Welcome once again to Casa del Crimezine. How do you keep a Crimeziner in suspense? Pull up a pool-chair, help yourself to a professionally poured Crimezine cocktail courtesy of Crimezine cocktail-wrangler Consuela and all will be revealed—
According to crime writing legend Patricia Highsmith, the key to writing suspense is the creation of an overwhelming impression of impending violence/murder. The author—who wrote crime suspense classics Strangers on a Train, [famously filmed by Alfred criss-cross Hitchcock] and The Talented Mr. Ripley, is a master of the suspense genre, although she says only half of the books she wrote are suspense stories in the true sense of the word. She also says, book trade typecasting more than any other factor is responsible for her reputation as a suspense novelist. They wanted to categorize me she says—so they called me a suspense novelist.
Highsmith goes some way to perpetuating this myth however; in her short but revealing book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. One imagines this short novella sized book will dish the secret recipe on suspense writing, sadly it doesn’t; at least not quite—What it does provide, is a series of invaluable insights to Highsmith as person, a writer and her writing methodology.
Laced in-between the kind of tips you would find in all those other books about writing—many of which you will have already, Highsmith explains her love of art and travel; she also uses case-study examples of her writing and explains the hows and whys behind what she does.
Panning through this book, there are many golden tips regarding not only suspense style, but writing in general. Highsmith advises writers to minimize description of surroundings, a couple of salient features in a room only she advises, she also talks of compounding dialogue into dramatic summery and creating the kind of fast-moving suspenseful sentence structures that make her writing so compelling.
As a strictly old-school, pre-word-processing writer, there is also much talk about the laborious process of dupe-sheets, editing to length and re writing every page of every novel up to four times. This is historically interesting, especially for those who have only know the world according to Microsoft Word—it is also rather horrifying—but it does get across the kind of work ethic and attention to detail that is needed to write a novel, of any kind.
So aside from the double-sized type in this book, there are few real surprises other than Highsmith’s frequent revelations about her timidity—My heart always beats double time at customs, even though I would never dream of carrying contraband, she chokes. Highsmith is and will remain one of Crimezine’s favorite Patricias. Her admission that she is a devoted fan of Graham Greene only makes us love her more.
Suspense—Is that all there is to it? More next week Crimeziners.