Friday, June 20, 2008

Of Bridge Conflicts and Withdrawn Protagonists

Well, I lied about the tomorrow part. Sorry about that. It’s been a busy week. And hot! Yowa. 92 degrees in the shade. And anything over 78 melts my brain.


Sometimes it can seem impossible to build a strong enough emotional connection between the character and the reader AND start the book when the trouble starts. Of course, in an ideal world, you could do both, but since many of us are not perfect writers, we have to find other ways to accomplish this end. For me, my own personal philosophy is, when in doubt to err on the side of connecting with the reader emotionally. What I sometimes use to do this is called a bridge conflict. Which simply means that in the beginning of the story, the protagonist is in conflict with something, but that something happens not to be the main plot element.

For example, in Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos*, the inciting incident for the main plot is when Mum brings the majorly cursed Heart of Egypt home with her. The problem I ran in to was, if I started the book there, I’d have to shoehorn in too much backstory in order to make the reader understand about what Theo’s “normal” life looked like, because it was very, very different than the average normal life, either then or now. Plus if the reader had a chance to understand how on her own Theo was, her emotional isolation as she dealt with this major problem would be more vividly understood. Or that was my thinking at the time. (I do find that writing theories evolve over time, so who knows what I’ll think in five years!)

So the book opens with Theo in conflict with a cursed artifact that her mother has sent home ahead of the rest. This does a couple of things. Shows Theo’s Ordinary World. Gives clear parameters of what the magical rules are in the story world. Establishes Theo’s emotional isolation, as well as her plucky resourcefulness at dealing with it all. And shows how she ends up taking care of the adults around her. All in all, a nice micro encapsulation of the themes Theo will be struggling with on a grander scale throughout the course of the book. I was also able to get one of the bad guys in there in that first scene, although deeply hidden.

So Theo’s conflict with the Bastet statue was a bridge to the main conflict, giving the reader enough time to settle into the complex world of the story AND bond with Theo, so when this big bad nightmare of a problem fell in her lap, they would see how it was testing her beyond her normal coping strategies.

I think one of the things that determines whether or not bridge conflicts works is whether or not the story has enough plot layers. Which is really the subject of another post, but essentially plot layers are all the different areas of the protagonist’s life that the main plot impacts. The bridge conflict can’t be about something that never comes up again in the book. It needs to tie into the overall cohesive elements that form the various plot elements or lays the foundation.

Creating an emotional connection with a withdrawn or reserved protagonist.

Well, this was the problem I was whining about that started this whole series of posts. In my most recent book NATHANIEL FLUDD, BEASTOLOGIST, The book opens with Nate sitting in a lawyers office, receiving the bad news that his parents have been lost at sea. The scene ends with the lawyer hustling him off to the train station, where poor Nate departs for parts unknown, specifically his last remaining relative.

The good news was, I had indeed started the story when the trouble starts: finding out your parents are dead and being shipped off to the unknown is Trouble.

The bad news, Nate was unbelievably passive. As a child in an adult situation, all he could do was sit and take in information. Kiss of death, interest wise. Clearly he would be easy to sympathize with, him. But my challenge was to show HIS emotional scars and wounds so that the reader would care about him specifically and not just, oh, ho hum another orphan in children’s literature…

The emotional set up for his character was that Nate had been emotionally and physically abandoned by his parents into the care of his governess/nanny. And while she appeared very loving and to have his best interests at heart, she also managed to quash him in many ways; curiosity, any desire for adventure, etc. But how to show that or allude to that in the first scene without just telling a lot of backstory?

What I finally ended up doing was having him sit there, instructed by Miss Lumpton to draw while she talked with the lawyer, essentially to be seen and not heard. Then he hears the lawyer mention his parents and he stops drawing to listen, and Miss Lumpton exhorts him to keep drawing. But suddenly he has a goal, even if a very tiny goal. To understand what’s happened to his parents and by extension what will happen to him. This is also a nice way to get some dramatic action in what was a very physically static scene. The action of Nate’s drawing or stopping or fiddling with his pencil gave me some nice vehicles for showing his emotional state rather than telling.

Plus it is just the sort of thing that stupid adults say to kids, as if they can sit there and turn off their ears!! And by that one command, I (hopefully) was able to convey how much Miss Lumpton squelched his curiosity, his intelligence, and his place in the world, until he became merely an extension of her desires. Okay, maybe it doesn’t convey all that, but that’s what I wanted to convey and if it touches on some of that, I’ll be happy.

Which is a long way of trying to illustrate that even the most withdrawn protagonists who are afraid to react in their world, if you dig deep enough and long enough you can usually find some way to establish unique, empathetic characteristics as well as tiny little goals.

And now I simply must go finish up my lesson plans for the SBWC then get ready for work. If you have questions or need further clarification or examples, say so in the comments and I’ll address them next week!

* I’m not trying to be all about me by using examples from my own books, they are just the ones I understand the best.


Anonymous said...

Robin, I am so happy to have found your blog through Patty Palmer's blog via Tina Nichols Coury's blog (whew!). You and I share the same agent, and I'm sorry you're not able to come to our Gang of Erin retreat here in MA. I loved THEODOSIA and look forward to her other books, and I thought your last posts on drawing the reader in and craft tips were all excellent.

Anonymous said...

Love these posts -- many thanks!