Creative writing lessons from Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is an inspiring primer for budding psycho-crime novelists

Earlier this month, Reading group contributor Mmeritt1 recommended Patricia Highsmith’s book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. It is “edifying and inspirational”, s/he wrote. And s/he is absolutely right.

The book is as unusual as you might expect and hope for from Patricia Highsmith. An elegant creative writing guide, it’s also a goldmine for anyone hoping for insight into The Talented Mr Ripley – and its author.

Highsmith points out in the book that The Talented Mr Ripley begins with an “almost but not quite incredible” coincidence. It’s quite some chance that the father of Dickie Greenleaf selects Tom Ripley, “a potential murderer”, to bring his son home.

As soon as I read that I could see that it was all too true. What astonishing ill fortune that Greenleaf Snr should select a sociopath – who barely knows his son – as the person to help him. And that he should pay for that sociopath to go all the way to Italy from New York and live with his son. I want to write that it stretches credulity; and yet I have to admit that it didn’t stretch mine at all. Motoring through the pages, I accepted the coincidence as fine and natural; the story’s details are presented in such a reasonable, matter-of-fact way, and the reader zips along, happily snapped into a mantrap of narration.

The book is full of direct and clear explanations of the mechanics of plotting and how best to use chance as a device. Such passages also demonstrate Highsmith’s magic – her power to compel you to read on and forget about how unlikely it all is. Although, if you’re hoping for tips about casting such spells yourself, Plotting and Writing A Suspense Thriller may sometimes make for depressing reading. Often, as much as providing a step-by-step guide, it demonstrates how impossible it is to walk in Highsmith’s shoes.

You might be able to follow her writing method of “mentally as well as physically sitting on the edge of my chair” while composing your thriller (done because Ripley is a young man on the edge of his chair - “if he is sitting down at all”). Good luck, however, if you want to create this kind of alchemy:

“By thinking myself inside the skin of [Ripley], my own prose became more self-assured than it logically should have been … No book was easier for me to write and I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing.”

Plenty of the rest of her advice is similarly hard to follow – unless, like Highsmith, you happen to be a major talent. “The setting and the people must be seen as clearly as a photograph,” she advises. Well, yes. She also notes that a writer “should sense when something is wrong, as quickly as a mechanic hears a wrong noise in an engine, and he should correct it before it becomes worse”. That’s true, and irrefutably good advice. But it’s no more or less useful than Mike Tyson telling you that you need to move faster, dodge smarter and hit harder. It might work for him…

In spite of her modest tone, much of this book reads like a showcase of a master magician’s tricks. But it’s worth reading for other reasons, not least its delightful idiosyncrasy. “I cannot think of anything worse or more dangerous than to discuss my work with another writer,” says Highsmith. Doing so seems to be one of the peculiar enjoyments of the French, she explains.

Elsewhere, she writes: “I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me.” That’s some insight into the languid minds of so many of her characters - and the way she flings them to far flung places and strange situations. Also, into how detached she could be. How many people here suffer from reality boredom?

Another moment of telling self-revelation comes when (and no surprises here if you’ve been following this month’s Reading group) she says that she doesn’t enjoy letting justice catch up with her criminals. She “rather” likes them and finds them “extremely interesting, unless they are monotonously and stupidly brutal”.

But please don’t get the impression that Highsmith is as amoral as her subjects. One page later she points out how strange it is that the public likes to see the law triumph – but has no issue with brutality. “Sleuth-heroes” can beat women, be brutal and sexually unscrupulous, but the public will still cheer them on because they are chasing “something worse than themselves, presumably”.

The impression you get of Highsmith is of a complicated, roving intelligence: clear-sighted, determined and not at all concerned with trying to live a conventional life. The book is correspondingly eccentric. Yet while it doesn’t have the usual sets of rules, suggestions and markers you might expect from a creative writing handbook, by the end you realise that this is a singularly useful volume. There’s hard practical advice here from someone who has a fine understanding of plotting, motivation, what to “show” and not tell, how to keep things moving forward and how and where to place a climax.

There is further gold on what she terms “thickening” the plot – adding complications to ensure that things remain interesting. (Examples from The Talented Mr Ripley would be the unexpected arrival of Freddie Miles in Tom/Dickie’s flat in Rome, and Dickie’s father’s decision to hire a detective late on in the novel.) She also cuts through the complications surrounding point of view. Don’t dwell on the question, says Highsmith: just think about whose eyes the story is looking through, and whether the story would be better told from someone else’s point of view. She notes that keeping the focus on Ripley, for instance, increases intensity. Possibly that’s another pep-talk from the Mike Tyson boxing school – but it points to her broader ideal of avoiding complications and just trying to do the practical thing.

And in case you are still worried that this is a book that will work only for the unusually talented, Highsmith is also tremendously reassuring about her own struggles and unfinished projects. Not to mention financial concerns, even deep into a successful career: “The eternal maneuverings one has to perform in order to exist on an irregular and often inadequate income … the insecurity that is the very air writers breathe.”

She’s possibly at her best when discussing failure. She talks about several projects of her own that she hasn’t finished - books where she became too involved with small irrelevant details, plots that didn’t work out, books that didn’t sell. In fact, she explains neatly why there’s no such thing as failure in writing, just the accumulation of experience. “A writer should not think he is bad or finished [if a book fails to get to market] … Every failure teaches something. You should have the feeling, as every experienced writer has, that there are more ideas where that one came from, more strength where the first strength came from, and that you are inexhaustible as long as you are alive.”

Keep going, in other words.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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