FIRE Influences Plot and Characters


As I was outlining my latest Emily Stone thriller, DEAD BURN, I realized that fire has played a pivotal role in many movies.  Writing about fire and creating a fire scene sounds simple enough, but there’s so much more to it.

There were some questions I had to answer before jumping into my storyline about an arsonist serial killer.  What kind of role was fire to play in my thriller?  Was it to be a main character, inciting incident, or subplot?  Interestingly, fire can actually be a character in a story.  Think about it, fire can be unpredictable, life-changing, and can put other characters in deep peril.  Sounds like a bad guy in a thriller to me.  Let’s face it, when a fire burns an inferno obliterating everything in its path; it takes center stage and won’t let anyone or anything upstage it.  It’s fierce, unrelenting, and devastating.  It pushes heroes into battle and then they ultimately destroy it.  That’s a story in itself.

Fire is one of those natural phenomenons that really stoked up the scare meter with me.  I realized that fire can actually push the suspense and thriller buttons in a novel.  I not only took the time to research the usual things about fire investigation and the behavior evidence of arsonsits, but it forced me to push harder as a writer to write this particular story.

Two movies come to mind that made a lasting impression of fire, at least for me: BACKDRAFT (1991) and REIGN OF FIRE (2002).


Reign of Fire Reign_of_Fire_movieis a 2002 post-apocalyptic action fantasy film directed by Rob Bowman and starring Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale. It takes place in the year 2020 in England, after dragons have reawakened. Matt Greenberg, Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka wrote the screenplay based on Chabot and Peterka’s story.

Script excerpt:

Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale): What do we do when we are awake?

The Children: Keep two eyes on the sky.

Quinn Abercromby: What do we do when we sleep?

The Children: Keep one eye on the sky.

Quinn Abercromby: What do we do when we see them?

The Children: Dig hard, dig deep, go for shelter, and never look back.


backdraftBackdraft is a 1991 action thriller film directed by Ron Howard and written by Gregory Widen. The film stars Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland, and Robert De Niro. The story is about firefighters in Chicago on the trail of a serial arsonist who sets fires with a fictional chemical substance, trychtichlorate.

Script excerpt:

Ronald (Donald Sutherland): I sent away for the copy of Life Magazine.  The one with your picture on the front.  It’s a collectible.

Firefighter Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin): Do you know who’s doing this?

Ronald: Yes.

McCaffrey: Then tell me.

Ronald: You want to know who? I want to know if this kid really wanted to be like his dad?

McCaffrey: I wanted to be him. I wanted to be him more than anything else in the world.

Ronald: And you loved him?

McCaffrey: Yeah.

Ronald: And you watched him dance with the animal. You saw your dad burn.

McCaffrey: F*** you Ronald. Who’s doing this, huh?

Ronald: Did it look at you? Did the fire look at you? It did. Whoa. Wow. Our worlds aren’t that far apart after all, are they? So, whoever is doing this knows the animal well, don’t they? They know him real well, but they won’t let him loose. They won’t let him have any fun. Now who doesn’t love fire? See… that wasn’t such a long trip after all.


These are two classic movies that take FIRE to a new level for thrillers.  If you have not seen them, I strongly recommend.

In DEAD BURN, I realized that fire used by the serial killer wasn’t just a means to get the job done, but rather an entity that helped to fuel the killer.  Fire proved to be his master and evolved with each crime scene as a way to cleanse his own personal demons.  It pushed the heroine EMILY STONE to a place where she never thought possible.

What other types of entities or disasters can prove to be a main character in a story?


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About jchasenovelist

Published thriller author, criminologist, and blogger.
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