Are you as talented as Mr. Ripley?

How to write suspense

Are you as talented as Mr. Ripley?

You may have read the novels of Patricia Highsmith or seen the movies – Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley – two of the most highly regarded mystery and suspense stories of all time.  Highsmith also published in 1983 her notes and advice in one of the most frequently recommended guides for writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction.

In less than 150 pages she comments on her decades of experience: generating ideas, writing short stories, developing and plotting the novel, creating characters, writing and revisions, obstacles, successes and failures.

I’ve selected a few memorable points to share with you.

In the words of Patricia Highsmith:

  • Writing fiction is a game, and one must be amused all the time to do it.
  • Don’t be limited by the label, suspense or another, simply be a writer.
  • A successful book means a readable book.
  • The germ of an idea may brew for six weeks to three years before it becomes a detailed plot, fleshed out with characters, setting, and atmosphere.
  • A short story may be written on a weekend.
  • The reader does not have to like your hero, but make him fascinating.
  • Thicken the plot by piling on complications for the hero, or for his enemies.
  • Don’t be dull! Write skillful prose that is entertaining, intelligent and has morality without preaching it.
  • The vital elements are: surprise, speed of action, stretching the reader’s credulity, and above all intimacy with the murderer (main character).
  • It is in the story that enduring value lies.
  • Writing is made lively and exciting by the ever-present possibility of failure.
  • It can be lonely and hard work, but it is vital for writers to express their individuality through the joy of writing.

Interesting commentary to consider.

So now I have to ask, have you learned anything from Patricia Highsmith that allows you to get more enjoyment out of your reading and your writing? Or does it spoil the fun to think too much about what goes into making a good book?

Enjoy your summer and stay cool,


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