I’m reading Anthony Bellaleigh’s Firebird right now, and I’m enjoying it. He builds lots of tension by putting humans in danger. I just finished reading a scene where the “firebird” goes after a little girl, but a dolphin saves her life. It made me think. When I first started writing, I chose mysteries for my genre, and I went to a mystery conference where one of the wise authors on a panel said, “Never kill a cat. Your readers will never forgive you.” “What about a dog?” someone asked. “That’s better,” another author said, “but it’s safer to kill people.” Anthony’s a science fiction writer. He kills whatever he wants to, but it feels a little odd, as I’m reading, to feel as sorry for a goat’s death as I do for a minor character’s. Part of good writing. Fear and death are horrible, no matter who or what’s suffering.
Now that I’ve turned to writing paranormals and urban fantasy, the rules have changed a little. Agatha Christie swept blood and gore under the library rug to keep murder cozy. Thrillers work hard to peak murders at key parts of their plots. Just like horror, they can use shock value to tighten tension. That’s why, often, they show the victim before the villain kills him/her. That way, the reader has a vested interest. Urban fantasy tends to operate on the same strategy as Shakespeare–blood and pain add drama. Bodies don’t have to litter the last chapters of their books, but it’s allowed. Battles are pretty much required.
For deaths to have clout in a novel, though, they need to be personal. We need to care about the person…or goat…who meets his end. Either that, or the death is simply a plot point. We rarely meet the first victims in Agatha Christie’s novels because they’re not important. The death is simply the starting point for an investigation. It’s someone’s death, later in the novel, that has emotional impact, because we’ve met that character and we have an opinion about whether he deserved to live or die. So…what do you use in your stories to crank up tension? To keep the reader turning the page? In romances, it’s “will they get together or not?” In spy stories, it’s “will the spy complete his mission and survive?” In quest fantasies, it’s “will the hero succeed in his quest…in one piece?” In literary fiction, the battle’s internal. Can the hero give up drinking? Get past a personal flaw? Lots of things work. Just don’t kill a cat or a dog.