I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose. —Stephen King
Welcome to NaNoWriMo madness! Every day this month my plan is to blog about a key scene, one that pretty much any story of any genre has to include. Then I’ll take a closer look at how this scene, this structure, this general idea, is implemented in three popular genres: Action, Romance and Mystery.
Today I'm going to talk about the Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident
What is it?
Exciting. The Inciting Incident—or the Exciting Incident as it is sometimes called—is the most important event of your story.
Shatters the status quo: The Inciting Incident shatters the protagonist’s status quo and sets events in motion. Everything before this event, this scene, is stasis. Equilibrium. After the Inciting Incident the story has a trajectory, a direction.
To sum up: the Inciting Incident does two things; it has two functions. First, it excites the attention of the audience and, second, it draws the main character (either immediately or after a chain of actions and reactions) into the story.
Where is it?
Although the exact position of this event will vary depending on the genre and the particular story, it generally occurs in the first ten percent of your manuscript. It’s not going to be the first thing you use to capture your reader's attention (so not on the first few pages) but since there’s really no story without this event, it needs to happen soon.
How is it connected to the protagonist’s desires?
Note: Most characters have an internal desire and an external desire but all have an external desire.
Whatever genre you are writing in, this event needs to be connected to your protagonist’s desires, to her goal. For example, as we’ve seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark the Inciting Incident has to do with Indy’s lifelong dream of finding the Ark.
At this moment in the story the protagonist probably has no idea what achieving her goal will cost her, or even whether she will actually want her object of desire if and when she claims it.
Before I move on to look at the form Inciting Incidents take in various genres, let’s look at an example.
The Inciting Incident: An Example
The Silence of the Lambs by Robert Harris is one of my favorite books, one of my favorite movies and, IMHO, one of the more successful adaptations of a book to the big screen. I’m pretty sure you’ve either read the book or watched the movie so, before you read on, think about it. What do you think is the Inciting Incident?
(* elevator music *)
(* theme from Jeopardy *)
Ready? Okay. The Inciting Incident occurs right after Clarice Starling is pulled off her training run by someone who looks official and who Starling calls “Sir.” She is told that Crawford wants to see her in his office. This creates a question in the reader/viewers mind: What does Crawford—a person who can send other folks on errands and who has an office—want with this cadet? Is she in trouble?
The Inciting Incident occurs when Jack Crawford offers Starling the assignment to get Dr. Hannibal Lector to take a survey and, while she’s at it, to attempt to get as much information from him as she can.
Here's another example, this time from Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Although there doesn't seem to be consensus on the point, I'm one of those who think that, in A New Hope, the Inciting Incident was when Darth Vader, seeking the plans for the Death Star the Resistance 'acquired,' attacks and boards Princess Leia's shuttle.
When Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia's diplomatic craft Vader introduces an imbalance that initiates a chain of events that eventually involves Luke's family and lead to Luke's Call to Adventure.
Granted, the Call to Adventure doesn't come till much later, but the Inciting Incident (Darth Vader boarding the shuttle) has set in motion a series of events which will culminate in the Call to adventure (Obi-Wan Kenobi asks Luke Skywalker to help him deliver the plans for the Death Star to the resistance base on Alderaan).
Testing the Scene
Is it necessary for the other scenes to happen: Yes! If Starling hadn’t accepted the assignment (her acceptance of the Call to Adventure) then none of the other events in the story would have occurred.
Is it exciting? Sure, though not as exciting as the scene where Starling meets Dr. Lector for the first time (that was one of the most riveting scenes in the movie).
Does it connect to Starling’s external desire? Yes! As you will recall the antagonist in SoTL is Jame Gumb, the serial killer who has been dubbed “Buffalo Bill.” Starling has two overriding desires in this story. The first, internal, is to silence the lambs. The second, external, is to catch the serial killer. You’ll notice that it’s here that we first learn of Buffalo Bill and his crimes—news clippings line the wall behind Crawford’s desk. Also, this is the first time the suggestion of a connection between Dr. Lector and Buffalo Bill is made.
How the Inciting Incident is implemented in three genres: Action, Romance & Mystery
Action stays very close to what I’ve just said, but it the excitement needs to be cranked up. (For more on this see Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid.) In an action story this event really does have to reach out and grab the reader’s imagination by the short and curlies.
For example, In Raider’s of the Lost Ark this was the scene where Indy finds out the Nazi’s have discovered Tanis, the resting place of the Ark. For me, that was a great hook.
The Inciting Incident in a love story is the event that initially throws the two characters together and into conflict. Typically this occurs when they meet for the first time.
Generally, two things are communicated to the reader.
First, there is something special between these two characters. They’ve never felt quite this way about anyone before. Sometimes the attraction is purely sexual and sometimes there is more, it depends on the genre and subgenre of the story.
Second, they can’t stand each other. He’s too proud, she’s too prejudiced. He rich and titled, she is poor and a nobody. He is the warden of a prison, she is an escaped prisoner. He is a vampire, she is a vampire hunter. The list goes on. The important thing is that there is, baked into who these two characters are, an inherent incompatibility, a reason why it would be pure foolishness to even think these two people could ever be together.
We saw that with an action story we want to ratchet up the excitement, well in a mystery we want to ratchet up the (wait for it ...) mystery. We want to emphasize the strangeness of the event. Imagine that your pen starts to glow a brilliant emerald green or your cat gives you dating advice.
If you’re writing a murder mystery this is usually where the murder happens. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t have to be where the murder happens, but it almost always is. And that makes sense. After all, who-dun-it is the central question! Investigation cannot begin until a body is found.
I’ve found that often when the murder mystery is included as a subplot then the discovery of the body will either be combined with the Inciting Incident of the main plot or the body will be discovered later on in the story.
Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)
Today I want to recommend a book that transformed how I thought about storytelling, Robert McKee's Story. Granted, Story was written primarily for screenwriters, but anyone interested in story structure will find this information indispensable. From the blurb: "In Story, McKee expands on the concepts he teaches in his $450 seminars (considered a must by industry insiders), providing readers with the most comprehensive, integrated explanation of the craft of writing for the screen."
That’s it! Tomorrow we will go over another key story scene. Stay tuned and good writing! Please share your word counts, if that would help motivate you. :-)
My word count: 1,678 words written, 1210 published. That’s it so far! I’m going to continue writing and I’ll update my wordcount tomorrow. :-)