Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Inciting Incident

Has it ever occurred to you how many similarities books and movies share? From structure to plot, the only real difference is the media they're presented in. Planning a novel is no different from planning a movie, unless you're taking budget into account. Here, I am going to present a series of articles that will articulate the process of writing a screenplay or a novel, from which, hopefully, you will be able to learn and pass on to others.

Imagine that you're sitting in a theater, watching the opening credits of Finding Nemo. Marlin and Nemo argue, and Nemo runs off to pursue his own adventures. Then, Nemo is kidnapped right? Wrong! Instead, Nemo returns home, apologizes to Marlin, and everything goes back to normal. For the next ninety minutes, you're treated to Finding Nemo: Leave it to Beaver Edition.

This is what happens without an inciting incident.

Harry never gets a letter from Hogwarts. Edmund never goes to Narnia. Peter Parker is sick on field trip day. 

In the hands of a clever writer, this could lead to an interesting alternate universe. Unfortunately, we aren't dealing with a clever writer.

In The Hero's Journey, Joseph Campbell called it The Crossing of the First Threshold .

Traditionally, the hero refuses the call. Remember, Neo wasn't prepared to leave the Matrix. Bilbo didn't want to leave his hobbit hole. No-one wants to go on an adventure; not consciously.

Subconscious desires are entirely different. This is the internal pressure to set out and explore the unknown. Luke Skywalker always knew that he was destined for great things. If not for his family, he would have left immediately. But sometimes, it takes an external pressure to force some to set out.

Only when his house was destroyed did Luke set off with Ben Kenobi. Only when he was freed, was Anakin allowed to leave Tatooine with Qui-Gon. Only when Nemo was kidnapped did Marlin go forth to rescue him.

Without the inciting incident, you don't have a story. If you don't have an inciting incident, your protagonist has nothing to work for. You might as well stop writing.

The whole point of reading a story is to experience a character's journey. Bilbo is cowardly and selfish. Peter Parker is antisocial and awkward. Edmund is a tactless jerk. Who would want to spend an entire book with them?

I'll give you another scenario. You're still watching Finding Nemo. Now, halfway through the movie, Nemo runs away again. What's the problem with this? It happens too late!

As a writer, your biggest challenge is to make sure that your reader doesn't grow bored with your story. What if Harry didn't go to Hogwarts until the last three hundred pages? What if Katniss didn't attend the reaping until chapter five?

As a writer, you've made a commitment to the reader. The average script should be no longer than 120 pages and no shorter than 90 pages. A page equals one minute. You can be sure that the average movie goer will leave the theater if your movie doesn't pick-up within the first twenty minutes.

The average novel is somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 words. Your inciting incident should occur within the first 5,000 words. Otherwise, you have a story that goes nowhere. Even Seinfeld, the show about nothing, went somewhere.

Remember, the point of the inciting incident is to set your protagonist up for change. In modern YA, authors seem to forget this. A protagonist is dynamic, not static. Their function is to move the story forward.

Bella Swan is the same character in the end of Twilight that she is at the beginning. The same can be said for Nora Gray, Grace, Luce, and many other YA heroines.

A story without change is just as dull as a story that goes nowhere. When writing for teens, you must have positive moral at the end of your story. Your protagonist can not end up worse than they started. 

Otherwise, what's the point? Even the goriest, most depressing stories, such as The Girl Next Door, Push, or Dolores Claiborne, have positive endings. The characters change for the better. Whether they grow more confident in themselves or learn to empathize with others, they change.

Your inciting incident is what starts the change. It is one of the most important parts of your story. Don't ever forget it.

Next time, I'll discuss the difference between the main character and the protagonist. Tomorrow, Jillian will talk about Mary Sues, the bane of YA literature.


  1. I've been doing a lot of thinking about characters in my favorite genres, and how weak they often seem to be. I think some of it has to do with a disconnect between 'fantasy' and real life. The very best authors of the fantastic manage to tell stories that, because of their fantasy elements, are applicable and timeless in the real world. Terry Pratchett observes that 'fantasy' is the foundation of love and hope and justice, for example.

    For other authors, 'fantasy' just means 'escapism'. Complex characters apparently harsh that buzz.

  2. This is a very useful thing thing you're doing, Cory! You should probably call the series The Writer's Guide or something. I did NOT know the technical term for this! *hides face* This is where the whole writers course you suggested on the previous post really pays off. I think the problem is, too many of these YA authors just think, Oh, S Meyer was just a stay-at-home mom who got famous, I can do this too! Writing is a craft as much as any other. You wouldn't hand a hammer and saw to any random person on the street and expect them to give you a beautiful piece of woodwork; you have to learn how to be a good carpenter. Why would writing be any different? If you don't know the technicals of it, even the most talented person could end up writing crap. And what I don't get is this: even if the author was not well-versed in the technical part of writing, you'd think an editor would be, right? Then why do so many YA books end up being so badly-written?

  3. It may be just me, but when I read your summaries of each book, I kept feeling like you were talking about Twilight, over and over again...
    Sigh. I want more books like Poison Study.