To write a novel is to invite your reader on a journey. Once she gets to the station for departure, don’t expect her to be satisfied watching the train sit on the tracks. Or taking a tour of its cars. Or watching its engine be tugged from track to track, unsure of its role. And you certainly don’t want her settling into a comfortable seat where she can snooze! Invite her to join your protagonist right in the engine, where she can feel its power drive them forward onto the tracks that will take them all the way to the protagonist’s final turning point at the climax.
The story won’t really start cooking until the incident that knocks your character off his rails and incites him to set a story goal, as that will launch his trajectory through the story. Throughout your opening, you want to head purposefully toward that moment.
“Bridging conflict” can span the distance from opening to inciting incident—and what that means for your character is that he needs to arrive on page one with an intermediate goal. A goal will orient both protagonist and reader to the opening scene by directing your character’s intentions and revealing his perspective. Along the way, the reader will get to know him.
Create a good bridging conflict
Here are a few tips for creating good bridging conflict. Your guiding image: a bridge is strongest when it spans a short gap.
1. Create a goal that is close to being met.
Let’s say your character, Bonnie, takes art lessons because one day she wants to see her work hanging in the Louvre. That goal is distant, achieved by only a select few, and perhaps unattainable. Bonnie’s pursuit of it while taking “Sketching for Beginners” is vague, since we don’t know why she desires it. We don’t get a sense of what the stakes are if she doesn’t make it. We won’t invest in her pie-in-the-sky goal because it will be too hard to assess how Bonnie’s doing on her path toward it, so we’ll fail to bond with her. And let’s say you interweave Bonnie’s pie-in-the-sky opening with a second chapter in the POV of an antagonist determined to do her harm. Problem: we may end up liking him more, simply because his goal-oriented behavior makes him more relatable.
2. Clue us in on immediate stakes should your protagonist fail.
You’ve revised: Maybe Bonnie’s father, who just died, was an artist and she wants to uphold the family name. Maybe a memorial exhibition will be held next year that will tour the country, and she is desperate to have a piece in that show. Closing the gap further: maybe Bonnie is already technically accomplished, but is simply floundering for inspiration. If she fails to come up with a good idea she’ll miss out—not only on the opportunity to contribute to her father’s memorial exhibition, but also to gain the spotlight that could establish her as his heir apparent in the national arts scene.
3. Add more pressure.
Try closing the gap more. Maybe she not only promised the work, but publicity has already gone out featuring its name, “The Colors of my Father.” And the show is next month, not next year—yet still Bonnie stands before a blank white canvas. She’ll be a laughing stock. Her father was right—she shouldn’t have spent her life curating his work if she planned to be an artist in her own right; she should have been painting.
4. Create relevant plot complications and then make things happen.
Yes, even in these pre-story, getting-to-know-you pages, we need more than exposition about the well-researched world of your character. Readers can spot fake story like teens smell hypocrisy, so you’ll need real complications. If Bonnie wants to honor her father with a painting, show her failing with an attempt that neither exudes her father’s passion nor adequately expresses her love for him. Add a ticking clock—time running out. Any technique you use to ramp up tension in the story proper can be used to enhance your bridging conflict as well.
5. Bring on the inciting incident sooner.
What better complication can you introduce than the one that will launch the story you plan to tell? Bring on the antagonist and let’s get this party started! Perhaps he’s planning a huge heist of her father’s paintings at the museum where she’s worked as a curator. Once that happens, Bonnie will sweep away her initial goal—saving the entire body of her father’s work is like extending his presence on Earth, she decides, and to Bonnie, that’s more important than completing one painting of her own. Maybe her emotional arc will offer the awareness that she didn’t need to be “daddy junior” after all—as she unspools the insider info needed to crack this case, Bonnie sees her talents as a curator are authentic and reflect her truer nature.
Did you get the sense that Bonnie has entered the story with life experience beneath her belt? Did you get a sense of who Bonnie is, what her values are, what her life questions are, and what she needs? Did you get a sense of stakes should she fail to meet her intermediate goal? If the answer is yes, note that you gathered this information without a research dump, a tour of the setting, a montage of the protagonist’s reflections, or a backstory scene.
The bottom line is this: If you want a reader to hop on board the train of story, make sure the train is heading somewhere right from the start.
Can you think of examples of bridging conflict from stories you’ve read or written? How do they succeed in helping us understand the protagonist so that we empathize with him when the inciting incident rocks his world?
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