This post started as a podcast, but then I realized it’s much easier to “see” than to hear. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about inciting incidents as I work through my arc workshop. You figure I’d have organized it before now. Holding my thoughts up to things to see if they work the way I think they do. Sometimes you think you’ve found something that “always” works the same way, but doesn’t.
Back in the early days, when I’d just started to write seriously and didn’t have any idea what the difference was between a scene and a turning point, people used to talk to me about inciting incidents, and I totally had no clue. I’d just nod and go along pretending like I knew what they were talking about, which is a good thing in retrospect, because everyone had their own idea of what an inciting incident is:
It’s something in backstory:
The heroine decides to go to a Sasquatch conference in the wilds of northern WA
It’s how you start your story:
Maybe she breaks down on the side of the road
Or it’s something wild and dramatic that happens when the two protags get together:
A hot and hunky cowboy/xenobiologist rescues her and takes her off to his lair
I think there are two “kinds” of inciting incidents. One for externally-driven stories—plotted stories that are pushed along by things outside character, like romantic suspense and thrillers. And another for character-driven stories like contemporaries or mainstream fiction, where they’re driven by internal conflict.
An example for purposes of this post is Kim, because her story is a fairly straightforward contemporary romance.
Kim is a shutdown widow who lost her child in a horribly traumatic accident. As the story starts, the toilet in her bed and breakfast breaks and she calls Jason, a handyman who just moved in down the street. At the end of the day, Jason invites her to dinner at his place.
So far, the sequence of story events is:
· Kim loses her husband to a heart attack
· Goes through a red light while grieving and her daughter, Cleo, is killed
· Decides to fix the bed and breakfast because she can’t let go
· (the story, two years later)
· She’s getting ready for a soft opening (it’s coming up on Cleo’s birthday and the anniversary of her death. Kim isn’t in good shape)
· The toilet breaks (pushing her closer to her already fragile edge)
· She calls the handyman down the street (he posted flyers everywhere when he moved in)
· He fixes the toilet and over the course of the day gets to know her a little (she looks like she’s hurting and could use a meal)
· He asks her over to dinner with him and his kid
Although Cleo’s death is a major issue and drives Kim’s conflict as she falls in love with Jason, the inciting incident in Kim’s story isn’t in backstory because there are too many branching points. In other words, Cleo’s death doesn’t limit the story—it can be anything from a romantic suspense, paranormal to a dimension hopping sci-fi opus.
Backstory like Cleo’s death is simply stuff your reader needs to know to understand what’s at stake. Can we really cheer someone on if the only thing we know about her is her frustration over a plugged toilet? By the time the inciting incident happens we should know Kim suffered a tragedy and she’s working on the bed & breakfast because she can’t let go of her ghosts. She wants to make amends and can’t. Survivors guilt, nightmares, and regrets are eating her alive. The line of action (can Kim open the bed and breakfast in time to take advantage of a festival in town?) is very simple, which allows what’s happening up in Kim’s head to shine. Which means in this instance, what starts the story also isn’t the inciting incident, because the story isn’t limited by Kim’s decision to open a bed and breakfast, although the possibilities are starting to get narrower.
In a story driven by internals, exposition narrows the story down to a bunch of manageable probabilities at the same time it shows us the stakes and creates reader buy-in.
Starting too close to the inciting incident means the story runs the risk that the reader won’t understand what the story is really about (the story question).
On the surface, the story is all about Kim making her bed and breakfast a success. Internally, it’s all about self-forgiveness, letting go and second chances. Which means the story question is whether Kim can let go of the past, forgive herself and take her second chance at love and family.
Her daughter died, and she shut herself down emotionally. Can she ever open up to love again? We’ve seen her all alone in her extra-large house. If something can’t break down the walls she’s built around herself, Kim will be alone forever, hating herself more with every passing day. Which means the inciting incident is Jason’s invitation to dinner. His invitation does two things:
It sets up the parameters of the story—Jason is a handyman and single dad, with a cute kid. They all live in a small town. There’s nothing paranormal about the story, and there are no thriller or mystery elements. It’s a simple, plain vanilla relationship story defined by the question: Can Kim let go of the past, forgive herself and take her second chance at love and family?
The story either starts or stops here—if Kim doesn’t say yes, the story where Kim and Jason struggle over the growth of their relationship wouldn’t happen because they’d still be two people who just happen to be in a story together and there’s nothing much going on.
The inciting incident (what it’s about and where it falls) foreshadows the structure (plot-driven or character-driven) by defining what’s important to the story.
Even though my sasquatch-loving heroine has been rescued by the xenobiologist-cowboy, the incident doesn’t set up the story or create a stopping or starting point, which means at the point Dr. X rescues fair Juliet, they’re still two random people in a story and the story is still working through the expositionary phase. It’s character-driven and we’re waiting to find out what’s going on between Dr. X and Juliet because the inciting incident hasn’t happened yet.
However, if I had Sasquatch smash Juliet’s car into scrap metal and fall madly in love (maybe some of that instant mating stuff?) with her, only to have Dr. X rescue Juliet—keeping her safe one step ahead of the hero who X transformed into a horrible Sasquatch, then it’s a race against time and Dr. X to rescue Juliet before the dastardly villain can turn her into She-squatch and find the antidote so the hero can be revealed as the piping hot hero he really is.
While Juliet, Dr. X and Sasquatch are all strong characters, the story they’re in is plot-driven, and the inciting incident (Sasquatch bonding with Juliet only to have her kidnapped by the evil Dr. X) is right up front (or very close to the front) to emphasize what the story is about (will the hero rescue Juliet before she’s turned into a female monster, and can they find the antidote to turn the hero back into a human, before it’s too late?).