Next fall I’m teaching a seminar course to seniors comparing novels to their film versions. In the course, I’m focusing on the genre of suspense fiction and how several great literary thrillers have been interpreted for the silver screen.
Patricia Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train, which became the famous Hitchcock film of the same name, is one of the texts for the course. In my estimation, it is a great novel. Highsmith has managed to fuse character development and plot seamlessly, something which I continue to aspire to do in my own writing. Her prose is both vivid and controlled, including just the right details and just the right gestures to give a full sense of the characters and the story, but not so much to burden the reader or slow the pace.
My admiration for this novel brought me to her book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. I didn’t know what to expect from this book. I’d always heard that Highsmith was a notoriously grumpy (even mean) person, so I was surprised that she had even written such a book. I didn’t expect her to care about encouraging young writers. What I discovered was a wonderful little book about what it means to write literary suspense fiction, which it seems, is where I’m headed with my own writing. It was just the book I needed right now as I’m setting out to revise my own novel. I found such warmth and honesty in the tone of her book, and I was so happy to hear from a writer who, instead of telling young writers how it should be done (I’ve found such didacticism to be truly suffocating in the past), simply wrote about how she does it. I truly appreciated that.
I also discovered that her process in assembling a novel is very similar to my own. She writes, “I see no reason why letting plot or character take the lead in plotting should be held inferior or superior to the opposite method” (39). I’ve found that at different times in my writing my focus has shifted from plot to character and back to plot again. The two seem to be in a constant, sometimes frustrated dialog with one another. I’ve been told many times that plot must rise out of character, but I don’t believe this to always be the case and neither does Highsmith, which I find refreshing.
I’m going to keep her book close to me while I revise my novel, both because I believe she offers a great deal of good, concrete advice to a young writer, but also because I have particular admiration for her attitude toward her writing. Toward the end of her book, she remarks that “the writing of [a] book will protect you from all kinds of emotional blows, of a destructive kind, which otherwise might wound and distract” (144). Writing for her was a means of surviving, if not always financial, then certainly emotional. The same is true for me.