Screenwriting 101: Lessons from Alfred Hitchcock Presents

By December 18, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

Alfred Hitchcock captivated audiences with his deft ability to build suspense. He earned the moniker “The Master of Suspense” by directing dozens of films in the first half of the 20th century. As the second half of the 20th century began, the aging director found success on the small screen, hosting the eponymous anthology television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. 

The year was 1955. Television was new and the phenomenon of beaming images into the homes of millions of Americans across the country presented new challenges to storytellers attempting to find an audience. What follows is a breakdown of three episodes from the first season of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. Let’s learn from the master himself.

Episode 1 – “Revenge”

The first thing I noticed about this story is its structure. The traditional three act structure is not used here. Instead, the episode is structured in two acts, separated by a midpoint reversal. The first half of the episode sets up a tranquil domestic setting; an engineer named Carl Spann (Ralph Meeker) and his wife Elsa (Vera Miles) live in a trailer near the beach. We observe that Elsa has suffered a nervous breakdown and that the reason they live near the beach is for therapeutic reasons.

The second half of the episode is about the reaction to what happens during the midpoint reversal; Carl comes home and sees Elsa on the floor with the oven burning. Someone has attacked her. This becomes the focal point for this half of the episode. Carl’s unrelenting quest for revenge simmers as his wife stumbles around in a daze. It reaches a boil at the episode’s climax.

There’s a very important story detail I noticed here. Carl and Elsa are driving their car down the street. Elsa notices a man walking along the street and says, “There he is, that’s him”. Carl assumes she’s talking about her attacker. He doesn’t verify this by asking her, “are you sure that’s the man who attacked you”? Because if he did do this, then Elsa wouldn’t say yes because, as we see at the very end of the episode, she repeats the same line. This tells us that she is in a trance since she’s not speaking about anyone in particular. She’s delusional so if Carl had asked her a question she would have snapped out of her trance and Carl would have realized she was just speaking nonsense.

Another reason this detail is important is because it communicates to the audience who the character Carl Spann is. He’s impulsive and fiercely protective of his wife. So it’s only natural that he makes the dangerous assumption that a random man on the street, the object of Elsa’s gaze as she mutters her line, is the perpetrator of the horrific attack that has spurred him to action.

When we first see the man Elsa sees, we see him from behind. We see this again when Carl follows the man into the hotel. Then, we see them standing next to each other as they wait for an elevator. The camera shows them in a profile. Finally, we get a frontal shot of the man as the two men get into the elevator. This type of reveal (back, profile, front) helps to delay the answer to the question, “who is this man and what does he look like?”. We want to know this so our curiosity is stretched out over a few minutes to keep us engaged. Assuming the episode was filmed as written, screenwriters can take note of this technique. Slowly revealing a character creates an interest and makes for strong visuals.

Finally, the murder scene is masterfully constructed. It is one shot and the camera is at the POV of the murder weapon, not of the murderer. We see Carl’s wrench but since his back is to the camera, we do not see his face. The focus here is on the instrument Carl will use to quench his thirst for blood, not on his reaction, which would be a wasted shot since we already know his character’s disposition at this point in the episode. This is an example of good directing. A good director knows where to put his camera (this scene exemplifies the importance of POV), but also how the story dictates the position of the camera at any given point.

As Carl sneaks into the man’s room, we see the victim unaware of Carl’s presence. We know something the victim does not. He has only seconds to live. This engages us and makes us wonder if and when the victim will realize what we already know before it is too late. This is called dramatic irony.

Film, and television as well, is a visual medium. It’s so much more effective to suggest something than it is to actually show it happening, especially if it is dramatic. In this case, it is the killing of a human being. Take Psycho (1960), another Hitchcock masterwork, for instance. In the infamous shower scene, the victim Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, is never actually shown being stabbed. We just see the knife plunging towards the camera, and close-ups of Marion’s wet body as she tries to defend herself. Yet, we feel the murder of her character as if the knife actually penetrated her flesh. That’s the power of suggestion.

A similar technique is used during the murder scene in this episode. We see shadows on the wall and we hear the brutal blows that Carl delivers on the man, killing him. The shadows show the violence, but we see no blood. This allows our imagination to fill in the rest of the gory details.

“Revenge” is an auspicious beginning for this seminal TV series, which first debuted in 1955. Today’s screenwriters stand on the shoulders of giants. It is crucial, then, that they learn the ways of the geniuses beneath their feet.

Episode 5 – “Into Thin Air”

In this episode, a woman disappears suddenly, hence its title. Curiosity is the engine that drives this story. As Hitchcock himself points out in the episode’s prologue, this concept is not new. It is a classic storytelling technique that has been used extensively in novels and films.

There is an adage in screenwriting, “No scene that does not turn”. The point here is that every scene must move the story forward. This is a horizontal approach. Cause and effect. Something happens. Then something else happens because of the previous thing that happened and so on. But there is another element that must exist to make a story deeper and richer; The Big Question.

The Big Question is simply a question that hangs over every scene once the premise has been established. It lingers like an unscratched itch, keeping the audience focused and engaged. In this episode, Diana Winthrop (Patricia Hitchcock) arrives in Paris with her ailing mother (Mary Forbes). Soon, Diana’s mother is bedridden and a doctor is called to tend to her mysterious illness, which is initially diagnosed as a fever.

The weak condition of Diana’s mother is the focal point of the episode’s opening scenes, and for good reason. It imbues a sense of urgency into the story. Something, an old woman’s fragile health, is at stake here, which makes the time element relevant to the story. The episode takes its first turn when Diana returns to the hotel after being sent to the doctor’s house to retrieve medicine from the doctor’s wife (Ann Codee).

But she is flabbergasted to see the hotel staff feign knowledge of Diana and her sick mother. No one has ever seen her before. Her mother is gone and there is no record of her hotel room registration earlier in the day. The Big Question has been created.

“What happened to Diana’s mother?”

As the story progresses, the mystery deepens. We see Diana return to her hotel room to find it remodeled. The furniture is different and the wallpaper is new. At this point, Diana is the only character who can satisfy our need for an answer to The Big Question. Here are a few things that Marion B. Cockrell, who wrote this episode, does to make the journey to the answer a good one.

When Diana is confronted by the hotel staff who insist they’ve never seen her, she recounts her interaction with each one. This helps the viewer to step through each of the possibilities, i.e., maybe the hotel porter will remember her, maybe the doctor is still there, etc. This is important because Diana must exhaust all means to her disposal to achieve her goal, to see her mother again. It also communicates to the viewer that Diana is an intelligent person, something that is pivotal to her being able to find out the answer to The Big Question.

When a character wants something, it is imperative for the screenwriter to present an obstacle. This makes the character more interesting as they struggle, which is a metaphor for life, to get what they want. Cockrell gives us the hotel clerk (Maurice Marsac), who is persistent when Diana pleads to see her mother. He is stubborn and direct and serves as a worthy villain in preventing Diana from discovering the truth.

Cockrell gives us an outsider character, Basil Farnham (Geoffrey Toone), who gives the audience an excuse to hear the inner turmoil Diana is grappling with. Basil and Diana are discussing the situation at breakfast. Diana tells Basil she remembers exactly how the room looked. She provides details, including rose-patterned wallpaper, which pays off later when she and Basil are in the room.

Good characters make decisions. Those decisions lead to action and the story progresses. In a story like this, it’s not enough for the character to be inquisitive and persistent. The character must go beyond their comfort zone. They must be willing to break the rules. When given the chance to go to another hotel, Diana refuses. She decides to stay at the hotel, which irritates the hotel clerk. After she convinces the clerk to show her the room her mother stayed in, she makes another decision. She rips a piece of wallpaper off the wall, which reveals the old rose-patterned paper underneath, thus exposing the hotel staff’s duplicity. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be an egregious act deemed totally improper of a hotel guest but Diana wants her mother back, so she is willing to take the risk. The rules are presented, then broken by a character who wants something badly. This is what makes this episode work so well.

Episode 8 – “Our Cook’s a Treasure”

A red herring is an old storytelling technique that writers use to deflect a reader’s attention. Just like a master magician can train an audience to look at one hand while he performs a trick with the other hand, making the sleight of hand look like magic, a writer can set and shift focus on a character or a scenario, building up expectations in order to smash them to bits to a satisfying conclusion.

In this episode, in which a businessman, Ralph Montgomery (Everett Sloane) thinks he is being poisoned, the red herring is his housekeeper Mrs. Sloane (Beulah Bondi), whom he suspects is the culprit. Here is how the episode’s writer Robert C. Dennis, who wrote the teleplay based on a story by Dorothy L. Sayers, keeps the viewer focused on Mrs. Sloane and utilizes the red herring to maximum dramatic effect.

First, Dennis keeps us focused on the small details. This is an effective approach when dealing with red herrings. Why? Because it forces tunnel vision on the viewer. The story begins with a newspaper. We see Ralph come down to his kitchen, ready to drink a cup of hot cocoa before going to his job. Ralph complains that Mrs. Sutton has read his paper before he did and that this has been a recurring issue. He’s a man who likes a virgin paper in the morning.

In the next scene, on Ralph’s way to work, his friend Earl Kramer (Elliot Reid) informs him of Mrs. Andrews, a serial poisoner on the loose. What makes these scenes work is the suggestion it implies (Mrs. Sutton reads Ralph’s newspaper to check whether her crimes have made the paper) and the focus on something small, in this case, something you can hold in your hand, a newspaper.

Dennis continues this approach with a scene showing Ralph going to a chemist (Olan Soule) with a sample of his cocoa to see if arsenic can be detected. Once again, the focus is on the details. After the chemist calls him to confirm that there was arsenic in the cocoa, a small dosage enough to be lethal if taken over time, Ralph, convinced that Mrs. Sutton has been poisoning him, calls his wife Ethel (Janet Ward). Mrs. Sutton answers the phone and tells him that Ethel is unavailable. Ralph, fearing the worst, rushes home.

Our focus has now shifted from tiny details that have been pieced together to insinuate a nefarious scheme, to the safety of Ralph’s wife. The stakes have risen, a necessary requirement in the advancing trajectory of a story. But something else has happened. Dennis has presented Ethel as a victim, the complete opposite of what we discover she is in the closing moments of the episode, the perpetrator. This allows us to keep our suspicions trained on the housekeeper as Ralph’s paranoia reaches its pinnacle. It makes the twist, the revelation that Mrs. Andrews has been caught (exonerating Mrs. Sutton) and that Ethel has been the one poisoning Ralph, a successful one.

Also, Mrs. Sutton ends up being the one who informs Ralph that Ethel has been seeing a man in her drama club, and has asked Mrs. Sutton to lie for her. This makes the Mrs. Sutton character the opposite of what we initially perceived. Her confession to Ralph has made him realize Ethel is the culprit, and has probably saved his life. We have hit the wall of drama at a right angle, forcing a complete shift in perspective of the story and the two characters, Ethel and Mrs. Sutton, by the end of the episode.

“Our Cook’s a Treasure” is an excellent example of how writers can, and should, use red herrings to strengthen their storytelling skills. When used correctly, they can be used to keep viewers engaged by playing tricks on their expectations.


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