A story arc is launched when something happens to a protagonist that knocks her off her rails. Life did not go as expected this day, and in fact, life may never seem the same again. You may call this event something else, but I use the common term “inciting incident” because it makes sense to me—this is the incident that incites the main character to create a story goal. In pursuit of the goal, the story action begins.
Authors in every genre have put all manner of hurt on our poor characters in such a scene. Frank L. Baum sent Dorothy Gale’s Kansas home over the rainbow to squish the Wicked Witch of the West in the Land of Oz. In Good in Bed, Jennifer Weiner had Cannie Shapiro discover that her skinny, pothead ex-boyfriend was now writing a major magazine column about what it was like sleeping with a fat girl—her. In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss’s beloved younger sister, Prim, is randomly chosen to participate in a televised fight to the death.
I am one of those authors. In my novel The Far End of Happy, a woman who is at the end of her rope in trying to help her husband end the destructive behaviors threatening their family, prepares for the day that he promises to leave—all the while adding up the disturbing clues that this is the day he plans to die.
When a character butts up against an unexpected horror, it’s easy to see why life might never be the same for them.
But what about when life provides an unexpected turn of good fortune? The world is full of entitled leaders and suicidal celebrities to serve as examples: when we suffer a windfall, we don’t always negotiate it well. Such “be careful what you wish for” tales can be equally as compelling, and yet in preparing this post, I noted I have very few on my overstuffed shelves. (“Woman Killed by Tipping Bookshelf”—did she suffer a horror, or a windfall?)
That’s one reason why reading The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms was such an unexpected delight. Amy is a librarian and mother of two teens, and though overworked and stressed, has been managing as a single mom the past three years after her husband went abroad on a business trip, “forgot to come home, and has been living with a much-younger Korean woman. In the opening, she bumps into her husband in her local drug store. As she cowers behind an end-cap display of Q-tips, she struggles to pull herself together:
One time, only a few weeks after he left us, I thought I saw a John-shaped man in the back of a car with a ride-sharing label on it turning onto our street, and I got this absolutely certain feeling, the feeling of just knowing, and my blood began to race through my veins, and I felt like, I don’t know, lie I had been trapped in a canyon without food or water, and now someone was coming with a rope ladder to save me.I pulled over and water for the car to pull into the driveway. But it didn’t. It passed right by while I sat there staring at it in my rearview, watching it drive past without slowing. I took it so hard I couldn’t see to drive for twenty minutes.
This is not that. This is not a drill. He is back, and I would rather die of thirst that take any rope he has to offer me now.
John tells her he wants to see the kids. In fact, he wants to step up and care for them to give her a break—first for a week, and when that goes well, the summer.
All of her anger towards him is piqued afresh as she notes he is standing beside all of the gauze, ointments and icepacks he’d need should she attack him. Her first thought is no—she will not indulge this whimsy. And yet, isn’t this what she was ostensibly wanting, in not pursuing divorce all these years? Isn’t it what all overburdened moms, whose husbands go missing for the military or work or a religious pursuit of golf want—for their husbands to show up and give them a break?
When Amy is offered a reprieve from her martyred life, she loses her definition of self. What would she even do if she could design her own days—and with her husband’s credit card, to boot? She goes to a school librarian conference In New York City, of course. Wouldn’t you? The move is more rewarding than it may sound, especially when new and old friends exert an influence. The story of how Amy Byler reawakens to self is so engaging that its hashtags, #momspringa and #hotlibrarian, bring a smile from its many knowing fans.
Harms’ twist on an inciting incident brought to mind another beloved title on my shelf, Lottery, by Patricia Wood. The main character is 32-year-old Perry L. Crandall, the dedicated employee of a marine supply store in the harbor city of Everett, Wash. With an IQ one point higher than “retarded,” and the grandmother who loved him deceased, Perry hasn’t enjoyed the enduring interest of the rest of his extended family—that is, until he wins a $12-million lottery jackpot. The reader might reasonably assume Perry is unequal to the task of sorting through the avalanche of unwanted, self-serving advice from his “loved ones,” and of course drama ensues—but in the end, you might believe that the “L” in Perry L. Crandall stands for “Lucky,” just like his dearly departed Gram said.
A wayward husband comes home, wondering if he made a big mistake. A mentally challenged man wins a lottery jackpot. These inciting incidents do not necessarily inspire the reader to say “How horrible!” But they do beg the question, “What will s/he do now?”—and that is the point.
Not every character needs to be hit by a train to be knocked off her rails. Sometimes, you can come up with a story that is just as involving and memorable by making something unexpectedly good happen.
Have you ever read or written a novel with a seemingly “good” inciting incident? Did you find it engaging? Or, have you personally suffered from the discombobulating effect of a sudden windfall? Let’s rack up some more examples and discuss!
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