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Summary of this month’s movie:
Jeff Jeffries is recuperating from a broken leg in his small New York apartment and spends his time in a wheelchair looking out the rear window and watching his neighbors. The only people he talks to regularly are his therapist Stella and his girlfriend Lisa.
One night at about 2 am, Jeff is dozing in his wheelchair by the window when a neighbor, who's a salesman, attracts his attention with some suspicious behavior in the courtyard. He tells Stella and Lisa, and they all start watching the neighbor and see that the wife is gone. They're all thinking the same thing: the missing wife was murdered by the salesman. Jeffries explains everything to a friend who's a police detective. But the detective looks into it and the wife is in the country and everything is okay. Jeffries, Stella, and Lisa all feel silly and a little morbid. But when a neighbor's dog is found dead after digging in the salesman's flower garden, all the neighbors rush to their windows to see what's happened--except the salesman, who sits unmoving in his dark apartment.
They come up with a scheme to dig up his flowerbed without him noticing, but they find nothing. Refusing to give up, Lisa climbs the fire escape to the salesman's apartment and squeezes in an open window. She finds the wife's purse and wedding ring, which she would not have left behind on a trip. He and Stella watch helplessly as Lisa is trapped when the neighbor comes home. She tries to hide but is found moments later. The neighbor urns out the lights as Lisa screams for help. The police arrive and beat on the door, saving Lisa just in time. They arrest her, but she signals to Jeff that she has slipped the ring on her finger. The salesman also sees and follows her signal to find Jeffries watching.
The detective agrees to help get Lisa out of jail and is now convinced that salesman is guilty of something. Stella heads for the police station. Jeffries is left alone, and looking back over to the other apartment, he sees all the lights are off. Down below, he hears the door to his own building slam shut then slow footsteps climbing the stairs. The neighbor is coming for him, and he's trapped in his wheelchair. The only defense he can find is the flash for his camera, which only blinds the neighbor and slows him down for a few seconds. He makes it to the wheelchair and pushes Jeffries out the open window, where he hangs onto the ledge long enough that Lisa comes fresh from jail with the police and they break his fall. The neighbor confesses to the murder, and the police take him away.
Jeni, what’d you think about the movie?
Jeni: Like most Alfred Hitchcock movies, you have to watch this one with consideration for the era and also for Hitchcock himself and how he saw women and yeah, there’s a whole thing with that. But, you can’t argue that they aren’t full of mystery and suspense. He really helped create a whole genre of these tense thrillers, even if they don’t all hold up super well today. I know there was a remake of it in the 90s with Christopher Reeve and Darryl Hannah, but I haven’t ever seen it. And honestly, I’m pretty sure it’s not as good. Just based on the other times people have remade Hitchcock films. But, yeah, in terms of the plot and overall story, I do think this one holds up pretty well. I think a lot more people would find this movie even more relatable now than a few years ago, after having dealt with lockdowns and quarantines for so long, because it does such a good job of creating that sense of isolation and the vulnerability that comes with being kind of trapped. This is the only Jimmy Stewart movie I really like, because I often find his Jimmy-Stewartness offputting. Maybe because of seeing it mimicked so many times before I ever actually saw him a movie? I don’t know. But I love a lot of Grace Kelly movies because she always played a brash, independent woman for the time, which she does here too. So, overall, I’d recommend it, as long as you can look past all the stuff that comes with it being in the 50s. What did you think?
Carly: Okay so this is my favorite Hitchcock movie. And breezing past a lot of the problems that come with time, I think it does hold up pretty well, considering. I’m still tense throughout the movie, I’m still invested, and I’m obviously obsessed with every outfit Grace Kelly wears. I wrote an essay on her outfits and how they correlate to the story etc. back in college. So it’s a whole thing. Also Jimmy Stewart always reminds me of my grandpa, so he has a soft spot in my heart. But yeah, we could talk for an hour about the ethics in this movie, the way that he tries to make decisions for Lisa, the fact that he thinks he can do nothing to help her when she gets caught, the fact that they are not concerned enough about Ms. Lonely Hearts. I could go on about problems. But I still love it.
So Jeni, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: Okay, like I said before, Hitchcock really was a master of tension, and I think this movie in particular does a really great job of making it permeate the whole film. So, I’m going to say microtension, mostly because we’ve already done an episode about tension haha But microtension is really like a next-level element of storytelling and writing that doesn’t get talked about as much as like, plot, character arc, etc. So, what is microtension? Microtension is all about creating a constant tension in your reader. Even in a Marvel movie, you can’t just have the main character punching bad guys constantly to create higher and higher tension in a story. You have to have some variety, both so it maintains reader interest and engagement. To create that variety, you have to rely on varying levels of tension, as well as varying sources. So, microtension is small, less overt tension, and it often comes through dialogue, interiority, body language, description, and other finer details in the story. And I think the reason this movie is such a great example of microtension is that, honestly, most of the tension in this movie comes from small tensions. It’s really not until the climax of the movie that there’s a lot of big, overt, explosion-level tension. Up until that point, it’s small things that just sort of make the viewer wonder about what exactly is going on without hitting them over the head with big questions or big stakes.
Carly: Okay so what is the difference between tension and microtension? Tension is all about discomfort. There are different ways you can create discomfort for your readers and your characters. Most of that comes from conflict and upending expectations, which we talked a lot about on our Alien episode where we talked about tension. In that episode, we discuss how to create plot and scene level tension. That often comes from big reveals, high stakes, and strong conflict. Tension is critical on every level of a story, it is what keeps readers engaged. So if that’s tension, then microtension is when things feel off, when there’s a sense of unease but nothing overt. It’s those small moments of anxiety. When the reader is picking up on something that the characters aren’t. When the sentences use an unexpected word that could mean multiple things. Small moments that create unease. So in this movie, there are lots of moments of microtension. When we see Ms. Lonely Hearts pause at the doorway before a date, it’s a small moment that means a whole lot. Or better yet, when the dog dies and the whole courtyard is upset. Everyone comes out to find out what happened, to show concern, to at least listen to the woman be sad. But the salesman doesn’t. All we see is his dark apartment and the glow of a cigarette. We are focusing on this small glow in the dark, that fades in and out as he takes a drag. He is sitting in the dark, not bothering to come to the window, pretending to not be home. And we as the viewer, all can guess why. It’s taken this small moment, of how he reacts to the death, to build all of this tension. Suddenly, he definitely seems guilty. It’s possible to have had doubts, maybe Jeff really is making it up. But at this moment, with this small action, suddenly everything gets more sinister.
Jeni: I think the biggest thing that microtension does is keep your reader hooked in between big conflicts. It keeps the reader engaged, even when it doesn’t feel like quote-unquote stuff is happening. Microtension really creates a sense of mystery around what will happen in the story. It’s almost like foreshadowing sometimes. When you are reading or watching a movie and you get that feeling of “ooh! I bet that’s important” or “I bet this is going to happen,” that is probably because of microtension. It gives little hints. Breadcrumbs, even. My favorite thing! It basically keeps the reader in suspense and eager to continue the story and learn more. Because I can’t help but think in terms of ADHD, I feel like microtension gives a reader’s wandering attention something to do and focus on while their main attention is focused on the current scene. While you’re invested in what’s happening right now on the page, you’re also guessing about what the breadcrumbs might be leading toward. I feel like that’s half the fun of reading, at least for me. So microtension is yet another way to write for impact on the reader and play with their expectations. When you understand it and use it intentionally, you can lead the reader down a certain path and then surprise them when that path doesn't go exactly where they thought it would. When the reader has that sense of “something feels off, but I’m not sure what” it keeps them open to possibility. When we, as readers, believe anything can happen in a story, it makes it that much more immersive. Microtension already really helps to create more realistic characters. Real people are complex and rarely ever only have one goal or motivation or desire. When we see how they are dealing with all their competing inner stuff, it makes them feel real and also adds layer to the overall story conflict.
Carly: Conflict really depends on tension and vice versa. You can’t really have one without the other. So as we said in the episode on tension, conflict and the cycle of responses to conflicts (that lead to more conflicts) is how you create a plot. And tension is the uncertainty of how the characters and the world will react to those responses. But that’s on a big level. Microtension takes those small moments and adds in layers of uncertainty that leave the reader feeling uneasy and unsure. Not everything can be explosions. That would be exhausting and get boring and also doesn’t fit every story. Microtensions can slowly build to create greater unease around a major plot point. Or it can create unease around smaller moments and conflicts. Not everything in your book is feeding the main plot. You will have lots of smaller conflicts between characters, emotional connections, subplots, etc. And microtensions will help you to add meaning to those. They are what will get your reader engaged in the emotional journeys and relationships. Sometimes it is better to sit in a dark room smoking a cigarette than it is to show a man murdering his wife.
Jeni: So I mentioned a minute ago about inner conflict. I want to come back to it because I think this is one of the best ways to create microtension. Authors usually work really hard on making sure the external conflict is complex and that the character’s inner world conflicts with that in some way. But it’s really important to think about how the character’s inner world conflicts with itself. Like, they want The Thing, but they don’t think they can have it. Or they feel guilty for wanting it. Or they believe they shouldn’t. There are so many examples of this in real life. In the movie, we can see an example of this in Lisa and Jeff’s relationship. This issue of who they think they are and what they think the other person wants is really about what’s happening inside each of their heads, and it manifests in this argument. So it’s easy to look at the argument and see the tension, but it feels like a real argument because of the internal aspects of what each character is thinking and feeling. I imagine if this were in a book and we could see inside Jeff’s head, we’d see that he has a lot of love for Lisa but also conflicting feelings about the life he thinks they’d have together. He wants both things–the life he imagines for himself AND the person he loves. But his inner conflict comes from believing these two things might be incompatible.This adds depth to the conflict within the relationship and also helps the viewer make the leap that Grace Kelly, the amazing perfect LITERAL PRINCESS that she was, was interested in Jimmy Stewart, who was kinda bossy and controlling because it was the 50s.
Carly: Subtext is the next big thing to discuss with microtension. They feed each other. Subtext is basically everything that isn’t said, but that the reader knows. Subtext is all about understanding a character, especially their secrets, and using that to inform on what they say and do, without revealing the secret or being overt about their thoughts. It’s really all about what isn’t said, but implied. So if your character is lonely, you want to evoke that without explicitly saying it. And this is perfectly shown with Ms. Lonely Hearts. We never hear her speak, but the way she moves, the quiet moments when she pauses, or when she cries, those are all moments that show subtext. She is craving connection. The best way to write subtext is to ask yourself “what does my character know or feel that is pertinent but not overt?” If they are saying something that is opposite to what they are feeling, if they have a goal other than what they claim, all of these things will lead to subtext. Basically, take what you know about your characters in any given situation, and think about how those elements will inform on how your character acts. And now to actually relate this all to microtension. Having your reader understand the subtext of what a character is saying or doing leads to unease and tension. If they know that a character is lying, the unease and uncertainty that comes from that will up the tension. If they know a character is feeling stronger emotions than they are letting on, the concern leads to tension. It’s all of these small moments, of knowing when not everyone in the story knows, that leads to tension. Subtext is rife in writing. It is a tool that writers really need a strong grasp of to thread unease and microtension throughout a story. It helps to show and not tell too.
Jeni: So, basically, you always want to be thinking: what are the layers here? How can I show the tension inherent in each element of this scene? With action, how are you using them to make your readers think and wonder about all the things the characters are thinking and feeling? With dialogue, how are their words reflecting both what we know they feel and also giving hints at things they maybe haven’t expressed? Consider what you want the reader to feel and how high the tension is and needs to be. A great way to explore this is mindmapping or brainstorming until you see patterns emerging in each scene. What is each element pointing to in terms of what it’s making the reader feel and think, and how are they working together and conflicting with each other to create that tension in your reader? What words are you using to show the subtext and give the reader those little moments of guessing about what will happen next?
Our query this month is adult crime fiction. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?
Carly: So we’ve got another suspenseful story! My big notes are that the query feels long and dense. It is hitting what it thinks are all the high action, big conflicts, and buzz words. But it isn’t focusing enough on story and character. I want to understand why I would want to follow your main character. What is compelling about her? What is she going to get up to on a personal level? We’re missing the … microtension! Lol, only kind of. But we are missing the emotional tension and stakes. Authors often forget that queries aren’t just about plot, but also giving us a base in who the main character is and why we should start to care about them. Invest us in the character a bit more to add stakes to this conflict. Otherwise, it is all just big explosions.
Jeni: Agreed. I think part of it is that there’s too much going on in this query. We’ve got the main element of her job and then all the details of this one job that’s gone wrong and also hints at misogyny and several locations and two other characters mentioned at the last minute and … it’s all just kind of a lot. It’s really common for authors to want to include all the cool stuff about their story, but it can be like a three-ring circus and the reader won’t know where to look. Focus in on the main plot, the main character, and the stakes. That will really help this query letter show what’s unique about this story and what makes it stand out in a crowded market.