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Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith

“Writing fiction is a game, and one must be amused all the time to do it.”

That was my favorite quote from this how-to book by Highsmith, best known for writing the novel Strangers on a Train, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, and The Talented Mr Ripley, made into a movie starring Matt Damon. I like this quote because it matches my experience. My best writing is done when I play a game with myself. In my first novel, it was to see how many references to eggs I could manage, In the novel I’m currently working on, it’s all about how many references I can work in to colors and songs, and also how nothing and no one is quite what they purport to be. It doesn’t matter if no one catches on to what I’ve done: they are my personal game. In fact, some of these references may be changed or removed before the final version.

Of the three writing guides I recently finished, I liked this one the best. Highsmith is careful to note that her method of writing is not for everyone, although she uses examples not only from her work but also that of others. Her process, unlike both that of Frey and Vogler, seems much more like mine. Ruminating on ideas until there’s enough in your head to be able to begin, even if you don’t yet have a middle or ending. The focus on quick first drafts to get the concepts and characters captured, then 2nd and 3rd drafts that improve and extend upon that initial draft.

Highsmith’s view of suspense writing, as opposed to the mystery or detective novel, is akin to how Law & Order: Criminal Intent differs from the original Law & Order or Murder She Wrote. In suspense, the focus is on understanding the criminals, and what motivates them to commit a crime. The point isn’t to try to forgive the crime—for murder is murder and robbery is robbery. But the study of transgressions is interesting, if only to better formulate a better moral compass. As Highsmith says, justice is a human construction, not something that occurs in nature. People murder and are never caught. People murder and are never punished. If we want justice, it is not something that will just happen, but something we have to actively work for.

Although this book’s focus is not at all similar to Dorothea Brande’s On Becoming a Writer, it is to that work that my mind keeps trying to connect this one to. Perhaps it is because, unlike Frey, Highsmith never engages in imperatives. She simply, like Brande, talks about the psychology of the writing life. Writing is a weird profession—in one anecdote, Highsmith tells a story of how she was once denied a New York apartment because the building rules required that all occupants be professionals, and writing wasn’t viewed as a profession (as she put it, because writers don’t receive clients, which meant that a prostitute would have qualified but a writer didn’t). Unlike some trades, where the apprentice / internship experience often has an active mentor, writer’s don’t tend to. Or rather, they do, but they take the form of all those writers you admire who wrote before you. How you end up using that is up to you.

[Finished 26 February 2018]

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Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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