Thursday, September 16, 2010

Inciting Incidents

Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue--1906--John French Sloan--1871-1951 Usually, when I think about plots, I’m thinking about conflict.

But I keep running into the term “inciting incidents.” It’s usually a scriptwriting term but I’ve been hearing it more and more in regards to fiction.

Actually, I really like it. It reminds me that there really is a pivotal event in each book that jump starts the plot. It’s the whole reason there’s a story to begin with.

What happens that takes our character out of a boring, ordinary day into an adventure?

In my books, the inciting incident is always a murder.

That’s followed by an inciting reason for my amateur sleuth to get involved. Because if you were an older lady with a comfortable life, why would you choose to get mixed up with a murder investigation? So for my stories, there’s not only the main inciting incident, there’s also an inciting reason for my protagonist to get involved with it.

The inciting incident isn’t always something that’s as shocking or unnatural as a murdered body. It could be an everyday problem that propels the protagonist in a new direction. The protagonist decides to move to the South of France and take up cooking lessons. The inciting incident—a painful divorce. Or it could be any number of things that represent the final straw to the protagonist and makes them act.

If the problem is something the character could put off acting on, then maybe the ante needs to be upped. The problem needs to be intensified. It should be an overwhelming issue for the protagonist that has to be addressed—they need to drop everything for it. It’s the whole point of the story.

When I’m reading a book, I’m ( if reading a modern book and not a classic) looking for the inciting incident to show up pretty quickly. Most publishers want the inciting incident early in the book.

As a writer, though, I do need to have some set up before my murder. If I drop a body on page 1 (which I could do), I still have some work ahead of me. Who are the characters who could have murdered this person? Who is the victim and why should the reader care that they’re dead? All of those things have to be addressed, too. And flashbacks aren’t ideal. So usually I put off the inciting incident just long enough for the reader to get to know the suspects and victim and form an opinion of them.

How strong is your book’s inciting incident? How much set up do you have before introducing it?