To further prove that I am not a finicky reader quick to find fault with other people’s writing, I hereby post this glowing recommendation of Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron. It won a Newbery Honor in 1966, for good reason. It’s well-written, has rich, nuanced characters, and is full of ambiguity. I’m not a huge fan of straight fantasy, and I still really liked this book, which I think is saying a lot.
The first thing I noticed about this book is that it provides an excellent example of bridging conflict. I’d read about bridging conflict in a couple of the writing books I’ve read, but I didn’t really understand what it was (probably because I’d never read any of the novels used as examples in the aforementioned writing books)–until now.
The Black Cauldron opens with POV character Taran trying to wash the oracular pig, Hen Wen. Up rides a tattered young knight who arrogantly orders Taran to do his bidding. Taran flings a few well-chosen insults at the rude rider, who then flings Taran into the mud.
This squabble between Taran and Ellidyr is not the central conflict of the book, but it captures our interest long enough to keep us reading till we get to the main conflict: the quest for the black cauldron. That is bridging conflict. When you can’t start with the main conflict, you create a secondary conflict to grab the reader and get her into the story as quickly as possible and you keep that conflict (or another) going until you can get to the main conflict. (Alexander sets up the cauldron quest, which is the book’s central conflict, by the end of the first chapter.)
Here’s the thing, though: the bridging conflict that Alexander sets up between Taran and Ellidyr persists throughout the book–it even causes several of the large events in the story–and is not resolved until the end. It is not merely a plot device to hook the reader. It is an integral part of the novel. (Writers, take note!)
And that’s why this book was so good: nothing was wasted.
That, and it had a satisfying ending.