I spend a lot of time in airports. Wait around as much as I do and you begin to admire airport design. Think the TWA Terminal at JFK, Terminal B at SJC, the International Terminal at SFO, the passenger arrival canopy at PDX, or the mountain range roof of DEN.
Gorgeous. High. Open. Airy. Look up and you’re already in flight.
Look a bit closer, though, and you may also feel afraid. The structural components that support these architectural confections do not inspire confidence. What, really, is holding these buildings up?
Now, shop-welded and field-bolted shear connections I understand. These are the trustworthy plates and flanges that connect steel columns and beams, transferring the bearing load and resisting rotation and bending “moment”. They’re rigid. Strong.
Contemporary design, however, values visible structural elements. Architects want the skeletons of airports to look lightweight. Also in consideration are assembly ease and a tolerance for slightly variable element lengths. In layman terms, if you want passengers to fly before they walk across the jetway you’ve got to work with fasteners that are cooler than clunky old shear connections.
Enter the pin connection.
A pin connection is a fastener between two structural steel elements, which in airports often are tubes. Imagine an elbow joint. In building terms that means a lapped-type connection involving a U-shaped clevis through which a “pin” (a bolt) passes. It is this pin that holds two structural pieces together.
It’s the “pin” that worries me, especially when that pin supports the building’s entire bearing load as in a base connection. Stick with me here. Think about it. The whole weight of the airport is resting on the architectural equivalent of the bolt and nut like one that you keep in a glass jar on your basement workbench.
I mean, seriously? The entire weight of a roof is resting on a little bolt? Those must be some strong bolts. And, of course, they are. They have to be. I’ve yet to be in an airport when the roof collapsed. Structural engineers know what they’re doing.
Thus, I don’t really need to worry. A pin connection is as reliable a way to join steel as is the old-fashioned flange. The airport roof will stay up. I can enjoy my latte and laptop in ease. The airport is securely fastened together. It’s okay to look up. It’s safe to fly.
So what, you ask, does this have to do with writing fiction? Ah.
The columns and beams of your novel are your protagonist’s twin journeys: outer and inner. The plot holds up the novel’s structure, like columns. What lends a novel a feeling of perspective and movement across space is the protagonist’s inner journey, the beams.
But what is it that fastens those two elements together? How do the inner and outer journeys connect so that they become a sturdy building, if not an architectural wonder?
Plot events are what happen. Inner moments give those events meaning. Together they both shelter and lead the reader somewhere new. That new place is, in a sense, the gate where the reader’s true flight begins.
To continue my metaphor, the “pin” in the pin connection is the protagonist’s apprehension and understanding of what’s happening. What he or she feels is what joins together the two journeys. Feelings may seem frail compared to the mighty bearing load of a plot. But don’t worry. Feelings are stronger than they look. They can take the load.
In fact, the airport will not stay up without them.
To fasten the inner and outer journey you only need start with one element or the other of your story: a plot event or one step in the inner journey. In the first case, go inside your protagonist to identify what the outer event means. In the second case, look outside your protagonist for a way to make something “real” happen that mirrors the inner moment.
Here, I’ll make it easy:
- Pick any plot event, large or small. What does it mean to your protagonist? What does it stir inside? What worry, hope, question or wonder? What does it feel like to feel this feeling? Create a metaphor for it. What does thinking or feeling this way, by itself, reveal? Make notes. Write it up in a paragraph.
- Pick any emotionally significant moment in your story, a time when your protagonist feels himself or herself changing. Shut off inner monologue. Find a way for your protagonist to show or speak the unfolding inner change in a way that we can’t miss. Use only what we can see and hear. Write out the action and/or dialogue.
What you’re doing, simply put, is using thoughts and feelings as fasteners. What happens means something, and what means something is shown in what happens. Steel joins steel. The lightest pin holds it together. We look up and our hearts soar. Our imaginations fly.
As we’ll see in coming months, this pin connection is the secret behind what looks magical in novels. It’s what puts across dry historical or scientific information. It’s what makes small events feel big and gives big events surprising meaning. It’s what unites a novel over the long haul, even when a story spans decades. It’s what’s behind the poetry of doing the dishes.
For now, though, just get the connection. Try it out. Get the feel of it. It’s a strong fastener. (Bonus point: Can you identify the pin connector in today’s post?)
How are you using a pin connection in the scene you’re writing today? Tell us how we’ll fly!