Monday, April 19, 2010


If there's one thing you can count on in most mystery novels, it's that at least one of the good guys -- the protagonist, the faithful sidekick, the innocent but helpless love interest/family member, maybe even all of humanity -- ends up in enough danger that the reader will turn page after page to find out how they'll eventually be saved.

So it behooves us mystery writers to know how to monger fear.

Fortunately, we have no dearth of mentors. Alfred Hitchcock, for instance. Here's a quote:

"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."

His most famous example (and I paraphrase) is of a couple sitting at a table, talking. A bomb goes off. Everyone's surprised. Maybe the couple narrowly escapes, maybe not. Either way, shocking but not scary.

Same scene, same couple, only now we, the audience, can see the bomb. We know it's set to go off at 1 o'clock and we're shown a clock on the wall that reads quarter to one. We become part of the scene. We want to warn the characters (assuming we like them). As each minute ticks by, the suspense (and with it, our fear) builds. That's good writing.

If you're afraid Hitchcock's advice might be dated, you need only channel surf news channels to see how trendy scaring people is these days. No one remembers hard facts, they remember scary phrases like "death panels." Politicians, political pundits, and even some folks who call themselves journalists have become masters of the art.

Fact is, no one WANTS to remember the truth. We'd rather be fooled if it means being scared. The great majority of Americans, on both the left and the right, would rather hear a slew of conspiracy theories than a sane explanation.

A good mystery writer can come right out and say Mr. X committed the murder early on, then fill the next 350 pages with red herrings and ticking bombs. Readers will be taken in. And enjoy every minute.

As Hitchcock also said:
"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible."

(or was that FOXnews?)


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