You are circulating at a gathering of fellow mountain climbers, listening in before joining the most interesting conversation.
Martha speaks: “Did I ever tell you about the time I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of sixty?”
(You think: Wow, there goes Martha again, bragging about her world travels and her fitness level. You keep walking.)
Dot speaks: “Did I ever tell you that when my husband died, just three weeks before our fortieth anniversary climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I went ahead and made the climb by myself?”
(Martha may have one hapless listener pinned, but you and many others flock to Dot, questions already forming in your minds.)
What’s the difference? [I’ll give you a moment here to go back and compare the two.]
Martha had an idea she wanted to do something, and acted on it.
Dot had a desire to do something, then something unexpected happened to complicate that, so she set a new goal and made a plan to enact it.
In other words, Dot had a story to tell.
Inciting Incident, defined
A story exists because something happens in a character’s life—the inciting incident—that upsets her equilibrium and arouses her desire to restore balance. As the protagonist seeks a story goal that will restore that balance, a related story-worthy question is raised in the reader’s mind: can the protagonist achieve her goal? By arousing both the protagonist’s desires and the reader’s curiosity, this incident creates an emotional bond between protagonist and reader that, if successful, will last until the goal is met and the question resolved at book’s end.
What this means for you: The story you write will start rocking and rolling—literally—when something happens to your protagonist that will rock her expectations in a way that requires her to start rolling: she’ll reshuffle priorities, set a new goal, and then create a plan to achieve it.
Is this important? Hell yeah. Look at the crowd reaction when Dot spoke! You want readers flocking to you, right?
They will hang with Dot’s story because they want to know: Will sixty-year-old, grieving Dot be able to complete the climb? And that won’t be their only question. They’ll also want to know: Why on earth did she do it? How did she summon the fortitude? What was it like? How did the climb change her?
And most importantly, the readers will ponder: If Dot could do it, could I?
Create that bond with your reader—through inciting incident, story goal, and story question—and your reader will want to stick with your book till the end.
Compare that to the question raised by Martha—oops, wait, there isn’t one. She already told us she made it. She hasn’t piqued our curiosity about her adventure.
Why bother identifying your inciting incident?
Determining the inciting incident is important to creating a strong, thoroughly interwoven story. Your first draft may have evolved from your imaginative meanderings, but your success at organizing story events into a structural spine that raises, dashes, and rewards expectation will determine how closely the reader will connect with it. [Read more…]