I've just finished reading the Rondo series by Emily Rodda, and while I loved the books, I finally picked up on something that I never realised before.
I was never scared for the characters' lives.
Yes, obviously, it's a middle grade series, but there's always the chance an author's going to do something extreme. In the last book, there were plenty of omens in the way Rodda was writing that made me think maybe...
And then one of the characters was put in mortal peril. It was only a secondary character, and I thought, good god, she's actually going to do it, but after a few pages the character was okay again, and that was that.
So I stopped worrying. A character gets abducted? Fine. A character looks weak and sickly? No problem.
I wasn't worried, because Rodda didn't follow through with that initial threat, and I knew after that that there would be no deaths. That's fine, of course, for the story in question, but when it comes to my own stories, I need to do more.
In one of my stories there will be a major death, as well as a moment where the reader will think all is lost for every good character in the story, and I want the reader to feel scared. I'd already planned a secondary character death earlier, and it's only now I realise why.
Subconsciously, I think I knew that I had to lead up to the major death by killing off this secondary character. To take that secondary character's life is to make the reader truly fear for the main characters. To make them believe that there is a real, honest-to-god possibility that the characters they love will die as well. After all, if the author can kill of one of her characters, who's to say she won't do it agan?
It will certainly have readers gripping the pages and reading to the end.