I am the first one to admit that directions aren’t my strong suit. Consider this as evidence: even after seven years of living in California, when I face the ocean, I still think north is on the left and south is on the right. (Let’s hope I never need to flee the country for Mexico!). And because I have no GPS, when I’m heading out for parts unknown, I’m usually armed with a printed out Mapquest and a full tank of gas.
You might conclude from this that I like to know where I’m going. Truthfully? I don’t, at least not always. Sometimes I even head out with no safety net and take an exit, just to see what I’d normally miss if I stayed on the main road. Sometimes that discovery is a stretch of mid-century houses that are hidden away in development. Sometimes it’s a strip mall with a used bookstore that has Trixie Beldens for $1. And sometimes it’s just a long and winding road that continues on and on, seemingly going nowhere, twisting and turning enough times to raise my anxiety about ever finding my way home again.
In terms of storytelling, I have to send my characters out of their comfort zones. Sometimes they’ll get lost in their amateur investigation. Sometimes they’ll wander into sticky situations and dangerous parts of town and have to find their way back. Getting them lost is a key part of the puzzle. They have to stumble and fall and backtrack to see what they’ve missed so they can find the answers.
When we head out someplace unfamiliar, we flex our sense of discovery. When we return home, we build our confidence that we can, if left to our own devices, find our way through the woods. The same thing goes for writing. Let your characters get absolutely, utterly completely lost and then force them to find their way back home.
And if you want to raise tension, send them out in the middle of the night with an empty tank of gas.
P.S. 48 Days until Suede to Rest!