Thriller Craft: Propelling Suspense with Driving Questions, Part I


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In his now classic article published in the New York Times in 2012, Lee Child famously said that readers are programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked. Child instructs writers to plant questions in stories that the reader needs to have answered, so they keep reading.

Those questions are the narrative engine, the reason for people to keep reading to the end. The need for driving questions applies to every genre of fiction, not only thrillers.

Here's Lee Child himself speaking:

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But coming up with driving questions to create suspense is not as simple as it sounds. Child explained the inherent difficulties in his own inimitable way, so I'll just quote him:


Because “How do you create suspense?” has the same interrogatory shape as “How do you bake a cake?” And we all know — in theory or practice — how to bake a cake.

Writers focus on ingredients and their combination. They’re told they should create attractive, sympathetic characters, and plunge those characters into peril, the descent into which is the mixing and stirring, and the duration and horrors of which are the timing and temperature.

But it’s really much simpler than that. “How do you bake a cake?” is the wrong question. The right question is: “How do you make your family hungry?”

And the answer is: You make them wait four hours for dinner.

As novelists,

we should ask or imply a question

at the beginning of the story, and then we should

delay the answer.


Child's article models this process of asking questions and not answering them right away, proving that the principle applies to non-fiction as well as fiction:

Image removed.Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked. I learned that fact in my first job. I worked in television production from 1977 until 1995, and the business changed radically during that time, mainly because of one particular invention. It was something that almost no one had in 1980, and that almost everyone had in 1990, and it changed the game forever. We had to cope with it. We had to invent a solution to the serious problem it posed.

(You notice I haven’t told you what the invention was yet? I implied a question, and didn’t answer it. You’re waiting. You’re wondering, what did almost no one have in 1980 that almost everyone had in 1990? You’re definitely going to read the next paragraph, aren’t you? Thus the principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable.)

What almost no one had in 1980 and almost everyone had in 1990 was a remote control.

Previously, at the end of a segment or a program, we could be fairly sure the viewer wouldn’t change the channel on a whim, because changing the channel required the viewer to get off the sofa and cross the room. But afterward, changing the channel was easy, which was very dangerous for an audience-hungry station.

So how did we respond? (Notice the structure here? Wait for it!) We started asking questions before the commercials, and answering them afterward.

We need to bring the same simple principle to our books. Someone killed someone else: who? You’ll find out at the end of the book. Something weird is happening: what? You’ll find out at the end of the book. Something has to be stopped: how? You’ll find out at the end of the book.



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


I'll illustrate the four types over the course of three articles. In this article, I'll focus on Hooks and Dramatic Irony. You can find all four types of driving questions in Jack London's short story To Build A Fire, which I will use as a mentor text throughout this series on driving questions.


Here is an example from the opening of  a thriller short story:

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Mr. Enderby was reading The New York Journal-American, a new daily not even halfway through its first year of publication. It was sort of a tabloid and sort of not. He usually began with the comics, but then they were on the job he turned to the city news first, scanning through the stories quickly, especially the police blotter.

 Mrs. Enderby sat at the piano, which had been a wedding gift from her parents. Occasionally she stroked a key, but did not press any. Tonight the only music in the music room was the symphony of nighttime traffic on Third Avenue, which came in through the open window. Third Avenue, third floor. A good apartment in a sturdy brownstone. They rarely heard their neighbors above and below, and their neighbors rarely heard them. Which was all to the good.

From the closet behind them came a single thump. Then another. Mrs. Enderby spread her hands as if to play, but when the thumps ceased, she put her hands in her lap.

from "The Music Room," short story by Stephen King.


Lots of questions there, right? Why does Mr. Enderby look at the police blotter first? Why should noise from their neighbors be a good thing? Most of us complain if our neighbors make too much noise. And what is that thumping noise from the closet?

How many driving questions can you cram into a paragraph?

Let's see Lee Child himself do it:

He stuck mainly to procedural questions about the investigation and one, two, three, I answered them all, and I was out of the room by quarter to twelve. Feeling pretty good,Image removed. as I said, until Vanderbilt grabbed me in the corridor and told me I had to go do another one.

“Another what?” I said.

Deposition,” he said. “Although not really. No oath. No bullshit. Strictly off the record, for our own files.”

I said, “Do we really want our files to be different form their files?”

“The decisions has been made,” Vanderbilt said. “The truth has be to be recorded somewhere.”

(From “The Truth About What Happened,” a short story by Lee Child.)



“To Build” is an infinitive: a noun that stands for an action.

Why isn’t it an active verb: “He Built a Fire,” or “Building a Fire?”

The act of naming an action instead of showing us the action tells the reader this is where the struggle will be. The reader may only note it subconsciously, but the feeling of suspense will start to build (pun intended).


Here is a quote from the first paragraph:

It was a high bank, and he paused to breathe at the top. He excused the act to himself by looking at his watch.



Trouble breathing - what will happen?


I'll talk more about character hooks in next month's article, but I just want you to note here that he won’t trust his own instincts, and won’t admit things to himself that he needs to be aware of (even something as important as “having trouble breathing”). Can someone like that survive in extreme cold?



Dramatic irony type of suspense happens when the reader knows something the character doesn't, and is on tenterhooks waiting for the character to find out.

How does the reader know something the character doesn't? There are various ways, but usually, it's through foreshadowing:


...indescribable darkness over the face of things. [Foreshadowing]. That was because the sun was absent from the sky. This fact did not worry the man.[Character]

Again, the man is noticing the lack of light, but he won’t let himself worry about it. We KNOW this won’t end well. We know the answer to the question! And we read on to see what we know proved right.


The most famous explanation of the Dramatic Irony type of suspense is Hitchcock's example of the bomb under the table, which is now known as Hitchcock's Bomb Theory. Here is the man himself explaining it.



Next month: Using Driving Questions and Character Traits to drive suspense.

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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.