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Bridging Conflict

If you’ve read any of Donald Maass’ work, you may be familiar with the idea of “bridging conflict.” It’s a small bit of conflict before the inciting incident (the event that launches the plot) comes along. I want to talk about it in a little bit more detail.

But first, some empathizing. Writers are bombarded with advice (guilty as charged here, I know I’ve definitely contributed to this). Jump right into the action. Don’t just right in. Let’s have the inciting incident within the first 10 pages. You’re rushing into it! We need a physical description of your protagonist on the first page. You’re focusing on details that don’t matter! Don’t tell, show! Don’t show, tell! AAAH! It’s crazymaking.

And I’m seeing the effects of this confusion on writers who are trying to check all the boxes that they may have read about on well-meaning blogs and in helpful books. One symptom of this that I want to discuss today is starting too big. Yes. This is going to be one of those bits of advice that is controversial, because it seems contradictory.

Everywhere you look, you see blogs telling you to start with action, start big, and get readers hooked right away. And there’s a lot of good to this advice. It’s a great kick in the rear for writers who like to begin with twenty pages of chit-chat and backstory before anything actually happens. This is telling upon telling, and it’s likely your readers aren’t sticking around until your first plot point.

So is the natural antidote to this an explosion on page two? That might seem like a good idea. And I’m seeing it more and more. But let me tell you why it’s a well-meaning thought gone awry. I liken this situation to a first date. You meet a guy or gal at a restaurant after chatting online for a bit. In this situation, you’re very much like a fiction reader. You liked the cute cover, you liked the interesting blurb, you want to give this book a shot and devote a few hours of your time to it. You start some small talk, and, if you’re on a date with one of those slow-starting manuscripts, your date is likely to talk for the entire duration of dinner, filling you in on their entire life up until this point. That’s undesirable, right? Well, let’s talk about the flip side. What if your date suddenly has a massive episode and flops to the floor, seizing, before the first round of drinks arrives?

How do you feel (other than, you know, horrified because you’re a nice person)? It’s bizarre to imagine. Why? Because it’s too big. It’s an event but it’s too high stakes, too dangerous, too sudden. You don’t even know the guy. If he were to be hauled off in an ambulance, you wouldn’t know who to call because you just met him!

In opening a novel, it’s all about balance. You don’t want to blab for three hours, but you also don’t want to open with “Hey guess what, there’s a prophecy and you’re the chosen one to save the world. So, you know, get to it, kiddo.” One is too small on plot, one is too big. That’s why smart people like Donald Maass advocate for “bridging conflict” to start. You want to start with some action to get tension brewing. Maybe a conversation with one’s crush, or anxiety about an upcoming test, or a sibling getting in trouble and asking for help. Let that be the focus of the first chapter. And if this conflict is related to the main plot, even better. But it’s not the main plot, not yet. Because we have to care about the character before we’ll follow them through a really rigorous plot full of stakes, ups, and downs. Just like we should probably get to know our unlucky date a bit more before we’ll hop into the ambulance and follow him to the hospital.

Because before we have established a connection using some smaller, more manageable conflict, the protagonist is just a kid. The reader hasn’t bonded yet. The intricate relationship between the fictional entity and the audience is still too new, too tenuous. But once we get to know the hero a little bit, we start to invest. Just like if the date goes horribly wrong near the end of the night, it’s not just some guy who’s having an attack, it’s Pete! Who grew up three blocks away from you! And he’s allergic to peanuts! And why, oh why, did you order pad thai for the table?! And you’re that much more likely to care, to feel, to buy in. Keep it manageable at first, then ramp up the stakes and really get rolling on your main conflict.

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    It’s awesome you brought this up, because all this advice doesn’t just confuse writers, it’s also kind of paralyzing in terms of wanting to go with what you know is right for the story in your gut and what all this wonderful writing advice tells you.

    I read another blog post about beginning with action recently, and the author reminded everyone that action isn’t just bombs exploding, car chases etc. Action in the beginning means conflict, which means tension like you said, and you can get that by immersing your character in their regular world, with people they care about, and have some tension come out like that. In this case, the reader gets a feel of the story world, of what the character’s like by watching her interact with people she cares about, before the huge plotline comes into the picture. AND you can always add tension by using an intriguing first line, like Gayle Forman did in If I Stay.

    Heaps of gratitude for this blog post and the clarity with which you explain everything!! It’s so very very helpful :)

  2. Bekah’s avatar

    Guilty! I rearranged chapters to fit the “start the action early” advice. On a previous 10 page submission, one agent said, “Too slow” and another said, “Too fast.” On the same exact pages. Maybe it’s subjective to the reader? All I know is, YES, so confusing!

  3. June Sullivan’s avatar

    Oh this is amazingly timely for me. While revising my mg novel, I have wanted to do a short opening para of scene setting. It takes place in a foreign country — with, now don’t gulp, anthropomorphized animals. Until this wonderful post, I was so worried that such opening sentences weren’t action, let alone not high-action, that I have been stuck, literally frozen in place. I feel free now. I’m going to allow a short scene-setting opening comforted by the fact that ‘bridging conflict’ scenes follow very quickly on its heals.

    Thanks for highlighting this for us. I do believe I’m actually doing something right for a change, or at least not wrong. Could that really be? Hallelujah!

  4. C. Lee McKenzie’s avatar

    Excellent post. It’s definitely a balancing act, this opening to a story. I still like it when I “care” about the MC right away. I can wait a bit for the event that starts that character off on the journey, and I like subtle rather than not.

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