If not for a certain person, event, tragedy or triumph, you’d be coasting along through life, content with your job in benefits administration, trimming your lawn, living for the weekend and never missing an episode of “Community”. But that’s not you. You’re on a unique path. Your purpose in life is higher. Why? Something or someone shaped you.
That’s true of stories, too. A strong story can be shaped by someone or something in the story itself. It takes the path it takes because a character gives it a shove, or something occurs that imposes on your characters the necessity of change.
That shove or provocation is the story’s inciting incident. When such an incident is present a story doesn’t gradually gather velocity, it bursts from the starting blocks at high speed. When a character fires a provocative shot it doesn’t simply startle folks standing nearby, it ignites a war. Packing more into an inciting incident is the fourth way of developing your premise. It’s a seed that you genetically modify so that your story grows huge.
One way to look at inciting incidents is to see them either as something someone does, or something that’s done unto your characters. It might be an opportunity that opens up, a mystery that arises, an injury made fresh, the arrival of a stranger, or anything else. What’s important is that whatever occurs is enormous in its implications and that it stirs up inescapable trouble.
Here are some ways to develop your inciting incident:
- Who can say or do something to your protagonist that gives them great pain, hope, responsibility or fear? Work on it until it has the maximum effect. Time it to be highly disruptive. Make it impossible to avoid.
- What would make the inciting action one precisely calibrated to hit your protagonist where he or she is the most vulnerable? What makes it especially personal, painful, seductive or emotional? Make it more so.
- If there’s an inciting incident, list for your principle characters the way in which it will hurt, harm, pry open, challenge or change each one.
- How will the initial event set your characters against each other? How will it ignite conflict? Work until those conflicts are stark and irresolvable.
- Find in the inciting event that which would rile up anyone. Magnify and elaborate that element. Poke your readers in their eyes. Make them defensive. Make them mad. Make them think.
A well-constructed inciting incident will stir up your readers but leave them with no idea what they would do. To resolve their inner unbalance, they’ll have to find out what your protagonist will do. Whatever that is, it won’t be easy because what you’ve sewn is a garden of conflict. That’s good. You want your premise to grow into plenty of story.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Leshaines123