Remember the exciting finish to The Silence of the Lambs? FBI Agent-in-training Clarice Starling is alone in the serial killer’s basement. The lights go out. She can’t see, but he can because he has night-vision goggles. Of course she keeps her wits about her and blows the guy away. The solution is both satisfying and heart pounding. While all this is going on, the SWAT team is in another city breaking into an empty house with well-practiced precision. Would it have been as exciting and satisfying if the SWAT team, with all its firepower, had found the correct house and captured the killer? Of course not. The satisfaction comes from Clarice facing the killer alone.
Isolate your protagonist. That’s the key to building suspense. A good story follows the principle of rising action. At the peak of the action, your character should find him or herself alone, facing tough odds. In some stories, the protagonist’s isolation is the entire premise. This is especially true of espionage stories. George Smiley, trying to find a Soviet mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, was isolated by the fact that he couldn’t trust anyone around him. Virgil Tibbs, a black Philadelphia detective trying to find a killer in a bigoted, segregated Southern town was isolated racially, and geographically in In the Heat of the Night.
Where the detective’s isolation is not a premise of the story, the writer has to devise ways to accomplish it at the critical points. The problem is that most mystery readers understand that police are quick to bring in backups and reinforcements at early signs of trouble. Readers also expect their detectives to be intelligent, common-sense people who will not put themselves in danger for no reason. So how do you credibly isolate your protagonist? Here is my own taxonomy of ways to do it.
Confront the villain. This is the classic method. The detective needs to have his theories confirmed or his curiosity satisfied before calling the police. Hercule Poirot did it frequently; Nick Charles did it in The Thin Man. Spencer does it for personal satisfaction, though it almost gets him killed in Valediction.
The hunted becomes the hunter. Instead of the detective seeking out the villain, the villain comes to the detective. Sam Spade found the villains waiting for him at his apartment because he had what they wanted -- The Maltese Falcon. In The Poet, the killer has singled out the protagonist from the start. In Demolition Angel, the serial bomber wants to display his handiwork to detective Carol Starkey, so he waits for her at her house.
While in the course of gathering evidence. The detective, operating on a hunch perhaps, finds herself alone while looking for a critical piece of evidence. In A is for Alibi, Kinsey Milhone has such a hunch on her way to see her client. She is examining a hit-and-run vehicle when the bad guy unexpectedly shows up. Kinsey has to run for her life. The chase ends with a deadly confrontation inside a dumpster at a beach park.
Isolated in time and space. The use of the setting to force the isolation is common to many stories. Kinsey was physically isolated at the beach park; Clarice was isolated in the darkened basement. V.I. Warshawski finds herself trapped aboard a boat in Deadlock. In A Thief of Time, Tony Hillerman makes terrific use of the desert southwest setting to isolate his protagonist. Joe Leaphorn tracks an injured woman to a remote canyon reachable only by kayak or helicopter -- the killer’s method of arrival.
Misdirect the cavalry. This is why Clarice finds herself confronting the bad guy. The F.B.I. was certain they had him at another place. They were wrong. Clarice found him where he was least expected to be. A variation of this is to pin down the cavalry by circumstances they can’t control.
Mentor is a shape-shifter. It could also be a lover or a partner--somebody the detective has every reason to trust. This puts the detective in a really tough spot. She thinks she's getting advice, back-up, support. She's not going it alone, or so she thinks, until the shapeshifter is revealed. The DaVinci Code and The Poet are two examples where the person the protagonist turns to for help is the bad guy.
The heat of the chase. Like Patton out-distancing the rest of the American forces, the detective can become caught up in the chase and leave his or her backup behind. Sharon McCone does this in Eye of the Storm. The setting, a remote island in a storm, enhances her isolation. Harry Bosch takes off after the bad guy into a drainage tunnel in Black Echo.
Protagonist as decoy. Carlotta Carlisle in Coyote is part of a trap to catch a killer. Naturally, the killer is wily enough to have his own plan for isolating the decoy. At a critical moment, Carlotta loses contact with the police who are supposed to spring the trap.
Burnt bridges. In Shooting at Midnight, private eye Bridget Logan abandons her job, her lover and her sister in such a way that nobody would take her back. She does it to get undercover as a drug dealer, eventually becoming a heroin user herself. All of this is an effort to save her best friend from jail, but, if her friend knew what she was doing, Bridget's cover would be blown. When she finally breaks cover, the police use her as a decoy.
Emotional isolation. In False Witness by Dorothy Uhnak, an ambitious bureau chief with eyes on being D.A. finds her hopes ruined and herself isolated from her superiors when her case against a society doctor collapses dramatically. At the same time, she finds herself betrayed by her lover. Normally in control of events, she suddenly finds that events are controlling her.
Fish out of water. The protagonist finds him or herself in a strange culture or country where every action, no matter how well-intended, produces unexpected, often dangerous consequences. The classic fish out of water is Philadelphia police detective John Book in Witness trying to protect an Amish woman and her son in an Amish community.
Mother nature is a . . .. For east Texas constable Sunset Jones, the word rhymes with "rich." After enduring a tornado, winds, rain and Texas heat in Sunset and Sawdust, she confronts a vicious killer during an infestation of grasshoppers that is so thick she can't see or even stand and her help can't get to her. This is a plague that goes beyond biblical. The little buggers catch fire and become tiny incendiary missiles. So, not only is she isolated, but the problem has grown! (Stay tuned for my next blog post on growing the problem.)
Protecting the innocent. The detective goes alone to protect someone no one else will protect. Who can forget Atticus Finch, armed with only a law book, putting himself between his client, a black man falsely accused of rape, and a white lynch mob. The innocent might also be a child as in Gone, Baby, Gone.
The best suspense often involves a combination of factors that isolate the protagonist. The peak action in Spree, by T.J. McGregor, finds the protagonist in a remote farmhouse (isolated in time and space) during a severe storm (mother nature is a . . .); her husband/partner is pursuing a lead elsewhere (misdirected cavalry); she is preoccupied by concerns for her infant daughter (protecting the innocent); and the killer, a police detective she had been working with (shapeshifter) comes after her (hunted becomes the hunter). You could hardly have a better ending.