For writers, one of the most vital pieces to our writing.. any sort of Fiction writing, is to be able to build suspense and tension in our stories.
When things are going good in our character's lives.. the story is over. You've reached your 'Happily Ever After'. All you have left to do is write, "The End" and close the cover.
However, if that happens in the middle of your book you're sort of in a bit of a quandary.
So enter the 3 keys to building suspense in a novel... Misdirection, Isolation, and Disorientation.
J Scott Savage, a tremendous writer who has been very successful on a local level in and around Utah but who will be making a National splash in early 2013.. (with the release of his series 'The Grimville Case Files' on HarperCollins Children's Books).. I've been following his blog for almost a year now and he has some tremendous advice, including a great post on the topic of raising tension in his novels.
I'd like to borrow briefly from his blog post, and a few other sources to explain how Isolation, Misdirection, and Disorientation fit into the tension building framework.
- Isolation: Pretty easy, if you want to create a feeling of tension in your story.. isolate your main character. Make Harry go fight Voldemort alone.. which is almost how every one of their encounters unfolds. First Book, Harry leaves an injured Ron and Hermoine to fight Voldemort/Quirrell alone. Harry touches the portkey with Cedric Diggory who is killed and then Harry fights Voldemort alone. Even when Harry isn't fighting Voldemort.. he is still struggling alone. His fight against the Basilisk and Tom Riddle's diary.. Harry is alone. Against the Dementors to save Sirius Black in book 3 he's alone. (Do you start to notice a theme here?)
So isolation is a pretty obvious example.. and that's just one author/series. Go look back at some of the other books you love/loved. Frodo and Samwise go off on their own. Edmund is bewitched by the White Witch and leaves his siblings to go off alone.. over and over we find that if you want to bring tension and suspense.. put your characters in a box and close the lid to the outside world.
- Disorientation: Again.. pretty easy. Take your character out of his comfort zone and put them into something new and exciting, dangerous even. Take an orphan and throw them into an unseen world of magic. Take your rebellious character out of her poverty stricken District and throw her into a kill or be killed arena against 23 other tributes. Take your young orphaned alien boy from a Galaxy far.. far away and thrust him into an intergalactic struggle with a magical Force.
Really all we're doing here is taking our character from all they've known and jamming them into an unknown, and in all likelihood Dangerous situation that they are totally unfamiliar with.
- Misdirection: The shell game, found on any street-corner or subway entrance in New York if you can believe the movies, (which I'm sure is accurate), is based on misdirection.. keep the Mark's eyes on one hand while you pull off the switch with the other. You give them something to watch, something to focus on.. and then you trick them with what they weren't watching. In writing it's much the same thing. You give them a Snape to focus on so that a Quirrell can sneak behind them and surprise them at the end.. or give them an Albino Religious Fanatic so that the real culprit can dodder behind the scenes as a Grail expert thrust unwillingly into the story. (DaVinci Code)
What you're doing with Misdirection is giving the reader someone to focus on, someone to pin their suspicions on so that you can yank the rug out from underneath them at the end of the story.
Try to find interesting characters and put them up against interesting problems and see what happens.
I think that it's at least in part as a result of the interesting problems where your characters become interesting. A character isn't interesting because they've got a large hook nose and oily straight black hair.. that's merely a description. What makes them interesting is how they react to the problems they face. Are they brave? Lucky? Bumbling? Sinister? Brooding? Dark? Evil? Ambivalent?
Use one of the techniques above to heighten tension and create an interesting problem, and then see what your character does.. then write it down so the rest of us can follow along in the journey.