Thriller Craft: Using Driving Questions and Character Traits to Drive Suspense - Part 2

This is the second article in a three-part series on how to use driving questions to generate suspense in fiction. You can find the first part of the series here. The series turns to Jack London's story "To Build a Fire" for examples of different kinds of driving questions. You can download a free text of the story here.


In my effort to really understand Lee Child’s concept of Driving Questions, I’ve come to the conclusion that the kind of questions that create suspense in a reader fall into four broad categories:

HOOK: Opening question reader needs answered

DRAMATIC IRONY: Reader knows more than the character

CHARACTER QUESTIONS: Will she/won’t she; revelations

CLIFFHANGER: Closing question reader needs answered

In the last article I looked at two kinds of driving questions: hooks and dramatic irony. In this article I will look at how questions about Character can drive suspense. The last article in the series will look at Cliffhangers.



Here is an excerpt from To Build A Fire:

The trouble with him was that he was not able to imagine. He was quick and ready in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in their meanings. Fifty degrees below zero meant 80 degrees of frost. Such facts told him that it was cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to consider his weaknesses as a creature affected by temperature. [Bold highlights in the original].

This short character description  establishes three of the man’s traits:

1.He’s new to this place.

2.But he doesn’t listen to  the advice of others, or even to his own instincts.

3.He’s naïve.

These are realistic traits. His realistic traits make the outcome credible.

Screenwriters and game designers think of their characters in terms of traits. The Character Diamond method of construction a character requires that each character have four key traits.

Here is a video with a more detailed explanation of the Character Diamond System.

Using the Character Diamond system, as we read the story of "To Build A Fire," we discover the man's fourth key trait:

The man’s 4th trait is HUBRIS.

He thinks he can fool Mother Nature.

And we all know, it's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Dramatic irony: we know he’s like this, we can predict the outcome,

and we want to see him learn his lesson. This is how Character Traits create suspense: the reader can see which way things are headed,

but the character apparently can't. The suspense comes from the reader asking: will he wise up in time? Or will he freeze to death?

As he turned to go, he forced some water from his mouth as an experiment. There was a sudden noise that surprised him. He tried it again. And again, in the air, before they could fall to the snow, the drops of water became ice that broke with a noise. He knew that at 50 below zero water from the mouth made a noise when it hit the snow. But this had done that in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than 50 below. But exactly how much colder he did not know. But the temperature did not matter.

So, after two separate moments with this character, (the moment he was introduced and the moment above which follows the introduction very quickly) we now have a picture of the man's four key traits. He:

is  slob

is naïve (inexperienced),

Lacks imagination

Hubris – thinks he can defeat Mother Nature.

The man also has a fifth trait, the subtext trait. This trait is not revealed by what a character says or even thinks, but by what he actually does. In this case, the man's subtext trait is cruel. We see this particularly in his treatment of the dog.

The Opposition

In this story, the Dog is the Antagonist. London doesn't go deep into his point of view, but does give us a fully rounded picture of the dog's traits:

Resents the man

Depends on the man and knows it (no hubris)

Understand the cold better than the man (not naïve)

Is better equipped to survive than the man is.

Subtext: the dog wishes the man gave him more love than he does.

So Man has two sources of opposition: the dog, and the external jeopardy caused by the extreme cold and the wild environment that they are in.

What Aspect of Nature is the Man Ignoring?

Image removed.Drive Suspense by Highlighting the Stakes

At the midpoint of the story, London reinforces for the reader what the Man has to lose. Not only his life, but also all sense of comfort and his family, which at the moment consists of this dog.

a small beginning, he soon had a roaring fire.

Bending over the fire, he first melted the ice from his face. With the protection of the fire’s warmth he ate his lunch. For the moment, the cold had been forced away. The dog took comfort in the fire, lying at full length close enough for warmth and far enough away to escape being burned. When the man had finished eating, he filled his pipe with tobacco and had a comfortable time with a smoke.

The man is warm, fed, happy, has a warm pipe and a happy dog at his feet, and they are keeping company. These are "the stakes" of the story. This is what he will lose if he doesn't heed the warnings he got from the men in town, the dog, and his own instincts.

Character traits drive the story forward in a direction

After this happy, comfortable, lunch, things start to go downhill for the man. Each  of his traits contributes to the man's downfall.

The man builds a fire, but it doesn’t work out as well as it did for him at lunchtime. His biggest mistake (naive) is that he builds it under a tree, and the snow falls off the branch of three and puts out his fire:

The man was shocked. It was like hearing his own judgment of death. For a moment he sat and stared at the spot where the fire had been. Then he grew very calm. Perhaps the old man on Sulphur Creek was right. If he had a companion on the trail he would be in no danger now. The companion could have built the fire. Now, he must build the fire again, and this second time he must not fail. Even if he succeeded, he would be likely to lose some toes. His feet must be badly frozen by now, and there would be some time before the second fire was ready.

This moment is a payoff for a reader: we've been waiting for this moment knew his naïveté would get him into trouble, we just didn't know how.

The next trait to pay off is the Man's subtext trait, his cruelty.

As every thing he does to start the fire fails, his mind turns back to the dog, who is waiting patiently for him to start a fire:

 The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the story of the man, caught in a storm, who killed an animal and sheltered himself inside the dead body and thus was saved. He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until feeling returned to them. Then he could build another fire.

Driving question: will he kill the dog?

The man is desperate to try this. At first the dog runs from him, but then he catches it, but realizes that through he can get his arms around it, his hands are too frozen for him to use his knife.

So he has to let the dog go (and every reader around the world sighed with relief!)

The man decides to make a run for it, but after a while, realizes he lacks the endurance to run that distance in that cold. This goes back to his trait of being “new.” He is too new for this wilderness: people who have lived all their lives in that cold might have had a chance. But he doesn’t.

Then we discover a change in  the man. He’s been reckless, arrogant, ignorant. But finally, he has learned, though too late. Now that he realized the impact of his cumulative mistakes, he knows there is no hope for him. At the last moment he becomes brave, and chooses, in the end, to die with dignity:

He had been running around like a chicken with its head cut off. He was certain to freeze in his present circumstances, and he should accept it calmly. With this newfound peace of mind came the first sleepiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep his way to death. Freezing was not as bad as people thought. There were many worse ways to die.

He pictured the boys finding his body the next day.

Luckily, the dog knows its way to the camp where people will take care of it, so the dog will be fine.

The ending of the story is very satisfying. We were hooked by the opening driving questions, the man's traits were revealed to us in a way that made us eager to see the payoff, the stakes were underlined for us by the happy scene in the middle of the story, and the  man was opposed by a sensible and competent dog who is a model for what the man refuses to be.

All of this was driven by three types of driving questions:

HOOK: Opening question reader needs answered.

CHARACTER QUESTIONS: Will she/ won’t she; revelations.

DRAMATIC IRONY (Reader knows more than the character).

It was also driven by cliffhangers: new hooks, new driving questions, that come up at different points of the story, usually at the end of a scene or chapter, but sometimes within a scene or chapter.

Next month we will look more closely at how Cliffhangers create suspense in a story.


Image removed.ALISON McMAHAN is the author of the non-fiction book Alice Guy Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema (Bloomsbury, 2002) which was adapted into the documentary Be Natural (2018), and the YA historical mystery The Saffron Crocus (Black Opal, 2014). She has contributed short mystery and thriller stories to Fish Out of Water (Wildside, 2017), Busted: Arresting Stories from the Beat (Level Best, 2017), the Sisters in Crime anthology Fatally Haunted (Down & Out, 2019),  The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads, 2020and the Mystery Writers of America anthology Scream and Scream Again (HarperCollins, 2018). She is represented by Gina Panettieri of Talcott Notch Literary.