Patricia Highsmith was the successful author of many suspense thrillers, including Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock made into a compelling movie in 1951, and The Talented Mr Ripley. In Plotting And Writing Suspense Fiction Highsmith shares her writing life, letting us into her thought processes around many of her books and short stories.
Unlike many “How to Write” books, Highsmith doesn’t lay down rules and formulae, or even say “this is the way to write suspense fiction”. Compared to some “experts” like Al Zuckerman who are fond of an in-your-face style, Highsmith is courteous and almost shy as she writes about her way of creating her particular brand of fiction with the disclaimer that others write differently with great results, and that she would never presume to tell someone to change the way they work because it conflicts with her methods.
As such, Plotting And Writing Suspense Fiction reads like a pleasant chat with this talented author. The book is geared towards beginner writers, but more experienced writers might also enjoy this as a light read on the subject if they are fans of, or at least familiar with, Highsmith’s work.
The second half of Plotting And Writing Suspense Fiction contains a study of Highsmith’s novel The Glass Cell, and is very interesting for writers of any level. While knowledge of this book can add more insight, it is not necessary to have read it beforehand, unless you wish to avoid spoiling the ending for a later reading. Highsmith references many of her novels and short stories, and those of other suspense writers, and some of the shorts in particular may now be almost impossible to track down. Nevertheless her descriptions and analyses of these are fully sufficient to illustrate her discussions.
I found very interesting Highsmith’s discussion of the use of “gimmicks” sometimes used by mediocre writers to cover up a formulaic plot. These could include scientific or forensic jargon or detailed police procedure, or even the holding back of important details from the reader which would allow them to solve the mystery too easily. Highsmith believes that suspense books don’t need tricks and formulae if they are well-written. Although the suspense genre is by nature a lighter read than a more literary book, Highsmith sees no reason why it shouldn’t be strongly plotted and contain well-rounded characters.
Plotting And Writing Suspense Fiction is a short book, but very pleasant and well worth a read.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in October 2006. © Elsa Neal
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You may also want to read Highsmith's novel, The Glass Cell, which is studied in Plotting And Writing Suspense Fiction.