Monday, March 16, 2009

More on the Inciting Incident

It often surprises me that I receive as many hits as I do for an article on my website, The Inciting Incident. Oddly enough, Google only returns 105,000 hits as I write this. It makes me wonder if there might be a lot more that’s worth saying about the subject. The interest in the subject seems to exceed the amount of information available.

Definition of Inciting Incident - an event that motivates the protagonist to take action to change his current situation

Just to be clear, the inciting incident never takes place on page one of a novel. This is because page one and several of the pages that follow are taken up with defining the current situation of the protagonist for our readers. The inciting incident occurs approximately one tenth of the way into the novel, but it may move slightly one direction or the other. In Where the Red Fern Grows, the inciting incident occurs on page 18 of 249.

I sat down on an old sycamore log, and started thumbing through the leaves. On the back pages of the magazine, I came to the “For Sale” section—“Dogs for Sale”—every kind of dog. I read on and on. They had dogs I had never heard of, names I couldn’t make out. Far down in the right-hand corner, I found an ad that took my breath away. In small letters, it read: “Registered redbone coon hound pups—twenty-five dollars each.”

The advertisement was from a kennel in Kentucky. I read it over and over. By the time I had memorized the ad, I was seeing dogs, hearing dogs, and even feeling them. The magazine was forgotten. I was lost in thought. The brain of an eleven-year-old boy can dream some fantastic dreams.

How wonderful it would be if I could have two of those pups. Every boy in the country but me had a good hound or two. But fifty dollars—how could I ever get fifty dollars? I knew I couldn’t expect help from Mama and Papa.

I remembered a passage from the Bible my mother had read to us: “God helps those who help themselves.” I thought of the words. I mulled them over in my mind. I decided I’d ask God to help me. There on the banks of the Illinois River, in the cool shade of the tall white sycamores, I asked God to help me get two hound pups. It wasn’t much of a prayer, but it did come right from the heart.

Well, Billy Colman’s mother wasn’t much of a Bible scholar. That “verse” isn’t in the Bible, but Wilson Rawls has given us a very good example of an inciting incident. Up to this point, Billy has desired a dog, but has been unable to do anything about it. Then on the banks of the Illinois River, he sees an ad for dogs in a magazine and that becomes his call to action. He begins with prayer, always a good thing to do, and from that point on he moves forward with what he needs to do in order to purchase the dogs. He works hard to earn the money, but he wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t seen the ad in the magazine.

Every story has an inciting incident, but not all inciting incidents serve their purpose as well as others. Notice the emotional nature of the passage above. The inciting incident isn’t an outward change, but an internal change. Some inciting incidents fail because they are very weak. Yes, something happens to motivate the protagonist, but the reader is left with doubt as to whether it is sufficient motivation to justify the eventual actions of the character.

Let’s look at the inciting incident in a Christian Romance. On page 48 of Lori Wick’s The Princess we find the inciting incident. (Technically, it is on page 42 of 288 , but Harvest House doesn’t number their pages correctly. ) Up to this point, the protagonist Shelby has married the prince because of some weird law that requires him to be married, but they haven’t spent more than a few moments together. She has married him out of duty and tells herself that she doesn’t expect love, but she does desire respect. On page 48, Shelby is sitting in the kitchen having breakfast when her husband walks in.

"Hello, " he spoke kindly, smiling a little in her direction.

"Good morning, " Shelby said softly, keeping her seat.

The prince finished his business with Murdock and finally turned to look at her again.

"I don’t believe we’ve met," he said conversationally, shocking Shelby into silence. The redhead stared at him until he laughed a little and glanced at Murdock and Arlanda.

"I take it I have met our guest and forgotten. "

But the two servants were staring at him in equal shock, and a cold feeling swept down his spine. The face he turned back to Shelby was not at all friendly. That lady stood to her feet before speaking.

"I’m Shelby, " she said breathlessly. "I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. "

The red in Nikolai’s face could only be matched by Shelby’s, which was nearly purple with mortification.

If you keep track of those types of things, yes, the writer head hops between Shelby, Nikolai and some unknown narrator, but this is one of the best scenes in the book and is a good example of an inciting incident. Being a romance, we already know that their next step is to get to know each other on their way to falling in love, but the inciting incident gives them a reason to do that. Both were content living out their lives married, but not knowing each other until they experienced an emotion they didn’t like. The emotion is embarrassment. Duty aside, who wants to admit to people that she is married to someone she doesn’t know?

Look at the inciting incident. If the character isn’t motivated by emotion, then the inciting incident needs work. We aren’t looking for a logical response, so it doesn’t even have to make logical sense, but the reader needs to understand that the character’s emotions are moving him forward. It does help if the reader recognizes the emotional response as one she would have in the same situation, but it is not an absolute requirement. In the Where the Red Fern Grows example, we may not have the same desire for a dog, but we can understand that someone might have that desire. Our goal with an inciting incident is to give the reader a reason to cheer the protagonist on in doing what she is doing to accomplish her goals.

Blake Snyder describes the inciting incident as the first place where something happens. Ironically, in The Princess, it seems like there’s lots of stuff happening before the inciting incident. Shelby goes from being single to being a married princess. That seems pretty significant, but all of that is just part of what it is to be Shelby. It is a natural progression for her to agree to marry the prince. It is only after the embarrassing moment at breakfast that Shelby realizes that she is going to have to take action to change her situation. For the first time we see her do something that steps away from the Shelby we see at the beginning of the book.