Writing Forums

Writing Forums is a privately-owned, community managed writing environment. We provide an unlimited opportunity for writers and poets of all abilities, to share their work and communicate with other writers and creative artists. We offer an experience that is safe, welcoming and friendly, regardless of your level of participation, knowledge or skill. There are several opportunities for writers to exchange tips, engage in discussions about techniques, and grow in your craft. You can also participate in forum competitions that are exciting and helpful in building your skill level. There's so much more for you to explore!

Dissecting an inciting incident (1 Viewer)

Status
Not open for further replies.

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
This thread spins off from the discussion posted here.

There are a number of ways to go about setting a story in motion. To begin (and hopefully show this in a semi-coherent manner) I've pulled the opening paragraphs from one of my first pieces to go through the Writing Workshop here on WF. I opted for this one for a couple of reasons.

  • I've been informed that the opening was suitably effective in the catching readers' attention
  • it takes something of an unusual tack in regard to the inciting incident, and
  • despite my participation, it seems to have worked overall

So sharpen your claws and prepare your rotten tomatoes for launch. Onward!

---

The The iodine stung as it touched. Short a twitching of the eyelid the boy showed no sign of the pinch. The cut was not long, maybe an inch, angling down from the forehead towards the left eye. For now it still showed a fresh and angry red, but before summer’s end the parted skin would knit, the scar fade and register only as a brief interruption in the brow. The last souvenir.

“You’re awfully quiet today.” The woman’s voice carried an edge of forced cheer flagrantly at odds with the washroom door hanging crooked on broken hinges and the kitchen trash brimming with shards of crockery.

“John.”

The boy moved his dark eyes by way of response.

“You have to talk to him sometime,” she went on, selecting a bandage. She dressed the center pad with a dollop of translucent ointment. Carefully – a painter making the final touch – she placed it over the wound, smoothing the edges with her thumbs and standing aside to study the result. Her smile faded around the edges.

“John,” she said. “He didn’t mean anything. You know that.”

---


Okay, then. Let's take this thing apart and see what makes it tick.

The iodine stung as it touched. Short a twitching of the eyelid the boy showed no sign of the pinch. The cut was not long, maybe an inch, angling down from the forehead towards the left eye. For now it still showed a fresh and angry red, but before summer’s end the parted skin would knit, the scar fade and register only as a brief interruption in the brow. The last souvenir.

A couple of things happen here. Being third-person limited, we can surmise that whoever feels the sting (John) is the protagonist. By his reaction we can guess that he's probably accustomed to being nicked now and again; this event is nothing particularly special in respect to the nature of the injury. The description is detached and almost clinical and of no real interest to him.

The last line reveals something of an acerbic streak in his thinking.

“You’re awfully quiet today.” The woman’s voice carried an edge of forced cheer flagrantly at odds with the washroom door hanging crooked on broken hinges and the kitchen trash brimming with shards of crockery.

Here we have to two developments. First is the woman (John's mother) who's applying the iodine and momentarily the bandage. Through John we register that her voice is cheerful, but artificially so, especially as all this takes place at the same scene as a fight the night prior. Sort of a post-combat view of the battlefield before the wreckage is carted off. We don't see the source of the violence yet. Rather, we have a kind of brittle calm in the eye of the storm.

“John.”

The boy moved his dark eyes by way of response.

Two developments in as many lines. We learn our protagonist's name. Immediately after, we see him acting sullen and cynical. He's been hit - not for the first time and not near the worst - but he's got a sense that this is the last time he takes this ride. He's done with it all, determined that things will be different from now on.

“You have to talk to him sometime,” she went on, selecting a bandage. She dressed the center pad with a dollop of translucent ointment. Carefully – a painter making the final touch – she placed it over the wound, smoothing the edges with her thumbs and standing aside to study the result. Her smile faded around the edges.

...this in contrast to his mother, who's going to do what she always does. She's going to sweep up the broken things and hide the damage as best she can. Rather than break and try to talk her out of a bad situation or rage at her for something that wasn't her fault, John's going to bite his tongue and clear out.

Being the introduction to a string of short stories, this situation is one that will surface with some regularity.

“John,” she said. “He didn’t mean anything. You know that.”

And this sums up the whole sorry state of his life up to this point. An unending cycle of frayed nerves, uneasy periods of relative piece, and the semi-regular explosions of an unnamed third character (John's stepfather) that always end the same. Except this one. John's leaving, and on his way out he's getting some insurance.

***

So how does this bear on the inciting incident? Oddly enough, the kick that changes things for him happens off-page and before the first line of his introduction. This was twofold, as we learn - there was the fight where John finally had enough and stuck up for himself (ineffectually, it seems) and got his last souvenir and instructions to be out of the house before sundown. Rather than show the exchange (throwing the reader into the middle of the fight) I opted instead to put it in the painfully-recent past and feather in the details and the fallout. Showing our MC getting smacked around wouldn't have added much, anyway, and going this route means you see early on that he's still standing. None too pretty and none too proud, maybe, but he took the hits and lived to tell about it.

This also means he's had time to think on the state of things and plot his next moves. Whereas throwing a bag into his truck and driving away with the blood stinging his eyes while his parents yell at him from the front porch is dramatic - or melodramatic - the colder, more determined John walking back into the lion's den to claim what's his is probably more representative of him as a character, both as the still-unformed youth and the man he's become by the time all this winds down.

We can also show a change in priority. Having weathered his last storm at home, he's going to have to move on and pick up some adult responsibilities - securing his own housing, handling his own affairs, and seeing to his own welfare afterward.

To break this down into bullet points, we can sketch out the following points:

  • introduce the character (John and immediate family)
  • define the initial lower-level conflict (survive the occasional beating)
  • establish a circumstance (domestically violent home life)
  • the hard choice (leaving home)
  • demonstrate personality traits (stoicism, going back for his stuff)
  • the new challenge (life as a young adult on his own)

Let's compare to the example in the other thread, using Luke Skywalker:

  • introduce the character (Luke and immediate family)
  • establish a circumstance (Luke is stuck working on the farm and hates it)
  • define the initial lower-level conflict (he's a teenager stuck on a crappy backwater planet)
  • the hard choice (abandoning the familiar world after his relatives' murder by Imperials)
  • demonstrate personality traits (he's naive, but he's also brave and resourceful)
  • the new challenge (save a princess, blow up a Death Star, be a hero of the rebellion, etc)

Pretty similar beats, no? Probably a rationale for that somewhere. Something like audiences expecting certain things from their stories. This is the same reason The Hero's Journey is a codified literary method, and why you venture away from the basics at your peril. Subverting expectations now and again has its uses, sure, but after a fashion you have to recognize that sometimes things are done a certain way for a reason. If your MC opts to sidestep certain storytelling cues along their journey there's a good chance your readers feel something missing and bail. Pretty words and novelty will only carry so far before the veneer flakes off and people realize that the bones of a character's arc are weak - or missing altogether.

Now. Are there other ways to do this? Absolutely. And most of them don't work, at least so far as I can tell. Pick through stories going back thousands of years and you'll see this same general pattern emerge in some semblance.

You need a hero in a place with something to distract them until life boots them in the ass and forces them to fly or die.

That's the view from my side of the dumpster, anyhow.
 
Last edited:

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
Thanks, all. I'll be shoving off for work here in a few. That said, it's an open thread and anybody who wants to try working through the points on their own is willing to post it (I used one of mine because it was safer than potentially stepping on toes) and we can take a crack at it later this evening.

I would suggest posting no more than four paragraphs if possible. If not, a summary of the relevant information would suffice.
 

KeganThompson

Senior Member
The example you gave, the inciting incident was before the story started so it was kicked off right away. I feel like mine is so far away because I'm still trying to establish characters and relations before my inciting incident. Trying to find a good balance that works for my plot is the trick
I really appreciate the break down. Its ALSO a great example of the "show dont tell"
 

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
The example you gave, the inciting incident was before the story started so it was kicked off right away. I feel like mine is so far away because I'm still trying to establish characters and relations before my inciting incident. Trying to find a good balance that works for my plot is the trick
I really appreciate the break down. Its ALSO a great example of the "show dont tell"
In your case, Star Wars is probably the example you'd do better to follow.

Mine was mostly to show what kind of effect you can get by picking and choosing where you set the narrative camera (which is something I should develop into a coherent idea one of these days). Realistically, whether you hit the six points in the first ten minutes or the first half hour isn't as big a concern as being sure you hit them, so the theory should hold even if your incident is a couple of chapters in.

You'll still want to keep it reasonably close to the opening, though.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
As an aside for those worried about having to do a lot of editing, it doesn't have to be a whole reworking of your early chapters. For me, it was literally just adding greater emphasis on the main character's motivations by being more explicit with my word choices in a few sentences. Following the list created by JBF really does give the piece a stronger foundation to launch from.

Thanks again!
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top