Today I want to discuss how to add more depth and suspense to our stories. It doesn’t matter what genre you write; this title question applies to all of them.
The question of my hero dying rose in me as I was reading a detective novel recently. The protagonist was a female private investigator. Her character was believable and complex. The plot held interesting twists and turns. Throughout the second and third acts, the detective faced physical death several times. But she was never in any danger of physically dying. Nothing in the writing told me this. The cover of the book gave it away. Under the title were the words, “first in the (detective’s name) series.” There will be other books, so it’s highly unlikely she will die in book one. Sure enough, she didn’t. Her facing death in book one didn’t have the tension and suspense it should have.
When I started writing, one of the first lessons I learned was don’t give away the ending. I thought it meant as we told the story. And it does. Guess it can happen on the front cover too.
This experience reminded me of something I first heard from James Scott Bell. He teaches our hero needs to face death in the story, ideally at the climax. Physical death is obvious. Bell also teaches about professional and psychological death. I would add emotional and spiritual death.
In his Harry Bosch novels, Michael Connelly has Harry face physical danger with the potential for death. But even more often, Harry faces professional death—he could lose his job as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department. This is a death Harry faces in almost every book in the series. Harry also faces emotional death because his dedication to his work stresses his relationships with his wife, his daughter, and his partners.
In my first book, Journey to Riverbend, my hero Michael Archer faces physical death. At the climax, he faces spiritual death because to achieve his goal and save a man’s life; he has to kill someone to do it. The question at the climax is which will he choose.
Writing instructors and books on the craft tell us to give our heroes meaningful stakes to strive for. This will keep the reader engaged as he or she roots for our characters. What is more meaningful than life or death? Not just of the body, but the heart and mind and soul as well?
As you work on your story, look for ways your hero can face some form of death. Whether you’re writing romance or young adult, science fiction or fantasy, middle grade or spy novels, ask yourself, how can I raise the stakes by having death raise its ugly head at the crucial moment in the story? Even Terry Pratchett in his humorous fantasies has his characters face death in some form. What type of death best fits my genre, my story, and my characters?