For NaNoWriMo 2018 I wrote a murder mystery set on a starliner. With all the freewriting and deleted words stripped away, it turned out to be a little over 22k words, a novelette by SFWA standards Its main contribution to my development as a writer was that it contained a complete albeit sketchy plot – my first NaNo project I could consider finished in some reasonable sense. For this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo I intended to start turning it into a full novel, but I didn’t have enough prep time to do all the planning my research on writing mysteries showed was necessary. So I’ve been slogging through more research, world-building, plot outlining, figuring out what the various antagonists are doing – all of which is reasonably fun, but over the weekend I got frustrated with not having actually started the story. So I drafted the first chapter.
The story just didn’t work.
I had followed the advice usually given to beginning authors: readers have no reason to trust that you will tell an engaging story, so you must start with action. The first chapter was the sleuths being summoned to solve the murder, which had already taken place. The major conflict started within the first few pages, which was supposedly a good thing. But the chapter felt rushed, the characters too flat, the setting too vague.
Fortunately, somewhere in the mists of time, I had heard of the idea of a “bridging conflict,” so in my usual academic manner decided to research it and summarize what I found.
The consensus definition of a “bridging conflict,” the one that unifies all the sources I read, is
A smaller conflict, a problem the protagonist must solve, that takes place during setup for, or transitions between, the parts of the main conflict.
The most commonly-mentioned use was the setup for the inciting incident that kicks off the main conflict.
The reasons for a bridging conflict at the start of a story clarified my uneasy feelings. Except for special subgenres like cosy mysteries, long slow buildups are boring for most readers. They want something to happen, some feeling of a plot moving forward. The problem is that if you start right away with the major intenseconflict, you’re raising the stakes too fast, before readershavebegun to immerse in the setting and identify with the protagonist. They have no reason to careabout either.
So, for a good story opening, witha bridging conflict, you need to;
Start with the character of the protagonist. Reveal some aspect of their intentions, perspectives, values, needs, and long-term goals.
- Suggest backstory showing that the protagonist enters the narrative with relevant life experience.
- Pick a conflict that arises naturally from the context, that can be resolved, or partly resolved, reasonably soon; set a goal relatively easy to achieve.
Show the immediate stakes, the consequences of failing to resolve the bridging conflict.
- Introduce a complication: yes the protagonist succeeded at the immediate goal, but another problem arose.
- Make sure that, by the end of the incident, the reader cares about the protagonist and their struggles.
This unifies the two most-emphasized pieces of advice I’ve heard that readers expect an interesting protagonist with a character arc, and also expect the “action” to start quickly.
So, instead of reworking the initial scene, my next task is to clarify my image of the main sleuth.
I consulted the following sources during my research, taken from the first few pages of an internet search; it is well worth reading them for the examples and additional details.