#PubTip: How to Write a Mystery Thriller in the Style of Alfred Hitchcock by Tony Lee Moral

When it comes to publishing tips, not enough can be said when it comes to the importance of knowing the ins and outs of the comparable titles your book will be competing against. Too often, authors don’t put enough thought into this part of the process and then end up bemoaning the struggle to find an agent. Or if self-published, authors end up not connecting with an appropriate audience for their book. It pleases me immensely to bring you this post on how to write a mystery thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Tony Lee Moral is a prime example of an author who has done his homework and also literally written books on the topic!


Official Bio: Tony Lee Moral is an author of mystery and suspense novels who lives in London and Los Angeles. He has written three books on the works of Alfred Hitchcock; Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass. He has published two novels, Playing Mrs. Kingston and Ghost Maven.


How to Write a Mystery Thriller in the Style of Alfred Hitchcock

When looking for source materials for his thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock often turned to novels, plays, and short stories from established writers like John Buchan, Maxwell Anderson, Cornell Woolrich, and Patricia Highsmith.


So when writing my latest mystery novel, Ghost Maven, I was inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, particularly those source novels he adapted into memorable films, especially Rebecca, and the JM Barrie play he almost got to direct, Mary Rose, about a woman who disappears on a mysterious island and reappears many years later.


Hitchcock believed the formula for an exciting story is to find a single problem, which is sufficiently enthralling to hold the attention of the audience while the story unfolds. When writing my novel, I paid particular attention so that the reader becomes invested in Alice, the heroine, from the very start, so I immediately place her in danger during a kayaking trip in Monterey Bay.


Cover of Ghost Maven by Tony Lee Moral


Locations are very important in Hitchcock’s thrillers, not only for locale but to drive the plot. Hitchcock often likened his films to a rollercoaster ride. The sudden switches of location were very important to keep the viewer entertained. When writing my novel, I made sure to keep the reader interested by rapidly changing locations around the bay. I shift the locations from the Monterey Aquarium, to Point Pinos Lighthouse, to Big Sur, and to the mysterious island.


One of Hitchcock’s early British films, The 39 Steps is one of his favourite films because of the rapid and sudden switches in location. Once the train leaves the station, the film never stops moving. Such movements takes time to plan out, especially to blend the characterization with the action. Halfway through, the lead character Hannay leaps out of a police station window with half a handcuff on, and immediately walks into a marching Salvation Army band. To escape the police, he marches with the band, then slips into a public hall, and ends up on oratory platform and is mistaken for a speaker. The rapid movement from one scene to another, and using one idea after another, keeps the viewer or reader hooked.


Hitchcock loved public and everyday places where chaos can erupt at any moment. Similarly I set my novel in open places and used other Hitchcockian motifs such as towers, churches, old missions and spiraling staircases.


Hitchcock believed that if you are using a unique location, it should be used to its utmost. He was adamant that the backgrounds must be incorporated into the drama and made it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with a location. Never use a setting simply as background. Use it 100%. When writing my locations, I also thought how they could be used dramatically.


Picture of author Tony Lee Moral


The first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was filmed in Switzerland, and the opening was based on Hitch’s frequent trips to St. Moritz. He thought about what there was in Switzerland and decided that everything in the film should be relevant to the country. A chocolate factory turned out to be a nest for spies, the lakes were used for drowning, the Alps for people falling off and the chocolate for choking on. In Foreign Correspondent, the use of the windmills is a good example of using your locations dramatically. The windmills in the movie aren’t just scenery, they become part of the plot–a windmill is turning the wrong way as a signal as to where a person is being held captive.


Hitchcock often set action against strong, famous landmarks, such as the United Nations, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Piccadilly Circus. They are combined with his best set pieces. Blackmail features a chase from the dome of the British Museum. The climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much takes place at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Saboteur atop the Statue of Liberty and North by Northwest on Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock enjoyed placing his characters in great danger in symbols of order, public and everyday places where chaos can erupt at any moment.


Hitchcock often outlined the difference between mystery and suspense. Whereas mystery is an intellectual process, like a who dunnit, suspense is an emotional process that involves the audience or reader. In all suspense you must give the audience information so that they become anxious. A good murder mystery states in the opening three chapters the book’s central theme and dilemma. I write about these principles of suspense building in my book Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass, which I applied when writing my novel.


I also needed a MacGuffin, which Hitchcock described as the red herring or engine of the story, the object around which the plot revolves and motivates the actions of the characters. Often a MacGuffin is central to thrillers, spy stories, and adventures. Most of the characters in the story will base their actions on the MacGuffin, although the final result will usually be of greater significance than actually getting, controlling or destroying the MacGuffin. In Notorious, the MacGuffin is the uranium ore inside the wine bottles, and in North by Northwest, it is the statue that holds the secret microfilm.


Most of all, Hitchcock relished a good yarn, he described his stories as a slice of cake, a rollercoaster ride or a trip to the haunted house.



What other observations might you add when it comes to how to write a mystery thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock? Do you count yourself as a Hitchcock fan and why?


You can connect with Tony Lee Moral and his social media sites via his author website.



Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2017.

Author: Jeri Walker

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  1. Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite writers. He could always turn the common into something suspenseful. I will start looking for your books at the story, Tony.

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  2. This makes an interesting reading! Mystery and suspense – two elements that could hook the readers have been defined so well here. I have not read Alfred Hitchcock and now am feeling inspired to…if he could inspire more stories, he must be worth reading. Thank you Jeri, for introducing me to two authors today.

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  3. I enjoyed this article. I am especially intrigued by the use of setting as more than backdrop. I will look into this more in my own writing.

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  4. As a Hitchock fan, I read this post with special interest and the advice is spot on! Love the input about location and the idea of a single dilemma. I’ve read all too many mysteries that get bogged down in soap opera and lose focus. Thanks for bringing Tony Lee Moral to your followers!

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  5. Thank you for pointing out the difference between mystery and suspended. Sometimes the lines becomes blurred.

    I have watched Alfred Hitchock’s film “The Birds”. When the film ended I was not satisfied as I wanted to know why the woman was being stalked by birds. I tend to want the reasons why and not every film will answer your questions. I guess this is why they are mysteries!

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  6. I love how you’ve taken so many lessons from a master, Hitchcock. I’m familiar with a few of his films but now I want to watch all of them. Thanks for the writing tips, Tony. I will check out your book as I would love to read a good suspense about now. Obviously, you have this genre down! Thanks for the guest post, Jeri. always a pleasure and an education stopping over here at Word Bank.

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    • Lisa, I think it’s safe to say Tony’s guest post is one of the best one’s I’ve posted on my site.

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  7. This is an excellent post… I only watched Hitcock´s film “The Birds” , loosely based on the 1952 story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. It was a long time ago, but I recall it flew my mind away. (Proof of how important the plot is, given the lack of loud special effects in that time).
    It is interesting that spacial transition and changes of location might act accompanying character´s actions and appearances. I have never thought of that, but it is a good point, aiming to reinforce the scenes. Most authors use chapters to introduce new characters, but this approach you present seems more rich and polysemic; I am guessing. Thank you for sharing, Tony & Jeri…. All the best to you! 😀

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  8. Just this past week I saw Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” A company called Fathom Events distributes old classics to movie theaters around the country. There is nothing like seeing them on the big screen. In one of the most famous scenes of any of Hitchcock’s movies, Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. And, of course, Hitchcock always included a cameo role for himself in his movies. In this one, he’s seen about to board a bus. Great movie.J

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  9. I loved the quote “Stories are like a slice of cake, a rollercoaster ride or a trip to the haunted house.” It’s a good thing to keep in mind, no matter what we write about.

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  10. I love Hitchcock and I studied a few of his films for English class – The Birds, Rear Window, Vertigo but Pyscho is my favourite. He seemed to know how to create suspense and tension without the big sound effects of explosions that films nowadays can seem to rely on.

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  11. I’ve been a Hitchcock movie fan for as long as I can remember, but it never occurred to me until I read your interview that I’ve never read the books behind the movies. Hum. You’ve inspired me to do something about that!

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  12. Interesting stuff. Despite having watched many of Hitchcock movies, a lot of these things weren’t that apparent to me.

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  13. Great insights from Tony here. Hitchcock is the master of mystery storytelling. 🙂

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  14. Great fun to read your perspectives on Hitchcock because I’ve been keeping Rear Window in mind as I edit my mystery. It is my favorite H film and I’ve been dissecting why and trying to see if I can work those elements into my book.

    Will pop over and check out your site. Best of luck!

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  15. As a director Hitchcock was the best. I even liked the modern movie about him directing Psycho. Speaking of a location. Can you get any more terrifying than an isolated motel, with a large old house looming over it. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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  16. I was never good at thrillers, but I really admire who is. Thrillers have a big success and I guess writing a good one can be a very hard task. Thank you for sharing this, Jeri.

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  17. Another lesson learned ‘setting as more than backdrop’ amazing! Thank you for the same 😀

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  18. I love the idea of writing in the style of a famous author. I often wonder if everyone is trying so hard to be different that we all end up bumping into each other anyway, trying to stay away from someone else’s style. I’m sure that, even if you’re writing in the style of someone else, your book will be unique because we are each so unique.

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    • I agree with you wholly, Meredith. Even if the new saying goes: everything has been already written and there’s nothing else to be told, I think that every hand is one of a kind, so each one of us can write the same story all over again and that story will always be different from the others.

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