Thursday, June 17, 2010

Student Lesson on the Inciting Incident

Hi folks,
I teach creative writing online for various venues and thought perhaps it might be a bit helpful to take a look at how I address one of my student’s work as pertains to creating a proper inciting incident for the opening of her novel. I won’t name the student, but just to let you know, she is a wonderful writer with a rare, original and very compelling voice. She’s already a very good writer and is going to emerge as one who can deliver the kinds of novels that are publishable. Like many beginning writers, she’s struggling a bit with inciting incidents, but with each rewrite she gets closer and closer. The response below is to her second submission in class.

(This is almost word for word the comments I provided for her work. I’ve deleted her name as well as the names of her characters. She had much better names for her characters...)

(Student’s name deleted), again your writing itself is wonderful. A great, original voice, infused with self-depreciating humor that will win you lots of readers. But… again, there’s no problem here simply because there’s no inciting incident in sight. What you listed as a new inciting incident just isn’t for the reasons given.

The problem is that there are two important elements involved in publishable work. One is a compelling voice. The other is that the structure corresponds to what we accept as story. You’ve got the first one… in spades. Now, you need to work on the second—the structure. Which means you need to begin with an inciting incident that will reveal a story problem. A story problem isn’t a bad situation or a bad feeling about oneself. It has to be a compelling problem that the reader will buy as compelling and want to see how the protagonist resolves it.

Okay. Here’s what I think is happening with your story. It looks as though Janine has a problem with her weight and her self-image of herself. That’s a potentially powerful story problem to have. The problem is you’re not beginning with the incident that reveals that problem to her properly. Let’s compare your story to Thelma & Louise, because, in story structure terms, you have much the same story.

First, it appears evident that being overweight is a condition Janine has had for some time. Perhaps most of her life, even. That means it’s not yet a story problem. At this point, it’s merely a bad situation. In real life, yeah, it’s sad and all that, but it’s not yet the stuff of stories. What has to happen to raise it to that level is for something to happen to her (an inciting incident) that raises it beyond the level of a bad situation and reveals to her that she’s got a problem that she can no longer ignore for even brief periods of time (as it looks like she has before), but has to, from that point forward, devote all of her energies, her every thought, to resolving it. That’s what the inciting incident accomplishes.

The thing your story has in common with T&L is that Thelma’s situation (backstory) is that she’s been in a bad relationship with Darryl for eight years. Your character has been overweight for a lengthy amount of time as well (also backstory). Thelma is fairly aware that her marriage sucks and she’s treated like a vassal, but for eight years it’s only been a bad situation. As is Janine’s situation—she’s been overweight for a long time and is aware of it, but that’s only a bad situation. Not yet the stuff of story. Thelma also has been fully aware she’s in a bad situation, and, from time-to-time has performed actions to deal with it. She’s probably spit in Darryl’s food, gossiped and complained about him to Louise, not given her all in bed, whatever. Other times, she ignores her problem. Janine has probably also done things from time to time to address her weight problem—gone on diets, exercised, whatever. But, it’s not yet to the point where it becomes the biggest single problem in her life and at a stage where nothing can get in the way of her resolving it, any more than Thelma has before her inciting incident. That’s what’s required to raise it to the level of becoming a story. If she can still ignore it for a time, can alibi what her true state is for a time to herself, can even forget her problem for a time… then it’s not yet a story. It’s only when she reaches her tipping point, when that “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment occurs and reveals to her that it’s the single biggest problem in her life and that she can no longer ignore it, even briefly, that it becomes a story. In T&L, Thelma’s inciting incident is a small, dramatic moment. We’ve seen clearly via the phone conversations with Louise that it’s imperative Thelma ask Darryl for permission to go on the trip with her. She even begins to… twice. It’s the second time she starts to ask his permission that constitutes her inciting incident. It’s what Darryl does to her—remember?—the inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist? What Darryl does, is something he’s no doubt done before, But—this time it’s different. This time it’s the one time too many that he’s done this. And what does he do? Simple. She attempts to ask him the second time for permission and he crudely and rudely dismisses her, treating her as an annoyance rather than as his wife and a person. It’s the tipping point for her, the inciting incident, the thing that finally reveals her problem clearly to her. (Keep in mind that the word “problem” in story terms doesn’t have the same definition as the lay term. In story terms, it’s more than a bad situation—it’s a problem that the protagonist won’t let go away until it’s resolved.)

Here’s the actual scene:

THELMA goes through the living room to the bottom of the stairs and leans on the banister.

(hollering again)

Darryl! Honey, you’d better hurry up.

DARRYL comes trotting down the stairs. Polyester was made for this man and he’s dripping in “men’s” jewelry. He manages a Carpeteria.


Dammit, Thelma, don’t holler like that! Haven’t I told
you I can’t stand it when you holler in the morning?

(sweetly and coyly)

I’m sorry, Doll, I just didn’t want you to be late.

DARRYL is checking himself out in the hall mirror and it’s obvious he likes what he sees. He exudes confidence for reasons that never become apparent. He likes to think of himself as a real lady-killer. He is making imperceptible adjustments to his overmoused hair. THELMA watches approvingly.

(My note. This was the setup. Now comes the inciting incident.)

(still annoyed)


(she decides not to tell him.)

Have a good day at work today.





(as if he’s trying to concentrate.)



          You want anything special for dinner?

And, that’s the inciting incident. For perhaps the hundredth time (or more!) in their relationship, she started to do what she’s always done in the past—ask for her husband’s permission to go on the trip. But… something’s different this time. With his evident attitude—his crude dismissal of her and of anything she’s trying to say—she reaches her limit. Before this point, she’s just put up with him and played the dutiful wife. This time, her problem is clearly revealed to her. The little light in the refrigerator of her mind just clicked on. This is why it’s important to understand the complete definition of the inciting incident. (The inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the story problem to her.) If she has what appears to be a problem but it’s not clearly revealed to her that she has, then it’s not yet a problem in story terms. It has to be revealed and clearly to her. That’s the only thing in the definition that has to be there in the inciting incident scene. The problem—at least to others—may have been there for a long time or it may be created in the scene. That doesn't matter. What matters and is crucial is that it is revealed to her as a problem.  (As is Janine’s overweight problem in your story.) She may have even been very aware of a bad situation (in Thelma’s case, a vassal state in her relationship; in Janine’s case, her overweight condition.) But, until that moment when it reaches the level of being the most important problem in her life—a problem that she can’t ignore another minute until it’s resolved—it’s only a bad situation and not a story problem.

The scene above--taken directly from the shooting script—would be written a bit differently as a scene in a novel. Remember, the only things that can be in a screenplay are what can be seen or heard.* A novel has an additional advantage—we can get inside the character’s mind.

*(Not entirely true, as this script shows. Even though many screenwriting books tell us this—that the only things in a script are what can be seen and heard, the astute screenwriter also knows that someone important—a human being who can make a decision whether to buy it or not—will be reading it. So, even though you’re not supposed to put anything but visuals and aurals into a screenplay, a smart screenwriter also supplies little asides that make it a more entertaining read. In the portion of the script above, for instance, that’s represented by the “He exudes confidence for reasons that never become apparent. He likes to think of himself as a real lady-killer.” (This is his thought and technically shouldn't be in a screenplay) and the “wrylies” (sweetly and coyly) wouldn’t be there in a screenplay where the screenwriter followed all the so-called “rules” of screenwriting. But they would be if the writer was a smart writer and wanted to sell the script…

The same scene written as a scene in a novel would show Thelma’s thoughts when Darryl dismisses her. In a film, that has to be shown.

In a movie, we “get” what’s just happened by seeing it. In T&L we “see” the little “click” that goes on in Thelma’s eyes, and, almost immediately afterward, we see her first action to resolve the problem. Her action? She doesn’t ask for permission. That’s it. The entire story that follows emanates directly from this inciting incident. If she’d asked for permission, he would have denied her. It’s their history. (As a note, many people think the inciting incident is when Louise shoots Thelma’s would-be rapist. Not at all. That’s simply the “point of no return.” They wouldn’t have even arrived at the rape attempt and shooting scene if Thelma had asked Darryl’s permission.

The surface problem evolves and mutates and changes, but it has to begin with the inciting incident. This is what you must have in your story.

There are two things you can do to make what you have here work, (student's name). One, rewrite your inciting incident statement so that it is an inciting incident. Second, write that scene. Actually, you can use what you’ve begun here. One possibility is to have them go to the beach, spread the blanket, unpack the basket, etc. and then change the last two lines of what you have here. Like this:

“I hope you don’t mind that we have a picnic,” he says. “A…” he hesitates, “…healthy picnic.” He shines me a weak smile.

And then, show us her reaction via her thoughts and actions. Like this, perhaps:

            I could only stare at him. So this was where my life had led me. Go on a weight-watcher’s picnic, eat some carrot sticks… and get my marriage proposal.
            Wonderful. This has to rank as the most romantic moment of my life. Julia Roberts, eat your heart out.
            “Sorry, Claude,” I say, once I can get my mouth to work. “Why don’t you take me back home. I think I left my carton of Chunky Chocolate out on the counter. I wouldn’t want it to melt.”

And then go on to develop her understanding more deeply of her story problem. What’s at stake for her and give her second action to resolve it. Show the depths of her despair and make it a truly big deal to her, one that she’s not going to let go of until it’s resolved. In this example, her first action is to do what she just did. The above is a small, dramatic moment and it keeps with your self-depreciating and very likable voice for her and take on herself and life, yet clearly shows a realization of her problem. Something like this is going to get the reader solidly in her corner and want to see what she does.

The other thing to watch is what you indicated might happen—that some Prince Charming does come along. That’s fine, but just make sure he comes along as a result of something she’s done to try to resolve her problem and not just appearing as an act of fate or coincidence.

You’re not very far off from achieving a great opening, (student). Hope this helps!

Blue skies,


In my classroom... Well, it is online...



Hannah said...

I love your breakdown! So very helpful.

Thank you!

Theresa Milstein said...

You're a thorough, helpful teacher.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, folks! I try to be. Don't always succeed, but it's not from lack of effort.

I appreciate your comments a lot!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Les, you are a great teacher. I still think I need to take one of your classes at some point. Hopefully I can get settled into our new house soon and slow down a bit before school starts again, so I can squeeze in some time for a class. You are awesome!! :-)

Tiffany said...

You know...if I was Khoury(sp?) I'd be really, really happy that you keep mentioning the Thelma&Louise script. Seriously, I wonder how many people have watched it because you recommended it. I know I was never interested until you told us about it in class.

Are there any other movies that do this so well? I keep trying to see for myself, but I don't seem to have as keen an eye for it as you do.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Shannon and Tiffany--appreciate it. Tiffany, I haven't seen any movie that lends itself to fiction writing techniques better than T&L. Keep looking and many have elements that do, but none so far that every single line in the script that do. IMO, it's an absolutely brilliant script. Entertainment-wise? There are lots more entertaining, but as far as a teaching model, none.

Most are aimed at the teenaged boy market. That's the number one demographic, in terms of market. They're the biggest identifiable group that goes to a movie more than once. So... movies are made for that market more than any other. A studio will make 50 movies for that market and then one or two for the awards market (Oscars, etc.) to show that they're "arty" or "literary." But, quite a few don't lend themselves to being good models for writing quality fiction, alas.

ssas said...

Teenaged boy market. Interesting.

I've had a tough time nailing down the inciting incident into one coherent chapter in SCAR. There are several characters, but probably the foremost one is the actual Silver Scar, which the antagonist has, and which she uses as an excuse (she lies) to go to war. But the chapter is filled with a few other connected vignettes that add up to big problems for our hero. Just one incident didn't feel complete to me. I'm getting anxious to see how it'll be received, structure-wise.

Sarah Faurote said...

Hi Les,

I miss you. I really enjoyed your most recent piece on inciting an incident. I love reading your posts. The breakdown is helpful as I write. Talk to you soon.

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Sex Scenes,
I hesitate to comment on your story since I haven't read it... and you haven't asked(!)--hope you don't think I'm presumptuous--but thought I might be able to shine a little light through the cracks. If I've overreached, just let me know and accept my apology, okay?

Oh--first, the teenaged boy market is the single biggest demographic for movies... and the single worst for fiction. Boys go to movies (as a group) but don't read (as a group).

Back to your book SCAR. I would try to convince you that you need to have one inciting incident per book. You mention that she has several big problems and that's fine. So does Thelma in T&L and she should. But, each one emanates from the inciting incident. From that, she goes to the roadhouse where she meets the guy who tries to rape her (big problem) to being on the run, meeting JR (big problem as he robs them), which leads to... and on and on... If a problem unrelated to her quest (surface one--escape the law; story-worthy one--escape male domination) appeared out of the blue and wasn't related to her efforts to resolve the problem, that would probably make it an episodic story (this happens (to the protagonist) then this, then ... and so on. No market for episodic novels--there's no focused quest for the protagonist or a goal. I suspect that isn't what you're describing at all. Her problem has to be the spine of the novel and anything that doesn't adhere to the spine should go. Remember that the inciting incident should usually be a small, dramatic moment that launches her journey. And bigger and bigger problems should keep happening. That "get your character up a tree and throw rocks at her" thing. In Thelma's case, for instance, her situation is that she's been in a bad situation for 8 years. Which we don't learn until a third through it. But, there are all kinds of levels to her problem. For instance, her turning point and subsequent epiphany is when she and JR have sex. As Janet Burroway says, the epiphany should always be caused by something physical. As it does. For the first time in her life, Thelma has "adult" sex. A physical act that enables her to become an adult. She's had sex before, but it's that kid variety, the kind kids do in the back seat, where the boy is mostly into himself and his "accomplishment" and his own physical satisfaction. The brand of sex she's had with Darryl, even though it's been moved into the bedroom. If she hadn't experienced that kind of sex with Darryl,she would have remained a child. It's also the catalyst for the biggest scene of the story, immediately afterward where the women reverse roles and Thelma becomes the adult and Louise reverts to being the child. Eventually, they come together as equals, but at that moment is the crucial scene in the movie.

Every single thing that happens to Thelma happens as a direct result of her inciting incident and resultant goal. Nothing that violates the spine of the story. It's clear and it's in every scene.

Not trying to tell you what your story should be about, but thought this might help clarify what I was saying.

Blue skies,

Les Edgerton said...

Oops. I made a mistake in my last reply to Sex. In the sentence that reads:

If she hadn't experienced that kind of sex with Darryl,she would have remained a child.

It should have read: "sex with JT.

I also think I called the Brad Pitt character JR, but you guys know who I meant, I hope!


Eeleen Lee said...

I'm going to watch 'Thelma and Louise' again now because I love seeing a familiar film with a new perspective. thanks Les!

dolorah said...

Wow Les; thanks for the writing lesson. It's great that you give specific examples. Not all teachers take the time to explain in this much indepth.

I took an online writing course, and aside from the posted lectures, the instructor didn't interact with the students much. It got a bit tiring to always see "evocative dialogue" or "evocative description" in the comments on my submissions. I'm not even sure evocative was meant as a compliment.

I've never thought of an opening scene in quite that way. We hear about having a "hook", but that term always seemed gimmicky to me. Now I'm wondering if that may be one of the problems in getting an agent - no inciting incident that draws the readers attention. Hmm.

I'll have to take another - and another, etc - look at my first page. See it with your instruction in mind.


madlibjen said...

Les, I think I love you. I've been so plagued by this whole "inciting incident" business as it pertains to my current project (YA novel), that I'd stopped working. After trawling the Internet, looking for what, exactly, an II is and what, exactly, an II must do, I finally stumbled upon your blog. Eureka! With your excellent definition and examples, I have seen the light. And with just one small tweak, everything I've been struggling with plot-wise falls right into place, with a beautiful shining path straight to the end. Thank you! I'd buy you a beer if I could.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Eeleen, Donna and Madlibjen, for the nice feedback. Madlibjen... if you could buy me a beer, I'd sure as heck drink it! (Prefer a Jack and water...)

Many times the "fix" for our story is just like you described--that little "click" of understanding and then a sentence or two and voila!

Let us know when your book come out so we can buy a copy.

BTW, most of the stuff here is in my book, Hooked. I'm also trying to sell a new writer's how-to using film examples to inform fiction techniques. Calling it, "A Fiction Writer's Workshop at the Bijou."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. I've been told by a few agents that I have the voice and that they wanted to take me on but felt my novel needed more structural work like you discussed here.

I'd pretty well decided to give up writing, even though the book's tested well. I may take your wonderful tip here and do another rewrite. Thanks.

madlibjen said...

Consider it a jack and water then. I also just ordered some copies of Hooked for the library system I work for. (Sometimes that day job as librarian comes in real handy.)

Les Edgerton said...

Madlibjen... now I think I love you! Thank you so very much for ordering copies of Hooked! You rock!

Are you familiar with Finding Your Voice... :)

Brad, if you've gotten positive feedback, don't give up! Way too soon!

madlibjen said...

Les - I'm pretty sure that one's in our system already but I'll check and make sure no shabbies need replacing. ;-) Can't wait to read them both.