, grammar, punctuation, and storytelling. And that once you master the style of other writers, you are better able to define your own. In my experience as both a writer and a reader, Bruen is so outside the boundaries of conventional storytelling that his writing shouldn’t actually work. Instead, it is compelling and mesmerizing, yet peculiarly spare.

In case you’re interested in an imitation exercise, I put forth these 10 unlikely rules for imitating Bruen freely:

1. Write lists. Now, make them poetic. Use this passage as your guide:

He also put books aside, then later I’d get a parcel containing

and the hook
American crime novels.

2. Use local accents and vernacular. If you nail the timbre and context, you may not even need to explain their precise meaning. E.g., “Arrah, go on our that. It takes a real man to carry flowers.”

3. Make chapter lengths arbitrary. Write only as much as is needed for a particular chapter. Forty words are plenty, but try to keep each chapter to six pages or fewer.

4. Give your protagonist one—maybe two— redeeming qualities. Make him remorseless in his treatment of his mother. Make him unreliable and inexcusably violent. Make him an alcoholic and an addict. Now, give him a soft spot for swans and the homeless. Then let him weep at the death of his favorite publican.

5. Keep your descriptions to a minimum. Let the reader fill in the blanks. Keep the locales of your novel’s most important happenings vague and let the action within them be your focus. For example: a major setting in Bruen’s The Guards is Grogan’s, “the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.” Want to know what it looks like? This will have to suffice: “…it remains true to the format of fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seats, no-frills stock.… The bar is free of ornamentation. Two hurleys are crisscrossed over the blotched mirror. Above them is a triple frame. It shows a pope, St. Patrick, and John F. Kennedy. JFK is in the centre.”

6. Regularly switch point of view from first- to third-person and back again. Let your reader get inside your protagonist’s head, yet still be able to omnisciently follow the action.

7. Make innumerable local references. Do not explain them. Do not apologize for them.

8. Use little to no dialogue attributions. See how far you can take this. One page? Maybe two? To make this work: a) begin with a simple attribution at the outset of dialogue; b) keep sentences short and language clipped—most people don’t speak in full sentences, so why should your characters?; c) make sure that each character’s intention within the dialogue is so clear that there can be no question as to which character is speaking.

9. Create a compelling central plot. Ignore it. Draw your readers in with a mystery—a murder or a mutilation will do—then have your private investigator wander in and out of scenes that might move the mystery to a resolution. Try solving the mystery halfway through the novel; now, make the last half as un-put-down-able as the first.

10. Define your protagonist by his favorite books, movies and music. Send your readers off to read other writers, to watch movies they’ve never heard of and to populate their iPods with undiscovered music. Point them down a media rabbit hole. When they come out the other side, they will better understand your protagonist. Odds are, they will even re-read your novels to affirm this newfound understanding.

Good luck. And if you succeed at all of these, let me know, because I’m sure I will want to sleep with your book under my pillow, too.

BentleyClark125Bentley Clark just about had a heart attack when she thought her computer mercilessly murdered the final draft of this article. Share your most heart-stopping and gory story of writing loss in the comments below.

This article was originally published as “On Imitation” in the August 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

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