Taking the readers to the point where it seems their worst fears will be realized and then turning it around only makes the victory sweeter. Giving the reader great hope, just before everything falls apart, makes the loss feel so much more terrible.
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What you need to do is keep throwing troubles, conflicts, surprises, and obstacles at the reader. You also need to let the hero have some successes. This allows the reader to have cause to fear AND hope, and to not know for sure how it’s all going to turn out.
You become a writer by writing. You learn by damaging your ego, and giving more of yourself than you take. By a thousand revelations, by millions of words you improve.
If the main character is sympathetic and interesting, the reader will root for her and want to see what happens. If some of the particularities of the character and problem are surprising to the readers, it will generate more interest than if it’s something they’ve seen many times before.
Have you thought about starting with a bang right away? Or does your story want another hook before you roll the main one out on the stage?
Building stories is like building houses. Yes, you need a foundation, walls, and a roof, but holy cow–look at all the variations that are possible AND successful given those basic requirements!
Our job as writers is to create a narrative that evokes this desired experience in the reader. Yes, we have to be passionate about our story. Yes, it’s an art and is complex and sometimes feels a bit mystical. But we can’t let that make us forget the fact that the ultimate purpose of the story is to guide the reader through an experience.
Even in the reaction stage we can include conflict and surprise. Maybe after our team’s setback, they regroup and discuss what they’re going to do now. This is a fine time to allow the varying motives of those on the hero’s team conflict.
The books I love most immerse me in a world utterly different from my own. Arrakis, Pern, Barrayar, Chalion… I crave deep information about these planets, and fortunately the author always delivered.
We solve all sorts of problems on the first or second try in real life. We keep tension down. But with stories we don’t want to eliminate tension. We want to build it.