Learning from Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock on the set of
Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, and Alfred Hitchcock
on the set of “The Lady Vanishes”

A nuts-and-bolts manual of storytelling technique for writers, movie makers, and viewers — with examples from the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

This series won’t really be a “Hitchcock Retrospective.” It’s about storytelling — especially storytelling in movies. Fiction writing sometimes uses the same ideas.

It’s meant to help people enjoy movies, not just to write them.

I want to discuss the following topics:

  • Sequence Structure. Most thinking about film structure starts (and, unfortunately, also ends) with “3-act structure.” We will discuss this and also other forms of longitudinal structure that Hitchcock uses more prominently: “2-act structure” and “chapter structure.”
  • Thread Structure. There are other kinds of structure besides dividing the film into time segments: namely, the traditional elements of storytelling: plot, character, and action. Each of these is a way that a storyteller can start a thread that runs through part or all of the picture, more prominent at some times and less so at others. The pulse with which these threads succeed each other creates an artistic rhythm in the movie, and it’s also structural: it signals the audience about where they are in the story and what to expect.
  • Point of View. Although movies don’t have explicit 1st or 3rd person narrators, there are still several ways that point-of-view is important in movie storytelling. Hitchcock’s movies have intuitive structures built from pov threads that involve different characters.
  • Inner Story versus Outer Story. It’s common to structure movies so that they have two stories running concurrently: a plot-driven “outer story” and a character-driven, usually romantic, “inner story.”
  • Discovery. The Suspense Genre in which Hitchcock worked placed a premium on elements that are also important in all storytelling: At what point do different characters find out about events in the plot? When does the audience find out?
  • Visual Storytelling. Movies have unique ways of telling stories.
  • Poetry in Film. Poetic effect does not seem to have always been an important goal to Hitchcock, but sometimes it was and he succeeds beautifully.


Here’s a projected outline for this series, with links to completed posts:

Part 1: Vertigo — and Longitudinal Structure

  • Background: Introduction to Longitudinal Structure
  • Background: 3-act Structure (Star Wars)
  • Vertigo: 3-act Structure
  • Background: 2-act Structure (The Bridge on the River Kwai)
  • Background: Other Great Movies With 2-act Structure
  • Background: Thread Structure (Major Clipton in The Bridge on the River Kwai)
  • Background: A Further Note About 2-act Structure
  • Vertigo: 2-act Structure
  • Background: Chapter Structure (The African Queen)
  • Review: What’s been said so far
  • Vertigo: The “Scottie Trails Madeleine” Chapter
  • Vertigo: The Artistry of “Scottie Trails Madeleine”
  • Vertigo: Chapter Structure
  • Background: Star Wars, “The Attack on Leia’s Ship”

Psycho — and Thread Structure

The Man Who Knew Too Much — and Visual Storytelling

Sabotage — and Poetry in Film


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