A bit ago I ran into a bit of a difficulty in the new novel I've been working on. Thirty-odd pages in I realized I was coming up on the first action scene -and suddenly the story stopped wanting to come. Instead of typing I was standing around the kitchen because waiting for a tea kettle to whistle was a lot more exciting than my story at the moment.
Fortunately one of the things I do when I should be typing is read other people's blog posts. I was going through Janice Hardy's archive (because I wasn't quite desperate enough to clean bathrooms) when I came across this article on raising stakes. Janice points out that it's difficult to make a situation suspenseful when you're too aware of how the scene needs to play out. You can end up just going through the motions. It was a major eureka moment for me. My problem was that my heroes couldn't die this early in the story -and my audience would know it. Sure, they could suspend disbelief. They could pretend to think everyone will die by page thirty one and the next two hundred pages will be a stirring eulogy, but in the back of their minds they know -and I know that they know- that nobody was going to die this early in the story.
Janice's blog reminded me that lives don't have to be the only thing at risk in an action scene. What if the villains don't know who the heroes are during the first encounter -and the heroes have to keep it that way? Now the audience is afraid one of the heroes will slip up during the fight and let the secret out. Or what if the hero is on his way to Aunt Matilda's eightieth birthday party when the villain jumps him? If he doesn't escape in time for the party (or arrives with his clothes torn and his present stolen) his family will continue to think he's a dead-beat who doesn't care about them -especially if he's a spy and can't tell them what he's really up to.
When it comes to life and death stakes, story placement has a huge
impact on suspense. I'm always more worried about a character in
physical danger if I'm in the last two thirds of a stand-alone novel, or if
I'm on the last book in a series. I know the author is less likely to
think this character has to stay alive so I can use them later if there isn't a `later' left. Also, I've spent enough time with the character to become attached -often because of those early action scenes where I knew all along that the hero couldn't possibly be in danger yet.