DIAL S FOR SUSPENSE
by John M. Floyd
Often I’ll read a novel or story or see a movie and be reminded of some technique (a.k.a. trick) that the author or director used to make the story better. Sometimes I suspect it wasn’t even a conscious effort — with many of the masters this kind of thing seems to be second nature, and just happens as a result of their telling the tale.
One of these techniques is having the story happen within a confined space. That is of course not possible, or even advisable, in all pieces of fiction — it might even make a story boring rather than interesting. But when it does work, it works really well. The movie that reminded me of this was Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder,” which I watched again last week. Almost the entire film takes place inside the apartment of the main character (the villain) and his wife. Hitch used this same method in at least two other movies: “Lifeboat” and “Rope.”
Why is this kind of thing effective? I think it’s because it keeps the storyline focused, and therefore keeps the reader focused as well. There’s not a lot of straying off into other locations or subplots, or the lives of minor characters. This is what’s happening, it seems to say, and it’s happening right HERE. Such an approach, when possible at all, requires tight plotting by the author. After all, plot isn’t usually a result of setting; setting is a result of plot.
Short vs. Long
This “confined to one spot” idea is more applicable to short stories than novels. Novels can wander all over the place, in subject and setting, and still keep us turning the pages (up to a point, at least). In short stories, there’s less chance or room to explore beyond the main plotline, so there are a lot of single-setting shorts. Several examples that come quickly to mind are Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” (the policeman’s home), Bill Pronzini’s “Words Do Not a Book Make” (a phony sales office), and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (the town common).
Again, the story itself determines whether you can have everything happen within the confines of a single location — but with a little thought, it can sometimes be done. In “Dial M for Murder” the victim doesn’t go to the police, the police officer comes to her. The villain hires a killer by inviting him to the apartment, and the attempted murder takes place in the apartment as well. We find out the wife has been wrongly convicted and is awaiting execution not by our seeing her in the courtroom or in jail but by our hearing the husband and the police inspector and the wife’s lover talking it over, right there in the living room.
Work vs. Play
Another thing occurred to me while watching that movie — it seemed more like a play than a film. Turns out it was a play. Hitchcock was able to transform it into a suspenseful movie in a single setting because of his near-perfect camera work and camera angles. Plus, the timing and the reactions of the players to the dialogue were outstanding. I sometimes think certain short stories, too, would be better if they were done more like plays, with the dialogue doing most of the work.
I’m not saying that several different settings aren’t important, and that they can’t add a great deal to a story. But when different locations aren’t essential to the storyline (think Misery, or “Sleuth,” or Death of a Salesman), concentrating on a single place can be effective and — once again — can serve not only to keep the reader/viewer’s attention but to maintain suspense throughout the story.
On the Home Front
I try to do that, whenever I can, in my own short stories. Some, especially the longer ones, have a lot of scenes in different places. But many of them do use only one setting, including my six most recent stories in AHMM and Strand Magazine: Those take place entirely within (1) a deceased victim’s apartment, (2) a campaign office, (3) the headquarters of an engineering firm, (4) a Houston oilman’s office, (5) the home of a research chemist, and (6) a downtown park. Another point: I think single-setting shorts are not only easier to read, they’re easier to write. The reader isn’t the only one who needs to stay focused.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about this. Do you think having the action confined to one location (when possible) is a plus or a minus? Does it improve the “flow” of the plot? Can it simplify things too much, maybe to the point of boredom? Would you rather see the characters move from place to place?
Maybe it honestly doesn’t matter, one way or the other. Dial D for Diversity . . .