Tag Archives: the inciting incident

How the Written Universe Works: The Inciting Incident #amwriting

Whether we show it in the prologue or the opening chapter, the first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story. The universe that is our story begins expanding at that moment.

the inciting incidentThe first incident has a domino effect. More events occur, pushing the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. Fear of death, fear of loss, fear of financial disaster, fear of losing a loved one—terror is subjective and deeply personal.

I love stories about good people solving terrible problems, but I want them to mean something.

While I have experienced violent situations, I’ve also faced many things that shook my world but didn’t threaten my physical safety.

Arguments and confrontations are chaotic, leaving us wondering what just happened. We want to convey that sense of chaos in writing, but we must consider the reader. Readers want to see the scene and understand what they just read. We must design every action scene to ensure they fit naturally into a narrative from the first incident onwards.

The threat and looming disaster must be made clear to the reader at the outset. Nebulous threats mean nothing in real life, although they cause a lot of stress in our daily lives.

Those vague threats might be the harbinger of what is to come in a book, but they only work if the danger materializes quickly and the roadblocks to happiness soon become apparent.

Resolving disaster is the story. Hold the solution just out of reach for the following ¾ of the narrative. Every time we nearly have it fixed, we don’t, and things get worse.

The arc of the story begins with the first event, the inciting incident. The story’s arc occurs because the characters keep reaching for a resolution but can’t quite grasp it. Every attempt is blocked somehow.

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The One Ring, Peter J. Yost, CC BY-SA 4.0

The characters reap the rewards of minor successes but not the golden ring. Those small rewards keep hope alive and keep the reader involved.

If the first problem was taken care of too quickly, why? What sort of trap was laid, and why did the characters take the bait?

If we do this right, we will move our readers emotionally and they will remain invested in our book.

I mentioned that confrontations are chaotic. It’s our job to control that chaos and make a narrative out of it. Nothing upsets a reader more than a book where the author contradicts something that was said or that happened before.

I choreograph action sequences, which can take a little time. Each character’s reactions must be portrayed in such a way the reader doesn’t say, “He wouldn’t do that.”

In real life, people don’t all react the same way. So, our characters can’t all be superheroes in a fight scene. It’s easy to lose the characters’ individuality in the jumble of actions that a confrontation is.

If your violence is war, go to history and see how battles were waged historically. Any war will do, but let’s say you are writing an account of a soldier’s experiences in modern warfare. Go to the Battle of the Bulgealso known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive.

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US Army Center for Military History, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve used this battle as an example before because it was a pivotal point in World War II, and the placement of all the forces on both sides is well documented.

Also, one of my uncles fought and was wounded in that battle. Uncle Don came home with a metal plate in his head. American forces endured most of the attack, suffering their highest casualties of any operation during the war.

But you can look at any historical battle. Just remember that even though your book may explore a real soldier’s experiences, you are still writing a fantasy. The past is just hearsay, stories written by the victors. The future is a rumor that may not happen. The only moment that happens for sure is this moment, that moment you experience now.

Our characters exist in their own now, and the inciting incident kicks off their story. Perhaps the soldier’s inciting incident occurs when they join the army. From that point on, the actions and reactions of our soldiers must be logical even amidst the chaos of battle, or the reader will skip over that scene and possibly put the book down.

We make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be) through physical actions and conversational interactions. In the early part of the story, each scene should illuminate the characters’ motives. The reader must gain information at the same time as the protagonist does.

toolsHowever, the reader has an edge—they will be offered clues from the antagonists’ side, which the characters don’t know. The antagonist’s actions will affect the plot in the future. Even if the antagonist isn’t an overt enemy at the outset, the readers’ knowledge creates a sense of unease, a subliminal worry that things will go wrong.

Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is essential. This knowledge raises the stakes, increasing the tension.

Next week, we will look at ways to choreograph confrontations and violent encounters.

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Creating Compelling Objectives #amwriting

At the outset of any good story, we meet our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs, the inciting incident.

The inciting incident:

  • Happens to your protagonist
  • Disrupts your protagonist’s life
  • Is personal to your protagonist
  • Gives the protagonist an objective/quest

The hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation, which is the core idea of your plot. This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself at the beginning of the story. The circumstance forces an objective upon the main character.

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a respectable hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is living a comfortable life in a prosperous, sheltered village, and has no desire to change that in any way. However, a casual, polite greeting made to a passing wizard sets a string of events into motion that will eventually change the course of history for the world of Middle Earth.

The wizard, Gandalf, tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon, Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition’s “burglar.”

The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo becomes a little indignant and agrees to do it despite his misgivings. The next morning he has second thoughts, but at the last moment Bilbo literally runs out the door with nothing but the clothes on his back.

  • You must have a strong, unavoidable event that is your inciting incident. Ask yourself:
  • What is the hero’s personal strength and health at the beginning?
  • How will his physical and emotional condition be changed, both  for better or worse? Will these changes be triggered by the hero himself or by the antagonist?
  • What could possibly entice the hero out of his comfort zone?

Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: Objective

A protagonist has no business showing up on the page unless he/she has a compelling objective. If he doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.

Bilbo does have an objective. Once he gets past his feeling of having made a terrible mistake, he desires nothing more than to help his friends achieve their goal: that of regaining their lost kingdom.

Gandalf exerts a parental influence over Bilbo at the outset, guiding him and pushing him out of his comfortable existence.  But it is Bilbo who has common sense and compassion, who gradually takes over leadership of the party, guiding and rescuing them from their own greedy mistakes. This is a fact the dwarves can’t bear to acknowledge, and a fact he doesn’t realize himself.

Those turning points where with each adventure Bilbo gains confidence and a tool or weapon he will later need are what make up the best parts of the adventure. That is what you must inject into your story, be it a contemporary drama, an urban fantasy, a bedroom farce, or science fiction.

  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is he going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?

Perhaps your tale is set on a space station. What does your protagonist need that is in short supply? What does he have to do to get it?

Perhaps you are writing an urban fantasy. Perhaps your main character is a vampire. Vampires requires sustenance–what will she do to get it? Or conversely, if a human, what will she do to avoid becoming vampire-food?

Protagonists begin their tale in their current surroundings. They are thrown out of their comfortable existence by circumstances and forced to identify objectives they must achieve or acquire to resolve their situation.

Thus, whichever you conceive first, characters or objective, you need to know why your character is willing to leave his circumstances and embark on his adventure. That objective must be compelling enough for him to risk everything he values to achieve it.

But what if a side character has such a compelling story that the book becomes his story and is no longer about our hobbit? If you notice that is the case, rewrite your book so that the character with the most compelling story is the protagonist from page one.

The potential for gain must outweigh the potential for loss. The stakes must be high: perhaps they are headed into a life and death situation, or a couple finds their marriage on the rocks. Perhaps a young woman stands to lose her wealth and security. These are good core circumstances for plots, but for me, the greatest risk a hero faces is in moral coin. This is because personal values are fundamental to who we are as individuals, and when those intrinsic values are threatened, the risk is emotionally charged.

Emotionally charged stories are powerful.  Objectives create risk. Without great risk and potential for gain, there is no story.

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#amwriting: revisiting the story arc

howards endE.M. Forster was one of the great English novelists. He was also a short story writer, essayist, and wrote librettos. Forster was considered a master of creating ironic, well-plotted novels that examined class difference and hypocrisy in early 20th-century British society. He really understood how to structure a novel or short story.

He has been quoted as saying that plot is the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. His example was, “‘The king died, and then the queen died,’ is a story, while ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.”

That is the absolute truth. You can tell that story baldly, but without a plot, the above story is only a casual commentary on the death of two monarchs.

I am not good at winging it when it comes to plotting a novel. I find it helps me to spend a day or two thinking about the story as a whole, how it begins, how it ends, and why it went that way. While I am brainstorming, I write an outline to use as a framework to guide the story. I may not keep to the outline exactly, but the plot points occurring at each of the four quarters will be met, to maintain momentum and not inadvertently introduce inconsistencies.

Inside every good story that seizes the reader’s imagination, there is an arc to the action within the plot, and when it is graphed out, it forms an arc: the story arc. My outline will provide me with the framework for this story arc.

51i0K3WVpML._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_The story begins with the opening act, where the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. It then kicks into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” which is the first plot point. It occurs around the ¼ mark and triggers the rest of the story. It is “the problem,” the core conflict of the story. This is where the protagonist is thrown into the action and is also where they first find themselves blocked from achieving the desired goal.

Even if you open the story by dropping the character into the middle of an event, you will need to have a pivotal event at the 1/4 mark that completely rocks his/her world. The event that changes everything is what really launches the story.

Following the inciting incident is the second act: more action occurs which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling. Within the overall story arc, there are scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown. Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters do not know that will affect the plot.

Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.

At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act and setting them back even further. Now they are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.

Someone may die.

Midpoint is also where we get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.

By the end of the third act, the protagonists are getting their acts together. They are finding ways to resolve the conflict and are ready to commence the final, fourth act, where they will embark on the final battle. They will face their enemy and either win or lose.

By the end of the book, all the threads have been drawn together and resolved for better or worse. The ending is finite and wraps the conflict up.

No matter how many or how few words you intend to write, your story arc should work the same way. I do this all the time with short stories, because if you know what has to happen at what point in a narrative, you can develop the characters and write each section to that point.

short story arc

In genre fantasy and science fiction, we often have story arcs that evolve and take place across multiple volumes. If you are writing the first novel in what you plan to be a series, it must have a finite ending, regardless of how many books you plan to follow. Even a famous author should obey this rule.

Out of respect for the time the reader has spent reading your work, do not leave them hanging. A second volume can have a less conclusive ending, but the first and the third books must end well or at least finitely. Readers will want to buy that second book simply because of the characters you have created and the great experience they had reading the book they just finished.

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