His name has become an adjective: Hitchcockian. And for a number of reasons, both the man and his films are iconic.

Dubbed cinema’s “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock was known for the clever camera play and visual trickery that intensified onscreen thrills. And though he said he relied more on style to build suspense, perhaps just as integral was Hitchcock’s manipulation of narrative.

Here are tips from the master on how to excite audiences—in this case, readers of your thriller.

For truly frightening settings, step out of the shadows

A commonplace setting—whether banal or homely—can amplify the shock of malice and violence.

  • Adman Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is waiting to meet a man on a rural roadside next to a sunny cornfield when violence drops from the sky in the form of a malicious crop-dusting plane. An attack from an utterly unanticipated direction can be all the more shocking.    
  • We’re more vulnerable when naked, so Marion Crane’s murder in the shower in Psycho is even more distressing than your average knife attack. It’s especially unsettling to worry that terror can occur at any time during our daily routine. Janet Leigh, the actress who played the ill-fated Marion, famously said “I stopped taking showers and I take baths, only baths.” She’s not alone.
  • In The Birds, a mass attack by our feathered ex-friends is freaky-terrifying because we never before imagined that a seemingly innocuous part of our everyday lives (birds) might violently turn against us, even if we live in a charming fishing village. And though, in general, confusion is not suspense, in this case the fact that we don’t understand what’s in their vicious birdbrains makes it all the scarier. Danger and violence may be lurking nearby in plain sight.

The best villains are compelling and complex, maybe even charming

Hitchcock said, “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture,” and indeed his most gripping films feature his best villains. In a narrative sense, this rogues gallery was the driving engine of these thrillers.

What distinguishes Hitchcock is that he slyly strived for audiences to identify with these nasty provocateurs. Why? Likely because, whether we admit it or not, we all have dark thoughts. Said Hitchcock, “In the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.”

A person involved in evil or depraved acts may appear all the more menacing if they speak uncomfortable truths that we must admit are kinda sorta true. It’s the bad guy who knows what’s what. 

  • In Notorious, Alicia Huberman becomes a spy and goes so far as to marry a Nazi hiding in Brazil—even though she’s been falling in love with her US intelligence handler, Devlin. Of course Nazis are bad (and we certainly want Ingrid Bergman to get together with Cary Grant—what could possibly be more perfect?) but we retain sympathy for spy Alicia’s cuckolded husband, Alexander Sebastian. We rather like this charming and plotting Nazi, perhaps because he so clearly loves Alicia. The villain’s affection for the protagonist makes her lies and betrayal of him more interesting and complex.
  • Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt is one of my favorite villains. In a stereotypical American household, the after-dinner talk takes a dark turn when visiting Uncle Charlie gives a most unsettling speech: “You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know that if you ripped the roofs off of houses you’d find swine? The world is a hell.” A charmer suddenly, unexpectedly, becomes a mesmerizing preacher of the damned. That’s scary.
  • In Strangers on a Train, we laugh when villain Bruno Antony is at a carnival and uses his lit cigarette to gracefully pop the balloon of an obnoxious little boy. Rich boy Bruno seems amusingly eccentric and his loud ties are slightly outrageous. By happenstance, he meets and converses with tennis player Guy Haines on a train. After that, possibly amorous Bruno carries out (good) Guy’s unconscious urges by killing Guy’s estranged wife. Hero and villain have intertwined motivations, which is both fascinating and thematically rich.

Cut the tension with humor

Yes, the goal is to heighten suspense, but every now and then we need to take a breather. Hitchcock actually said, “Every film I make is a comedy,” and he first got famous in England in the 1930s because audiences loved being provided thrills, chills … and laughter.

  • In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Richard Hannay is an innocent man accused of murder and must journey to Scotland to clear his name. His quest is complicated when along the way he becomes handcuffed to Pamela. They hate each other and trade barbs until they fall in love. A witty romance adds comic relief and spice, making this thriller work on numerous levels. Oh, and Hannay clears his name.
  • In the international thriller The Lady Vanishes—again set on a train—fun is poked at two fussy Englishmen who are desperate to learn cricket scores back home but find themselves inconvenienced by a violent terrorist attack on their train. Everyday obsessions—like a mania for sports—offer rich possibilities for satire.
  • In Rear Window, LB Jeffries is laid up with a broken leg. Confined to his apartment, he becomes a voyeur—much like the viewers of this film. Jeffries suspects that his neighbor across the way has murdered his invalid wife and is determined to prove it. The film’s building tension is leavened by wisecracks from his visiting nurse Stella—for example when she says, “He’d better get that trunk out of there before it starts to leak.” Later, after Stella is admonished for speculating about the slaying and its grisly cleanup, she retorts, “Come on, that’s what we’re all thinkin’.” Mirroring the viewer, some side characters might be quite titillated by the prospect of a murder.

There is a difference between suspense and surprise

It may just be a matter of who knows what. In an interview Hitchcock describes the scene of four people sitting around a table, having a rather dull discussion of baseball. Then a bomb that had been planted under the table goes off—leading to surprise and shock. But if the audience of that exact same scene knows that an anarchist’s bomb is ticking underneath the table and it is set to go off in five minutes, this piece of knowledge changes the scene’s entire tenor. A humdrum debate over 1927 New York Yankees might all of sudden be riveting. Tick, tock. Because we know that bomb is there, the suspense is intensified and lasts much longer.  

  • In The Man Who Knew Too Much, a frantic Jo McKenna is at a symphonic performance in London’s Royal Albert Hall. She spots an assassin taking aim at an important diplomat but is wretchedly conflicted: if she intervenes and tries to stop the killing, her own son will be killed by his kidnapper. Jo is tormented as excruciating minutes tick by with a symphonic score. Meanwhile, the assassin awaits a cymbal’s clash, his moment to shoot. A moral dilemma drives the suspense.
  • In a wonderful early Hitchcock film, Young and Innocent, accused murderer Robert seeks to clear his name—another prevalent Hitchcock theme. After busting out of jail, he learns that the actual murderer twitches and blinks, and a matchbook clue leads him—and his new girlfriend, the chief of police’s daughter, no less—to a tea dance at a fancy hotel ballroom. The film’s viewers know that the band’s drummer is furiously blinking—he’s our villain—but finding this pill-popping killer among such a massive crowd is like finding a needle in a haystack—hence the suspense. We fret and fidget when we’re aware the solution is just out of reach.
  • Hitchcock admitted a rare narrative misstep when looking back at Sabotage. An exciting sequence in that movie featured a charming boy Stevie who is transporting a tin of film across London. Along the way Stevie is distracted by various happenings: a street vendor’s demonstration, a puppy, a parade. All that doesn’t sound too exciting unless you know, as the viewer does, that inside the film case is a bomb set to go off at 1:45. It’s excruciating as the time approaches and Stevie is riding a bus to Piccadilly Circus. When the bus blows up, it’s horrible, Stevie’s dead. Hitchcock acknowledged that he had built up too much sympathy among the audience for the boy, and “the public was resentful.” Be careful who you kill.


Clearly POV can intensify suspense. Insider knowledge of impending doom builds suspense.  Even as most thriller writers today don’t write from an omniscient point of view, which would be the equivalent of Hitchcock’s all-seeing camera, they are well-advised to adapt Hitchcockian strategies. 

Alfred Hitchcock promoted the idea that everyday life is rife with terrifying possibilities. You just need to know where to look for it.

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