Monday, January 18, 2010

Those Stubborn Characters

We talk about the inciting incident. That is the moment in a story when an event causes an emotional response within a protagonist whereby he decides to leap into action. He leaves the status quo behind and moves into a new stage of his life. But let’s get real. It doesn’t always happen in real life that a person will leap into action after experiencing a traumatic event. Oh, we see some cases where national campaigns have started because something bad happened to a child and her parents don’t want to see it happen to anyone else’s children, but not all people react the same way and not all events are big enough convince these people to take action. In terms of our writing, we may encounter this with our characters. Something happens, but the character is either too stubborn to leap into action or the event just isn’t big enough to call for action. What we could do is to pick a less stubborn protagonist, or we could make the inciting incident even bigger. Instead of the criminal stealing the protagonist’s mother’s money, he kills the protagonist’s mother. That will certainly force the protagonist into action (or maybe not).

The problem we have is that there are some stories we simply cannot tell if we are forced to use a less stubborn protagonist and a less harsh inciting incident. Rather than argue that they are not worth telling, the solution is to use a dual inciting incident or maybe it would be better called a stepped inciting incident. Essentially, it works like this: something happens but it isn’t enough to trigger the action that the protagonist must take. It may be enough to get him to write his congressman, but it won’t convince him to run for office. That event might be something like a friend telling him about some trouble he had with the government. After that first event, something else happens that combined with the previous event causes the character to take an even bigger action. Suppose the first event moves him from a guy who pays little attention to government to a guy who writes a letter to his congressman. Now, the congressman responds with a letter that the protagonist doesn’t like. The man’s wife says, “well, if you don’t like it, why don’t you run for office?” So, he does.

If we used one event to move a person with little interest in politics to a person who is running for office, it would look like he is running because he is a hothead. By using two events, we cause the inciting incident to be more gradual and we show that he didn’t come to this decision without careful consideration. He first tried the appropriate channels, but that wasn’t enough, he has to take action. Using stepped inciting incidents opens the door for us to tell stories that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to tell.