The way Hitchcock thinks – beat by beat.

Intertitle from silent film that reads: There isn't a decent thought in your nasty little mind!

In a previous blog, I credit Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as the reason I write thrillers. It wasn’t until I had years of writing and learning under my belt that I discovered what his secret was.

Alfred started in film as a graphic artist making dialog cards for silent movies. Before sound came to movies, the film would show an actor “speaking at, or to, or with another character on the screen. Immediately after that, the film cut to a card that had the printed dialogue the audience just saw the actor mouthed. In the silent world of movies back then, the dialogue was very sparse. Actors had to show emotion, often with bigger-than-life gestures and posturing. A certain amount of lip-reading gave the audience satisfaction when the card that followed proved that they had guessed right about what the actor silently said. Every once in a while, a non-dialogue card would appear. This card was the narration explaining some essential notion, change of heart, or change of scene the audience needed to know to avoid confusion. A famous one was ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch…’ Usually cut in between the hero making googly eyes at the pretty girl in town while the cattle rustlers had their pickings of his herd back on his spread.

The sparsity of words in a silent film forced filmmakers to be extra judicious in the words they sparingly shared with the viewer. This beyond anything else, taught Hitchcock the power of the beat. The point of inflection, reversal, or expansion of the story or plot. It’s what separated a narrative film from the other choices moviegoers of that day had the choice of seeing*. And when you do break the story down to the most essential words, you realize very quickly what is driving the story forward and what is causing it to stall. The beats were the cards he created. The frequency and duration of the cards, both dialogue and narration set the tempo of the film – the beat. Delay the beat, and you create suspense! He was the master of suspense because he knew which beat and how long to delay it!

When we author a book it’s important to honor beats and make sure we are building our story on and around them. How do you know what a beat isn’t? Hitchcock explained it to François Truffaut once with the observation; What is drama after all but life with all the dull bits cut out? When you cut the dull bits out of life, or in your manuscript, the beats are pretty much what you are left with.

I go into the beat a little deeper in my really affordable eBook on Kindle, Intentional Thoughts from The Accidental Author, and take a deeper dive into these essential building blocks of good stories-well told in my online course, From Writer to Author, available HERE!

* Amazingly these were just motion pictures featuring 20 minutes of a train chugging along or boats on a river or a San Francisco streetcar. No plot, no story, just the fascination with the motion of the “flickers.” Thomas Edison who invented modern motion pictures was amazed that in his showing of the train movies, new-to-film audiences actually ducked or ran aside as the train came towards the camera!

2 thoughts on “The way Hitchcock thinks – beat by beat.

  1. “What is drama after all but life with all the dull bits cut out?”

    I love this, especially when I reread my manuscript and realise that I have so many chapters about simply travelling from one place to another. Great stuff. Thanks for this, Tom!

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