The suspenseful wisdom according to Patricia Highsmith

Years back, I read Patricia Highsmith’s book on how to write suspense thrillers. She being one of my biggest influences, I actually annotated the text, printed out my notes and stuck them on the fridge. Figured some of my more criminally inclined blog buddies might get something out of it, so I decided to share the highlights that I pulled from the book:

A protagonist reveals his or her character by what he does. Action is character!

Characters, conflict, choice, and change.

Characters make your story!

Never fail to use one character to characterize another.

Half the battle of characterizing is making the reader either like or dislike the character.

Whenever possible try to link your similes with some image compatible with the character being described.

Each character has his own agenda.

In a story, reaction is nearly always as important as action!

Readers like details and specifics!

Don’t moralize.

Don’t have your protagonist act out of character.

Don’t feel you must tie up all the loose ends.

Don’t go on too long.

Don’t explain too much.

A suspense story is one in which the possibility of violent action, even death, is close all the time.

A suspense story provides entertainment in a lively and usually superficial sense – one does not expect profound thought or long sections without action.

The improvement or thickening of a plot is the piling on of complications for the hero, or perhaps his enemies. These complications are most effective in the form of surprise events.

The setting will very much govern the kind of characters you will use. But it might improve your story to use a character not at all typical of this setting, not at all a person one might expect to find in such an environment. There is a limit as to how far one can go with incongruities, but the result, if it comes off is more interesting than the typical.

I can only suggest giving the murderer-hero as many pleasant qualities as possible – generosity, kindness to some people, fondness for painting or music or cooking, for instance. These qualities can also be amusing in contrast to his criminal or homicidal traits.

It is also a kind of laziness to write the obvious, which does not entertain, really. The ideal is an unexpected turn of events, reasonably consistent with the character of the protagonist.

Some writers prefer a short first paragraph of 1-6 lines.

The reader does not want to be all at once plunged into a sea of information, complex facts to which he can scarcely relate about any person mentioned because he has no chance to meet them. It is well to give a sense of movement without representing all at once the reasons for the movement.

You should be aware of what effect you want to create before starting the book: tragedy, comedy, melancholy, etc. Return again to the effect you intended in case of snag.

If a suspense writer is going to write about murders and victims, about people in the vortex of this awful whirl of events, he must do more than describe brutality and gore.

He should try to shed some light on the minds of the characters; he should be interested in justice or the absence of it in the world, good or bad and in human cowardice or courage – but not merely as forces to move his plot in one direction or another. In a word his invented people must seem real.

To read a review of Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction click here:

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Comment by Cathryn Grant on October 21, 2010 at 1:37am
It's interesting to see what you got out of Plotting & Writing Suspense Fiction ... you inspire me to go back and read it for a third time.
Comment by Josephine Damian on April 5, 2008 at 11:54pm
Hi Carole,

Yes, the book was different than the film, maybe more to please an Ameircan audience? PH is such a huge influence for noir scribes, but it's no surprise she was more popular in Europe than here back then.
Comment by carole gill on April 5, 2008 at 10:07pm
Great advice from a great writer. As I was reading it I was remembering the plot of The Talented Mr. Ripley (which btw, is so different than the film). I liked the film as well though.
Thanks for that. Excellent and helpful advice.

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