Hook ’em and Reel ’em in
Layers of Conflict
Within the pages of a suspense novel, readers will be increasingly concerned about several areas of conflict the characters face. This conflict arrives in several categories, or layers.
The obvious first layer of conflict is an external one, where the protagonist and antagonist come up against each other with conflicting goals in mind. They provide a source of conflict for each other that escalates throughout the story until they meet one-on-one and face-to-face with only one of them going to come out okay.
In Sundrop Sonata, the external conflict that Izzy faces starts from the first pages, when Nola begs her to leave the ranch, taking the child Laura along. Izzy is confronted with the need to save the child, though from what she doesn’t really know. Later, through various anomalies she discovers in a number of local pianos, she comes to understand that there is also a threat to the country–her neighbors, family, and friends. Both threats seem to be linked in some way to the same man, Laura’s father.
As the story progresses, a box of unknown substance from a backyard laboratory comes into Izzy’s possession. She doesn’t know what it is, but assumes it could be very bad and should not be left unattended in a crowded parking lot at a music festival. When she learns that her nemesis has abducted her own daughter, the conflict escalates once again. He has made it personal and brought the threat into her own family.
In the concluding scenes, Izzy and Jay meet face-to-face in a dark piano repair shop where she must find a way to stop him and thwart his agenda, or die trying.
Internally, each of the three viewpoint characters faces challenges of their own. Jay struggles with recurring nightmares of his past life. Laura must come to grips with the loss of her mother, the most important person in her young life. And Izzy struggles with self-doubt about her own ability to find the strength needed to persevere.
On a personal level, Jay must face his sweet mother and convince himself that his actions–whether she approves or not–are in her best interest and defense. Izzy faces marriage unrest, compounded by the actions and temptations of another man.
Each layer of conflict for the characters intensifies as the story progresses. Even when young Laura seems to find safe haven with family in the east, it becomes clear that she is not yet safe from Jay.
The ticking clock
The needs and goals of each character, whether external, internal, or personal, have to meet one other requirement. There is a deadline by which everything must happen. As the deadline approaches, the activity escalates as well.
A few years ago, in mid-September, I discovered an interesting plant in my flower circle. It was a thin green spike with a mass of narrow scarlet petals cascading from the top. I’d never seen anything quite like it, though it did resember the pink surprise lilies that bloom in the summer. My first thought was that some of those pink flowers had evolved into this fall-blooming red version. Through subsequent years, I discovered that the red lilies also had a late froth of narrow green leaves that stayed green all WINTER, but would shrivel up and disappear with the arrival of spring. One could forget they were there until September when the flowers reappeared, with no leaves.
I called this flower a red spider lily. The fact that it bloomed in September, coinciding with the local music festival, made it appropriate as a deadline tool in the fictional story. Later, I discovered that I did not have anything unique. There really is a flower, more of an amaryllis than a lily, that other people have also called “red spider lily”. The flower comes from Asia, (how convenient) and its technical name is Lycoris radiata. It was perfect–easy to hide in someone’s flower garden, always blooming at the same time of the year, and hidden most of the rest of the year. The red spider lily became a ticking clock.
When writing a suspense novel, you want to invite readers to continue reading from the very first page. I would even go so far as to say, dare the reader to stop reading! The opening line is critical to keep folks reading and wondering what will happen next. Put a lot of time into crafting the perfect opening line for your story. It may not take you eight years, like it did me, but spend some time on the opening line.
Some of my favorites opening lines:
It was a pleasure to burn. (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
I was not sorry when my brother died. (Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions)
First I had to get his body into the boat. (Rhian Ellis, After Life)
There was a time in Africa the people could fly. (Sue Monk Kidd The Invention of Wings)
Once you have the opening, take care with endings too. Readers should want to keep reading when they get to the end of a section or chapter. Make them wonder how it’s going to turn out. Tease them along by presenting more tantalizing questions or raising the stakes at the close of a scene. It’s kind of like a fishing expedition. First, hook them with the perfect opening line. Then tease them along to keep them reading. Make them turn the pagess
The use of multiple viewpoints in the “sonata format” allows multiple cliff-hangers in each chapter. You can leave one character in a formidable place and start a section with another of the viewpoint characters, moving their story along. Little by little, the questions are answered, and conflicts resolved, even as new challenges and questions arise. The final scene makes everything clear to the characters and the reader as well.
Stay tuned for the final part of this series on Suspense Novels: Polish for Perfection.
Find Sundrop Sonata here: