Things that are at stake must be important. This might be a character’s life or living, a long-held dream or something else, but it cannot be immaterial. Moreover, over the course of the novel, the stakes must go up rather than stay the same or decrease. For example, a crime novel might begin with a police detective being given a murder case. Over the course of the story, your detective’s job could start to rest on determining this single crime, and the detective’s matrimony might begin to suffer. The stakes become higher than the initial motives for solving the crime.
Another example of raising stakes: an amateur detective starts out interested in solving a crime. Over time, the protagonist’s loved ones might become potential targets of the antagonist. This format of raising stakes was used successfully by the writers of TV’s crime thriller series ‘Dexter’. Suddenly the protagonist’s action has much higher stakes.
Understanding with the Reader
You can only build suspense if the reader trusts you to play fair. Build the reader’s trust by fulfilling any promises that you make throughout the book. This means you must follow through on any significant set-ups. This might feel tricky in the context of red herrings, but red herrings are not so much intended to trick as to mislead the readers. In other words, red herrings must always have an alternate explanation so that the reader does not feel cheated and remains within the suspension of disbelief.
If you spend a lot of time on some detail so that it seems like it is going to be significant and then you abandon it, your reader will undoubtedly feel frustrated. On the other hand, if you show your reader early on that your set-ups pay off, then you can build suspense with longer and more complex set-ups with story arcs across the entire novel and sustain your reader’s interest throughout your book.