PLOTTING AND WRITING SUSPENSE FICTION by Patricia Highsmith — a Review

I read Patricia Highsmith’s PLOTTING AND WRITING SUSPENSE FICTION after Damon Knight included it among his “Suggested Reading” at the end of CREATING SHORT FICTION. He wrote, “Sensible, good-humored, and practical advice from a distinguished mystery writer. Much of what she says about novels can be applied to short stories.” I agree that there are lessons to be learned from this book, but readers will have to hunt for them inside this highly personalized, subjective book. After all, Highsmith (who wrote THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) begins her book by saying, “This is not a how-to-do-it handbook.” It’s a collection of lessons she has learned over the course of her career: the successes, the failures, the tips, and the traps.

I enjoyed Highsmith’s advice on how to find the ideas for a story and how to judge whether that idea will carry a short story, a novel, or only a subplot. She also talks about developing or “thickening” those ideas. I am an outliner, and Highsmith isn’t, but I still found her approach interesting. She will outline enough to get rolling, and then look for opportunities to let the characters take over and surprise her (and her readers too). I also enjoyed her advice for starting a story at a brisk pace and keeping it moving, as well as staying in control of a stories “proportions” and themes. I think this advice would be useful for any writer.

But a big negative for me was that throughout the book, Highsmith says, in effect, “This is what works for me. It may not work for you. Although she is very upfront about the subjective nature of this book, I think Stephen King’s ON WRITING is a far more effective autobiography/how-to book for writers in general. If you are focusing on suspense or mystery though, I think you would find this quick read worth your time.