We need bridging conflict in our writing. Without it, our readers will get bored and watch a movie, or pull out a more interesting book.
So, what is bridging conflict? It’s the smaller conflict that keeps the reader interested during transitions and setups. Much of a novel is setup for the good stuff. By “the good stuff,” I mean the climactic scenes of a novel, the big conflicts. These big conflicts can only have big impact if they are properly set up for the reader. Bridging conflict keeps readers interested in the scenes that set up these major conflicts.
Conflict is basically code for “another problem our protagonist must solve.” It’s another obstacle. Let’s look at an example to identify the big conflicts in a story, first. Then we’ll be able to see where and why we need bridging conflict. The Hunger Games isn’t a very original example, but the story is a beautiful example of layering conflict.
Katniss volunteers for The Hunger Games to save her sister. This is big conflict because she’ll most likely die in the arena. But when is the next major climactic scene? When Peeta announces his love for her. And the next? When she begins the games. These are big moments in the story, but there’s a lot of setup that goes in-between these moments. Katniss must endure the capitol’s primping; she must meet her enemies; and we must begin to care about her. In order to get through all this setup, we need bridging conflict.
So basically, bridging conflicts are smaller conflicts in between the bigger conflicts. They connect the main events…like bridges. They keep readers interested during the transitions. “Bridging Conflict” isn’t just a fancy term—it makes sense.
Let’s look at an example of bridging conflict from The Hunger Games. When Katniss is running around in the arena, the bloodthirsty Gamemakers burn her leg with a fire ball. This is not a major plot point in the overall picture of the story, but it fills in a lull between major conflicts.
This example also shows some other desirable characteristics for bridging conflicts. First of all, they must be interesting to the reader. Before to the fireball incident, Katniss was just figuring out how to survive in the wild. The incident forces her to run for her life and she is hurt badly. Then she runs right into the Career killers in the arena (not an accident, as we’ll see below). Life and death stakes grab reader attention—we worry for Katniss.
Our second desirable characteristic for bridging conflict is that it shows us information. It shows us what the Gamemakers are like—they want to create action for the viewers in the Capitol. It’s their job. The Gamemakers are trying to hurt Katniss badly enough that the Career killers can murder her. The Gamemakers don't want to kill her outright, though, because they want the audience engaged in Katniss's struggle (sick, I know). It also tells us about the viewers in the Capitol, who think it’s all an entertaining game. It shows us how scary this is for Katniss. We realize she must feel like a pawn in their control.
The third characteristic is that it seems natural. It arises organically from the events of the story all around Katniss, so it doesn't feel manufactured by the author. The Capital and Gamemakers are bloodthirsty, and this is a game of life and death. It makes sense in the context.
How do we use Bridging Conflict? We create a believable conflict that primes the reader for the bigger, main actions in the story. It may be small thing—an injury, a fight with a friend, a temporary magical shortage, etc., but it will prepare the readers for a major plot point—a friend's betrayal, a death, the loss of a valuable artifact, etc. If your protagonist runs away from home in chapter 3, show a fight in chapter 1 that serves as an impetus for the act of running away. It's a smooth integration of conflict in to your setup chapters. The first few chapters of a novel will often need bridging conflict. As literary agent and author Mary Kole says, “A small conflict right off the bat will get us mildly invested and should carry us for a few pages" (159). If you’ve got a juicy bit of conflict on page 28 that kicks off all the action, that’s good news. You can use Bridging Conflict can carry your readers through whatever setup must come before that point.
This is a relatively new concept for me, but now that I understand it, it’s helping me a lot in my own writing. I hope it helps you, too!
Thanks to Donald Maass for first introducing this topic in Writing the Breakout Novel and thanks to Mary Kole for reminding me of it in her Writing Irresistible Kidlit.
Photo Credit:By Chosovi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Works Cited-Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 2012. Print.
-Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. 2001. Print.
-The Hunger Games. Dir. Gary Ross. Perf. Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz. Lionsgate, 2012. BluerayDisc.