Hitchcock & De Palma: Stop Making Sense

Reading & Writing


I’m always on the lookout for anything that can help writers understand how to create reader interest, and very often I find it in studies of film. Film is in many ways analogous to books. Watching the excellent documentary ‘De Palma’ last night I was struck by something the director Brian De Palma said about his films, and about developing the legacy of Hitchcock. ‘It’s all in the slow build and the set-up, not the outcome.’

He’s right; nobody cares that much how things turn out in the majority of stories, particularly in crime, suspense or mystery films and books. We remember happy and sad, but it’s the build-up that counts. In ‘North By Northwest’ Hitchcock didn’t care about the microfilm in the statue; it was all about getting Cary Grant to Mount Rushmore. In ‘Carrie’ De Palma pulls out all the stops for one long scene, immediately prior to the humiliation of Carrie with the emptying of the bucket. I remember seeing it in a cinema at the time and thinking it went on forever. I then read the book to find that this moment was almost thrown away.

And once the bucket is emptied, the film effectively ends. We know what will happen after that. De Palma complains that storyboards planned by CGI technicians are boring precisely because they’re planned, so you can predict the outcomes. Real life is far more unguessable; watch the Argentinian film ‘The Clan’, based on a true story, and you will find yourself wondering how this terrible situation – a father implicating his family in terrible crimes and refusing to save them in court – can ever work itself out.

The same is true in the writing of a novel. The set-up may build an impossible situation that is ultimately unresolvable – but that can be a good thing. Setting up is the crucial part for me. My first draft is so tightly plotted that I must then relax it and open the whole thing out for the second draft. And if in that draft something ceases to make sense, I might leave it in. Some of my favourite books and films have spectacular gaps that don’t invalidate them at all.

Having said that, I’ve just struggled through the first half of Paul Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’, with its pointless-for-the-sake-of-itmeandering and probably unending plot, and angrily threw the book in the bin, something I rarely do. For me, even Auster’s build-up wasn’t very interesting and the digressions were simply annoying, so there wasn’t a lot left except the author mumbling to himself in a corner. For a more satisfying and erudite example of deconstructed crime fiction try ‘The Face on the Cutting Room Floor’ by Cameron McCabe, or ‘Hawthorn & Child’ by Keith Ridgway.

De Palma made another good point; in the slow anticipatory build-up of his stories he buries the machinery of the plot to allow the luxury of space around his characters. Without the plot mechanics in view, you get the feeling that his hero might do anything. It’s a very European approach to storytelling, and something few authors manage to do while maintaining interest. Hitchcock was more fascinated by the hand on the doorknob than what was beyond the door. De Palma follows Hitch’s rules because they establish a fresh language, but then he gets accused of being a Hitchcock copycat.

At the top is a split-screen shot from ‘Sisters’, De Palma’s brilliant noir thriller about a journalist who witnesses a murder. It’s the film through which I discovered this fascinating director. The remakes of this and ‘Carrie’ are casebook examples of ignoring the language of suspense.

4 comments on “Hitchcock & De Palma: Stop Making Sense”

  1. SteveB says:

    Brian Clemens at his peak was the master of making a plot that seemed like 2 hours worth packed into 50 minutes, that used all the character elements and at 40 minutes still seemed unresolvable.
    He wrote so much that 95% of it was tat of course.
    N by NW is one of my favourite films (pointless film fact: the actress playing CG’s mother is actually younger than him!) and I remember reading an interview with Ernest Lehmann which said, it was much more down to him than Hitchcock. Which I can believe.
    Anyone remember the TV series Gangsters from the 70s? Has an excellent N by NW tribute scene in it!

  2. SteveB says:

    By the way, the best tv series plot ever was the episode Special Relationship of the TV series Sandbaggers.
    Kind of the opposite of Hamlet, it seems like the protagonist is in a completely insoluble situation, till 5 minutes before the end.

  3. Ian Dalziel says:

    “the best tv series plot ever was the episode Special Relationship of the TV series Sandbaggers.”
    Which reminds me…
    I always fancied the idea of a band called
    ‘Neil Burnside and the Sandbaggers’

    as you were…

  4. SteveB says:

    Ian , like it 🙂

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