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!

The reason I love and write thrillers…

North by Northwest Film Poster
North by Northwest aka The Best Film Ever!

Pitch perfect is a good way to describe the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece. Known as the master of suspense, Hitchcock also mastered humor, sexual innuendo, and anti-cold war sentiments into this thriller that unfolds like a thousand-dollar grey flannel suit, without a wrinkle. Hitchcock had dabbled in the ‘wrong man accused’ plot many times before, but to me, this is his crowning achievement. The through-line is always the same, a person is going about their normal, everyday life, and they are suddenly thrust into a world and circumstances that threaten their everything and are forced to find a way out and clear their name.

Hitchcock’s ‘common touch’ is at full strength during the entire film. Most notably brought about by his ability to reveal character by having the plot attack the protagonist. Through this, he weaves an indelible empathetic connection to the character. In North by Northwest, he starts off, already halfway down the block on Empathy Street, by brilliantly casting the charismatic, Cary Grant in the role of Roger Thornhill. Thornhill is a New York ad exec, back in the late ’50s when that meant something, being ripped from his three-martini lunch, by a case of mistaken identity. His mistake? He merely stands up in the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room at the exact wrong moment.

As the plot piles on, Thornhill must catch on – or be dead. Being innocent of everything the bad guys, the police, and the newspapers are accusing him of doesn’t matter, all that matters is survival. Hitchcock then ups the temperature by giving us a false glimmer of hope, some alphabet soup, three-letter agency, deep within the federal government knows Thornhill is innocent but in a chilling bureaucratic moment of callousness decide that he is expendable.

So, he’s toast. But then Thornhill, fighting to stay alive, starts to threaten the government’s interests, and they are reluctantly forced to ‘seemingly’ come to his aid.

A stroke of brilliance that keeps the wrong man theme ever-present is that for all but the last minutes of the film, Thornhill is in the same grey flannel suit he was abducted in. At one point escaping a death trap on the dusty plains of the Midwest in his Brook Brother’s only to have it “sponged and pressed” in 20 minutes so he could go on being so out of place in the wrong battle uniform against the forces of evil. Namely, the uniform of the corporate dweeb as he stumbles through and defeats by the skin of his teeth plot after plot to dispatch him with extreme prejudice.

What is drama after all, but life with the dull bits cut out. - Alfred Hitchcock

As I write this, I am beginning to see where the inspiration for my new book, Forgive Us Our Trespasses sprang from. In fact, the subtitle for this sequel to my #1 bestseller, Give Us This Day is; Innocent is not a Defense. Hmmm…

Okay, so imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.