A Killing is Not Necessarily a Spilling, and Other Lessons from Hitchcock

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock directed perhaps his most famous movie. It involved Norman Bates, a somewhat troubled young man, to say the least. It also involved a graphic—but not so graphic—murder scene in which a woman was stabbed to death in the shower. This shower scene captivated the attention of millions of disgusted viewers, and yet take note of a few things:

1)      We never see the knife hit Janet Leigh, we simply think it.

2)      The shower scene happens early in the movie. Afterwards, a considerable drop of physical violence takes place, and yet we don’t get bored. The tension rises rapidly, throughout the movie, and by the end we are clinging to our seats, wishing we could close our eyes but knowing we cannot.

This is the genius of Alfred Hitchcock. Both points, you’ll notice, capture Hitchcock’s entire psychology of making thrillers. The thrills happen in your head, not on the screen. After the shower scene, after we realize what a monster Norman Bates is, we don’t need to see anyone else get stabbed. We simply need to think it.

With a host of new technology, ways to bludgeon a fake body and create fake blood that looks so much more real, Hitchcock’s principle of psychological fear has been lost. Writers of literature have lost it, too—and I’m not just talking thrillers. I’m talking to romance writers. Why do we have to see them have sex? Why is that necessary? Other moviemakers in Hitchcock’s time knew this as well. Look at Casablanca or Gone With the Wind. Subtlety was everything. This made for more wholesome, and more intelligent, entertainment.

In other words, a killing is not a spilling.

Don’t just make us watch the guy bleed. Find more creative ways to create suspense. Start when the blood is already on the floor, or end before the knife hits the body. This is 1) more suspenseful (most suspense movies and books today are not “suspense” so much as special effects-laden and overly graphic) and 2) more intelligent. Don’t insult your readers by writing something R-rated. R-rated is rarely intelligent, and you can do better.

Here are a couple of exercises you can try, if any of this is ringing true with you.

1)      Try writing an action/suspense scene without mentioning the words “blood,” “scream,” or showing anything explicitly. Subtlety is key.

2)      Try writing a romantic scene without taking your characters’ clothes off.

3)      Watch an old movie, a truly suspenseful thriller like Psycho, Vertigo, or Strangers on a Train, or a truly romantic film like Casablanca. Notice the subtlety. It’s the little things that count.

This subtle approach to edginess in entertainment ended in the 1960s, when Hollywood abandoned the production code. I’m not pro-censorship or anything—but it’s a known fact that the time before the Code ended was Hollywood’s Golden Age. It’s the best entertainment America ever produced, and the writers owed it to subtlety.

So let’s do it together. Let’s try and recreate the Golden Age.

BRAYDEN HIRSCH is a teenage writer from Vancouver, British Columbia. His first book, SHADOW CATALYST, is a collection of short thrillers releasing from Steward House Publishers in September, 2011. For more information, follow Brayden on Twitter or Facebook, or at www.braydenhirsch.com.

Ron Knight

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  1. Thanks for having me, Ron. Hope the article helps your readers a lot.



  2. I absolutely agree with you. Subtlety is key in thrillers and I try to adhere to that principle too. The best scenes happen in the readers imagination! As long as you have gently led them to the threshold.
    You talk much sense, Ron.

  3. Wow! Very powerful. My publisher sent me this article because we discussed this several times. I refuse to get gory or detailed in sexual or otherwise. A hint of the macabre, a hint of the sexual leaves people using their imagination. Thank you for such an insightful post.