(SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never seen PSYCHO, this may ruin some of the surprises for you.)
Something that I love about the internet is the democratization of music, video, and writing. Anyone can attain a global audience, especially if they create something noteworthy. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and some of it is extraordinary.
And the rest of it? Ordinary.
Now, I love noir fiction. Charles Willeford is a favorite author. So is Horace McCoy, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, and Donald Westlake (especially when he wrote as Richard Stark). There are many others. If you want to write noir, you look to the greats, you sample what’s been done.
When I read noir fiction online, what I usually come across is a bloodbath. And while it’s true that you can’t have noir without violence, the stuff I come across reads like the crime version of a soft-core pornography.
Seriously. Substitute the sex for violence, and what’ve you got? It seems you’re only a paragraph or two into some short story and already the hero is humping attacking someone, killing them in some graphic way. And while the writers may be talented, the effect is a let-down.
Why is that? In my opinion, it’s because there’s no build-up. Just like the sex act, anticipation is – nearly – everything.
The shower scene in Psycho is a great example.
Bloody, violent, swift, merciless. But it’s also a release of tension that began when the movie started thirty minutes ago. So while the shower scene is a brilliant use of direction, camera work, and montage, it would just be a series of shots if it weren’t for what came before: the theft of the money, the suspicious cop, the strange conversation with Norman Bates, the decision to return the money, the cleansing shower. These elements keep building and building tension in the audience.
And what does Hitchcock do after this shower sequence? He takes the pacing way down. The shots of Norman Bates cleaning up after the murder are of long duration (as opposed to the fast editing and quick shots during the shower scene). Hitchcock is telling the audience to calm down, relax. In other words, he’s getting them ready for the next shocker.
Let’s face it, folks, this is foreplay. And sex without foreplay is rarely any fun. Let’s take a look at the second murder in Psycho, when the private eye Arbogast dies:
Do you see what Hitchcock is doing here? He’s building the anticipation. The shots of the detective going up the stairs, the door opening a crack, the light spilling through, leading to a high angle of the killer rushing at the victim.
Notice something else? When the detective is at the bottom of the stairs and the killer is going to finish him off, Hitchcock frames the knife as it comes up, into the frame.
By doing this, Hitchcock is emphasizing the anticipation of the knife coming down. And that, folks, is great direction.
(It’s not that different from music: listen to the end of a Beethoven Symphony, say the last 60 seconds. What would it sound like if he’d begun the symphony that way? Like a bad dream. Beethoven spends his time wisely, guiding the listener and building to that final 60 seconds. Musical foreplay, leading to a great climax.)
Donald Westlake’s series about Parker may sometimes begin in the middle of the action. I can think of at least two books that start with Parker killing someone. But in a typical Parker story, the violence is implied. Westlake uses this to create tension. Just now I’m finishing The Green Eagle Score just one of the many Parker books I’ve enjoyed reading over and over. I’m near the end, and so far Parker hasn’t even swatted a fly.
So why is the book suspenseful? Because of the people and the situations Westlake puts them in. We know Parker can be violent. We can see trouble ahead. In other words, you need to build towards the violence. The flipside is, if you have one violent act after another after another, you quickly reach a point of diminishing returns — the violence begins to make us giggle, like this parody of Sam Peckinpah:
Great for humor, but for suspense? Not so much.
Here’s one last observation: before you kill off a character, please go to the trouble of bringing her/him to life in the mind of the reader. Psycho stunned people because Hitchcock had the audacity to kill off the lead character (and the only “name” star of the film) within the first thirty minutes. We have her point of view up to her death, Hitchcock carefully brought her to life in the minds of the audience before she got sliced to ribbons – that’s one of the reasons the shower sequence is so powerful.
So go ahead. Shoot, stab, and garrote to your heart’s content. Just remember the build-up.