During one of my previous posts as a Resident Writing Coach, we talked about the importance of strong goals for helping our story move forward. But as we discussed in the comments of that post, our characters can start off with weaker—passive—goals, as they might not embrace the need to solve the story-level problem right away.
In fact with many cases, the story problem and main conflicts don’t make an appearance until later in the story. Think of stories with thriller-type elements, where the protagonist can’t possibly know the villain is making evil plans in their secret lair until rumors, spy reports, or weird things occur later.
In those types of stories, our characters obviously can’t create strong goals to overcome the story problem right from the start because they’re not even aware the problem exists. In the meantime, bridging conflict kickstarts story momentum and grabs reader interest before the big story problem introduces the main conflict.
What Is Bridging Conflict?
As the term implies, bridging conflict “bridges” the gap between a story’s beginning and when the main story problem and conflict pick up the momentum. When our story requires the use of bridging conflict, the main story problem and conflict are still usually established by the 25% mark of our story.
In standard story structure, a major goal of the turning point that falls around the 25% mark on a beat sheet—sometimes called the First Plot Point, Break into Act II, or End of the Beginning—is to establish what the main story problem is. While the protagonist might not be fully aware of the problem yet, they should have some awareness and be dragged into the orbit of its influence.
Not surprisingly, readers don’t want to wait until the 25% mark for something to happen that will keep their interest. And we don’t want our protagonist to wander aimlessly with no goals to strive for through all those early pages either.
Enter bridging conflict. Bridging conflict could be related to the main story problem, or it could be a separate and unrelated issue. Either way, the bridging conflict establishes an immediate problem for our protagonist to overcome (i.e., gives them goals for the interim).
How Does Bridging Conflict Help?
Bridging conflict is more than just a standalone conflict with no effect on the other story elements. It also comes with a problem to solve, goals to strive for, obstacles to overcome, and motivation for our character’s actions.
However, even if the bridging conflict is unrelated to the eventual main conflict, we’d usually want the bridging conflict, goals, and/or obstacles to put our protagonist onto the path that leads to the story-level problem and main conflict. With that connection between conflicts, readers immediately feel a sense of story momentum from the beginning, and tying the bridging conflict to the rest of the story helps keep that momentum.
How to Use Bridging Conflict
Let’s look at an example…
Main Conflict: A villainous hospital administrator is using patients for dangerous experiments.
Story-Level Problem and Goal: To save the patients, the protagonist must expose the hospital administrator and their plans. (strong, active goal)
At this point, if our protagonist worked at the hospital with the administrator, clues and hints of the conflict could start from the beginning of the story. But let’s imagine that our protagonist is a park ranger and not involved with the hospital administrator at all.
How do we get a park ranger to even be aware of the hospital—much less the hospital administrator? Let’s add bridging conflict…
Bridging Conflict: The protagonist’s mother suffers a heart attack and is taken to the hospital.
Bridging-Level Problem and Goal: The protagonist must face their mother’s mortality and juggle work and watching over their mother’s treatment. (weaker, passive goal)
The story’s first several scenes could focus on the protagonist, their mother, the initial emergency, their worries, the treatment plan, whatever. At some point in the first 25% of the story, clues of the main conflict are laid out.
Maybe the doctor’s treatment plan alludes to experimental treatments that trigger the protagonist’s suspicions. Maybe at the hospital cafeteria, the protagonist overhears several families weeping for patients who suddenly “didn’t make it.” Maybe the elevator door opens for the protagonist to catch snatches of nurses grumbling about how they’ll have to find new jobs if the hospital’s death rate gets out to the media. Or maybe all of the above.
The point is laying the groundwork to set up the main conflict and story-level problem. In this example, the bridging conflict and the main conflict are unrelated, and yet the bridging conflict still sets the protagonist on the path toward the main conflict. That connection carries the momentum of narrative drive and reader interest from one conflict to another, making the story feel consistent and whole. *smile*
Do you have any questions or insights about bridging conflict or how to use it?
Resident Writing Coach
After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat. Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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Psst! Need ideas for CONFLICT? There’s a thesaurus for that… 😉
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Julie Glover says
I love this! So many times, we just hear that the protagonist needs to have some big goal at the beginning, but you show how a story can depart from that standard and really pull an audience in. Great example!
Mona AlvaradoFrazier says
This is a helpful post. Initially, I was confused but your examples helped make the ‘bridging’ more clear. This also eliminates any need to ‘info dump’ in the first chapters but is a good reminder to “plant the seeds.’ Thanks.
Nice example. Your post kept me engaged with the mystery of how in the heck you’d be able to connect a park ranger with a hospital administrator. Most of us probably would have made it easier to bridge the two by making the protagonist an employee. But then there’s still the lack of urgency if the protagonist has no major emotional connections to all the coming and going patients.
Jami Gold says
Yes, good point! No matter what, the story problem needs to be personal to our protagonist, and there are different ways we can accomplish that. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
Jami Gold says
Thanks for having me back again, Angela and Becca! I’m always glad to share ideas with your readers. 🙂
Paula Cappa says
I love this post, Jamie. I am wondering though how bridging conflict is different from foreshadowing?
Jami Gold says
Great question! Let’s go back to the example: The hints of the main conflict — the overheard conversations and whatnot — are foreshadowing that main conflict as they lay the groundwork of reader interest and narrative drive. So you’re right about foreshadowing playing a role here.
However, the bridging conflict is the conflict that happens before the main conflict is ready to take over the story’s momentum. So here, the bridging conflict is the story’s focus and momentum on our protagonist dealing with their mother’s heart attack and recovery, and those don’t necessarily have anything to do with the main conflict.
We could use this same bridging conflict in a completely different story with a different main conflict. For example, with a romance, this bridging conflict could be used to set up the meet cute between the protagonist and a doctor at the hospital. 😉
Obviously, we can get some overlap between the bridging conflict and foreshadowing the main conflict — that connection between the two — if her mother’s treatment plan also acts as foreshadowing, such as if it sounds too good to be true and raises suspicions or something. But it’s not required to set up that type of overlap.
Does that help explain it? Let me know if you still have questions. 🙂
Paula Cappa says
Clearer, yes. Thanks!