Lessons in Plot: The Alfred Hitchcock Way

Alfred Hitchcock with sound marker

photo by: d!zzy

Let's step away from the bookshelves today to talk about plot. This might seem counterintuitive, but trust me: we can all learn a lot from other sources! Some would say that you can distill literary fiction and "popular" fiction into entirely separate camps: character driven and plot driven, respectively. (It's not as clean as all that, but that discussion is for another post.) Most of what I tend to talk about here is character-driven fiction, so much of the story is propelled by a strong protagonist, includes a very rich people side of things, and is light on the plot, thank you very much. On the other hand, much popular fiction revels in plot—plot is the very engine that gets the story to go! There are also distinct ideas about what's "worthy" of reading, but let's chuck that all out the window because who really cares, anyhow, as long as the story is cracking.

Literary fiction is all well and good, but a lot of people can't get into it because there's just not a lot of action, in general (again, I'm making very sweeping generalizations here—no protestations necessary ;). That's why popular fiction is more popular: because there's a lot going on to keep our attention. If the author is good about keeping us engaged, we can guess alongside the characters as the story unfolds, tryin to divine how the thing will end. Really, it's a lot of fun.

Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest running from plane

photo by: _Wiedz

Right alongside popular fiction is television. Again, a popular medium, and very accessible. TV writers know they have to hook us or lose us, so there's usually a lot of action to keep us engaged and paying attention. One of the best TV shows to do this is Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (I'm also a sucker for crime shows like Law & Order, Elementary, and CSI in all its iterations.) Alfred Hitchcock Presents is basically a series of murder-mystery short stories brought to life on camera, all written by different authors—including Roald Dahl! I started watching an episode or two on Hulu a couple of years ago out of curiousity and quickly got sucked in to marathon nights of murder, intrigue, and, at times, morbid hilarity. Each episode is only about 25 minutes long, yet they've packed so much story and action into each minute. Watch carefully, and you'll get the backstory (if necessary), the layout of characters and their desires, the complication, climax, and wrap-up, all laid out neatly in that 25-minute package. It's incredible, really, and you can easily see how all the pieces fit together and why each is necessary to telling the story. If you've been feeling like you could use a plot refresher but don't have the time/money/attention span necessary for taking another writing course, try watching a few Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes and take a few notes. Trust me, it isn't just for the birds. ;)

How appropriate that we're talking about Hitchcock on the 13th! If Hitchcock isn't your thing, what plot-driven TV series could we learn from?

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