No Terror in the Bang

What makes something suspenseful? What are the necessary ingredients that, when mixed together in just the right amounts, at just the right moments, cause us to feel the tension at a visceral level, and make us want to read through the pages at warp speed, desperate to see how it all turns out?

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When asking such a question, who better to turn to than the Master of Suspense himself?

“There is no terror in the bang,”Alfred Hitchcock once said, “only in the anticipation of it.”  Indeed.  In his films, the acclaimed director is not seeking quick, cheap thrills.  He builds tension, slowly, incrementally, a nip here, a prod there . . . we as the audience are left knowing something will happen.  But when?  Where?  In what way?  The buildup has us on the edge of our seats.

hitch

 

Perhaps no movie embodies this more than Hitchcock’s most controversial work, Psycho.

For many, Psycho will forever be remembered for its shower scene, where the main character of the movie up to that point, Marion Crane, produces cinema’s most famous scream before being brutally murdered in the Bates Motel.

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Released in 1960, Psycho was a landmark, breaking many of Hollywood’s long-standing and previously iron-clad rules.  Never before had moviegoers witnessed such a graphic murder; never before had a star actress been eliminated not even halfway through a film; and, indeed, never before had a toilet been flushed on-screen, as it was shortly before the stabbing.

toilet

 

However, for all that, I would argue that Psycho‘s most effective, and suspenseful, scene occurs just prior to Marion Crane’s shower.

To back up for a moment . . . Marion has just stumbled upon the Bates Motel, well off the beaten path, as she flees from her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, a large sum of stolen money in her purse.  She is running away, to see her boyfriend, who lives just across the California state line, in debt himself.

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However, driving through a rainstorm on a dark night, Marion’s conscience begins to get the better of her.  We witness her inner struggle, as she wages battle with her personal demons.  We sympathize with her.  We get to know her.

batesmotelatnight

 

And by the time she checks in to the Bates Motel, she wraps the money in a newspaper, fully intent on returning to Phoenix the next day and setting things right. 

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But for now, for tonight, she has agreed to have dinner with the motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates, who has invited her to come up to the Gothic mansion that sits on the hill overlooking the motel.

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The place is deserted.  The main thoroughfare no longer runs by the Bates Motel, as it once did.  Nowadays, as Norman himself admits, no one ever stops there anymore unless they’ve mistakenly turned off of the new highway.

As Marion, tucked away in her motel room, hides the stolen money, she overhears an argument between Norman and what we (and Marion) assume to be his mother, coming from inside the mansion atop the hill.  Their voices carry on the damp night air.  Mrs. Bates tells him, in no uncertain terms, that the “strange young girl”  is not welcome in her home.   Moments later, Norman sheepishly returns to the motel, a tray of sandwiches and milk in hand.

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Awkwardly, apologizing for his mother’s outburst, he invites Marion to eat in the parlor behind the motel office, since “eating in an office is just too officious.”

As they enter the parlor, Marion notices a collection of stuffed birds hanging on the walls–crows, owls, hawks, assorted birds of prey. She asks Norman about this.

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He shares with her the essentials of taxidermy, but explains he only stuffs birds, nothing else.  “Some people stuff dogs and cats,” he says.  “But I can’t do that.”  He smiles, looking and acting like the boy next door.

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“A man should have a hobby,” Marion says.

He smiles again, says a hobby should pass the time, not fill it.

“Is your time so empty?” she asks him.  “Do you go out with friends?”

He pauses, fidgets.  “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

At this point, the discussion inevitably shifts toward Norman’s relationship with his mother.  He tells Marion that when his mother yells at him, as she just did, he feels like “cursing her” and “defying her.”  But he knows he can’t.  “She’s ill,” mentally unstable.

When Marion asks him why he doesn’t go away for a while, he shakes his head.

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“I couldn’t do that.  Who’d look after her?  She’d be alone up there.  Her fire would go out, and be cold and damp like a grave.  If you love someone, you don’t do that to them even if you hate them. . . . You understand, I don’t hate her.  I hate what she’s become.  I hate the illness.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if you put her . . . someplace?” Marion asks.

Norman’s face suddenly darkens.  Gone is the smile.  He scowls, the stuffed birds behind him watching, lurking.

normanscowl

 

“You mean an institution?” he says.  “A madhouse?  People always call a madhouse ‘someplace,’ don’t they?  ‘Put her in someplace.'”

“I’m sorry,” Marion says, clearly growing nervous.  Norman’s demeanor has undergone a quick 180 since she first sat down.  The kind, almost chivalrous host has left.  In his place there is now a grim, angry alter ego.  “I didn’t mean it to sound uncaring.”

Norman spits out his next words through clenched teeth.  “What do you know about caring?  Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places?  The laughing and the tears, and the cruel eyes staring at you?  My mother there?  But she’s harmless!  She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.”

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The camera pans back and forth between the two. Marion is wide-eyed, concerned, realizing she has unintentionally snipped and hacked at a nerve.

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She apologizes again, tells him she meant well.

“People always mean well,” he says, teeth still clenched.  “They cluck their thick tongues oh so very delicately.”  Marion’s expression has now morphed from concern to fear.  What will this man do?

But then Norman sits back, his features softening.  “Of course, I’ve suggested it myself.  But I hate to even think about it.  She needs me.  It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing.  She just goes a little mad sometimes.  We all go a little mad sometimes.”  And now the smile returns . . . “Haven’t you?”

normaninparlor

 

Marion admits that she has, and gets up.  Norman wants her to stay, “just for talk,” but she tells him she’s very tired.  Deferential now, the boyish charm back, he promises to bring her breakfast first thing tomorrow morning.

It is a breakfast that will never be served.  Mere minutes later, Marion is murdered in her shower.

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*************

Psycho‘s Parlor Scene is a masterpiece in mood, foreshadowing, tension, and, most important of all, character.  In one scene, we witness the many multiple aspects of Norman Bates.  We are charmed by his initial shyness, his polite, impeccable manners, his boyish good looks.

boyishsmile

 

But over the course of the conversation, as the pall of his mother takes over, we are frightened, right along with Marion, at his transformation into an angry, bitter misanthrope.  By the time the scene ends, and he swings back to the smiling boy next door, we can only feel a chill.  The smile no longer seems so innocent.  The kindness no longer feels so pure.  Something terrible lurks just beneath the surface.

lurkingbeneath

 

If the Parlor Scene had never occurred, the murder in the shower still would have stunned and horrified audiences.  But the effect would not have been as profound or memorable, or suspenseful, nor would it have been as earnestly won.  Meeting Norman Bates in the parlor, witnessing the duality of  his character, and watching how it all plays out in his interaction with Marion Crane, the tension builds to a crescendo, taking us further along on this winding, uphill journey into terror.

***************

Certainly The Eye-Dancers is nowhere near as dark or violent as Psycho, but it is, I hope, suspenseful where it needs to be.  It was my goal, when I wrote the novel, to place the main characters under the fictional microscope as it were, so readers would get to know Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski very, very well.

Suspense can be built into any kind of story or situation.  From a death-defying stunt to armed hand-to-hand combat on the one end, to the results of a test score or the outcome of a sporting event on the other.

rollercoastersuspense

 

You don’t need a groundbreaking, horrific shower scene to generate suspense.

You just need engaging, interesting characters and allow your audience the opportunity to get to know them.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

40 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. reocochran
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 15:17:19

    Are you watching the prequel, “Bates Motel,” on television? This has a very well written and interesting story line. Also, I felt that Hitchcock is the master, as you mentioned of suspense. He can take travel in an airport and other seemingly innocuous subjects and create fearful responses! He had us thinking of espionage, before it was such a prevalent subject, too! I enjoyed the movie, “Hitchcock,” recently borrowed from the library. Anthony Hopkins did a good imitation of Alfred’s droll toned voice and it was entertaining! Hope you have a wonderful Easter, sorry I don’t get over here more! Smiles, Robin

    Reply

  2. Dylan Hearn
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 15:26:39

    A great post and very well put. It’s the one thing many of us strive for in our writing and it is one of the most difficult things to get right. Too much suspense and it lessens the effect or even bores the reader, too little and there is no pay off. And you are right, if the reader isn’t engaged with the character, you may as well give up trying.

    Reply

  3. jjspina
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 16:06:25

    You do a superb job of re-enacting the scenes of this Hitchcock thriller, Mike! I loved this movie even if it scared me half to death and the fact that I couldn’t take a shower without keeping my eyes open just in case…….

    Reply

  4. Rosaliene Bacchus
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 16:35:39

    Engaging post from a talented writer and author.

    Reply

  5. howdowefeedtheworldsstarving
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 17:37:15

    Reply

  6. Carol Balawyder
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 17:40:55

    This was a very interesting post, not only from the point of view of suspense and your excellent telling of the scene leading up to the murder but also a glimpse into some superb dialogue. Thanks for writing it. 🙂

    Reply

  7. Christy Birmingham
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 21:52:07

    I hope I can sleep tonight! That shower scene is horrific but then again it doesn’t take much to scare me.

    Reply

  8. racoltapetru6
    Apr 19, 2014 @ 06:39:00

    Happy Easter! 🙂

    Reply

  9. Minister Gertrude Ferguson - Founder & CEO- Enough Tribulations
    Apr 19, 2014 @ 11:58:25

    Always a pleasure reading from you. Have a holy and peaceful Easter.

    Reply

  10. kelihasablog
    Apr 19, 2014 @ 14:16:13

    Oh I love Afred’s work. He was truly a master! Loved reading this one Mike, great blog! Have a Happy Easter!

    Reply

  11. Jilanne Hoffmann
    Apr 19, 2014 @ 17:07:36

    Psycho still scares me, and I’m only reading your description! Anthony Hopkins brought quite a bit to that role, don’t you think?

    I picked up a used copy of Patricia Highsmith’s “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” the other day at the SF Public Library Spring Book Sale. She documents her own process with a bit of dry humor, and she often couches her advice by saying what works for her may not work for others, but it’s an entertaining read. And it’s also interesting to hear how she wrote her drafts before there were computers.

    I wrote a seminar paper comparing the differences between book and film versions of The Talented Mr. Ripley years ago when I was getting my MFA. I think she was a great suspense writer.

    Happy plotting!

    Reply

  12. teagan geneviene
    Apr 19, 2014 @ 18:41:52

    A well taught lesson, Mike — worthy of your ninth grade English teacher from another post. 🙂

    Reply

  13. Tina DC Hayes
    Apr 21, 2014 @ 17:04:54

    Fabulous post on suspense, and I enjoyed reading through the scenes from ‘Psycho’. Hitchcock was a master of suspense. 🙂

    Reply

  14. Sherri
    Apr 21, 2014 @ 18:41:25

    Psycho has always been one of my favourite films and I thought I knew a fair bit about it, but I never knew this fact about the toilet flushing scene! Really does show how times have changed doesn’t it? This post is so wonderfully written, I learn so much coming over here Mike and reading about novel writing, all the subtle ‘in’s and out’s’. I felt the tension reading this post even though I knew the story of Psycho. You have a great skill Mike, no doubt about it! 🙂

    Reply

  15. stockdalewolfe
    Apr 21, 2014 @ 19:24:51

    I don’t know how I missed this post but anyhow… better late than never. Psycho is one of the scariest movies even today. I was so scared watching it however times I have watched it that I don’t remember seeing the toilet flushing. But I do remember getting really scared when Norman is talking with Marion. Oh, it is such a good movie. Thank you for sharing the facts about it and some of the memorable scenes in your super post! I don’t think I will ever feel safe in the shower again.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 22, 2014 @ 12:33:33

      Thanks, Ellen! It really is a great movie, and underrated! It’s so associated with the shower scene, the brilliance of the rest of the film is often overlooked. Always great hearing from you!

      Reply

  16. Angela Grant
    Apr 22, 2014 @ 01:12:17

    Psycho is an all time favorite even to this day and as usual you kept me on edge and I know the plot. 🙂

    Great reenactment!

    Reply

  17. pnissila
    Apr 24, 2014 @ 12:57:18

    Excellent writing about…the crafting of that suspense ;). I hope my students learn to “show” not just “tell” as well as you have, here. And thanks for liking my two recent posts.
    Cheers

    Reply

  18. DeDivahDeals
    Apr 29, 2014 @ 01:31:25

    Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is a classic as well as “The Birds”, they are by far my favorite suspense thrillers.

    Reply

  19. fashionassist
    Apr 29, 2014 @ 02:17:51

    Thanks for another great lesson in writing via Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho…
    it’s wonderful how you teach through the use of classic, well known stories~

    Reply

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