Thursday, December 2, 2010


I recently received an email from a writer who asked me for advice on how on “how to create and write an inciting incident for a scene” in her novel.

This was a new one on me, as my view of a novel is that there’s one inciting incident per novel. Upon further investigation, it turned out this person had attended a writer’s workshop in which the leader of the workshop advocated an inciting incident to create a scene as a component of scenes.

I’ve tried to wrap my brain around this concept, but can’t see how such a thing could possibly exist. It simply goes against how stories are created. Publishable stories, at least. Perhaps stories that are “only available in one’s room” can have an inciting incident to kick-start each scene, but of all the thousands and thousands of novels I’ve read, I can’t recall a single one that included inciting incidents as the beginnings of the scenes in any of them.

Here’s how I answered the emailer.


First, a story is about one thing always. Trouble. And, in today’s market, that’s where novels need to begin. When the trouble begins. And here’s where part of the problem comes from. “Trouble” in literary terms doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in lay terms. Trouble in lay terms (i.e. “real life”) can mean any kind of difficulty at all—you can’t pay the rent, your mate is divorcing you, your mate is sleeping with someone else, your best friend is murdered or kidnapped or raped (or you have…), your teacher has just failed you in class, a comet is headed for earth, the wrong person is elected President… you name it, those are all troubles in real life. But, trouble in literature isn’t the same thing. While it can take the same form as those listed, it’s a much different animal in fiction.

Surface problems and story-worthy problems

Trouble in fiction is presented first as a surface problem. That can take the form of almost anything, including all of those real-life problems above and almost anything else that represents trouble in one’s life. But… and this is a huge “but”—the surface problem has to be representative of a much bigger issue in the protagonist’s life, what I’ve called the “story-worthy problem.” This is a deeper, psychological issue that the surface problem is symptomatic of.

It takes the protagonist’s struggle to resolve the surface problem, and that struggle, little by little through that struggle, eventually reveals the true and much deeper, story-worthy problem. Usually the story-worthy problem is resolved at the same time the surface problem is, in the final scene of the novel. Once the problem(s) resolved, the story is over.

Both problems are the same problem. The surface problem exists solely to create the events of the story. If you began with the story-worthy problem there could be no story. It takes the struggle to resolve the surface problem to reveal the real, deeper problem to the protagonist. Without that struggle, there would be no story. The character would just go into therapy.


In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarisse is trying to catch Buffalo Bill as her surface problem… which leads her to the discovery of her real, story-worthy problem—dealing with the demons in her childhood. She couldn’t save the lamb from being slaughtered when a child, and she goes into the FBI to be able to save the “lambs” (i.e., victims) of serial killers like Buffalo Bill and to prove herself worthy to the man she worships as a hero—her father. It is only through the struggle to resolve her surface problem (catching Buffalo Bill) and with the insights provided by Hannibal Lector, that she discovers what she’s really been trying to resolve. She actually doesn’t resolve her story-worthy problem, as evidenced by her inability to be able to answer Hannibal’s final phone call—this is a story whose conclusion answers some questions but raises even more—but she’s at last aware of her personal demons and that is a resolution in itself.

In Thelma & Louise, Thelma’s surface problem is to escape, even if just for a weekend, her overbearing husband Darryl. Her story-worthy problem is to escape a totally male-dominated society.

In Indiana Jones, the protagonist’s surface problem is to find the Holy Grail. His story-worthy problem is to gain his father’s respect. When he first begins his quest, all he knows is that he wants the Grail for professional reasons—at the end, he realizes he was after the relic solely to prove his worth to his father. It took the struggle to lead him to that realization and to resolve his story-worthy problem by knowing that he can’t achieve his self-respect by gaining his father’s respect, but that one gains self-respect irregardless of how others view him. Without all he goes through to gain the Grail, he could never have come to that realization or even known what his real problem was.

In each of these examples, as well as any of thousands and thousands of other novels and films, the surface problem is just that—a surface problem representative of a much deeper, more intensely psychological problem it’s symptomatic of—the story-worthy problem. Can’t have one without the other. This is why many novelists fail. They have a surface problem… but no story-worthy problem. Without that, it’s simply pulp fiction and not much good. It’s just too shallow.

Okay. With me so far? Good. I know that was a bit of a lengthy explanation of what appears to be a simple term—trouble—but it’s important to understand the definitions of the terms we use. We borrow our writer’s terms from the lay language, and too often, the student assumes those definitions are the same and more often than not, they carry additional connotations. I routinely see my new students who see the word “trouble” and just assume it means their story can be about the “bad things in life.” (Usually and more often—the melodramatic bad things like kidnappings, murders, rapes, et al.). Those kinds of troubles can, indeed, work, but there has to be more at stake than simply solving a murder, gaining a lover, etc.

Inciting incident—where the story begins

Now, if you buy all this, and agree that stories need to begin where the trouble (the surface problem) begins, then that means the story has to begin with the inciting incident. The definition of the inciting incident is: Something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the surface problem to the protagonist.

It’s extremely important to look at every single word in that definition to fully grasp it. By being an event that “happens to” the protagonist, that means it’s something that’s happened to which the protagonist has to react to. And, it’s virtually the only time in the story that the protagonist gets to react. After that scene, (s)he has to become proactive in resolving the problem. (That doesn’t mean the protagonist never gets to react. Of course she does. But, not in terms of resolving the problem. The major actions that create the plot turns all have to be initiated by the protagonist.) He or she absolutely must be proactive on their own behalf to resolve their problem and never depend on or be helped by fate, coincidence, other characters, to resolve that problem. That doesn’t mean others can’t help them, but when they do it has to be because of something the protagonist did to effect that help. It can’t just be out of the blue, but as a result of the protagonist’s own actions.

Causal plots

What this means is that good plots are causal. (Not casual!) This happens (inciting incident) in which a surface problem is created and/or revealed and that causes the protatonist to take an action to resolve it. That action to resolve the problem must end in failure. (Again “failure” doesn’t have quite the same definition as the lay term. It simply means the action taken can’t resolve the problem, ergo the “failure.”) When the first action ends in such failure, the protagonist has to come up with a new action to resolve the problem. Which will end in failure again to resolve the problem. However, the failure may and should lead to the protagonist getting closer to resolution. It’s just a failure in terms of resolving the problem. It can and should succeed inasfar as getting closer to the solution. And so on until the final scene in which the problem is resolved. Once the problem is resolved, the story’s over. The point is, plots are always causal. This happens which causes this which causes this which… you get the point.

What has to be on every single page of the novel is the surface problem (as well as bit-by-bit revelations of the story-worthy problem, both to the protagonist and to the reader.). The story should never depart from that. That’s why subplots always have to be subservient to the main story—the struggle to resolve the problem. They can’t be separate stories, but have to play a role in support of the primary problem. In Thelma & Louise, there are several subplots. One is the relationship between the two women. Thelma’s friendship with Louise is a subplot totally dependent and serving the main plot as Louise provides the function of being a mentor to Thelma, among other things. The romance Thelma has with J.T. isn’t just some sex stuff in there to satisfy a romantic element. When they have sex, it’s the precise physical action that transforms her into a woman. Again, it’s a subplot that’s subservient to the main plot.

And, this brings me back to the original subject of this article. The writer wanting to know how to create and write inciting incidents for scenes.

Episodic stories

This kind of stance suggests to me that she’s thinking of episodic stories. (Which, incidentally, aren’t publishable.) The kind of thinking where you create this really cool character and/or situation and set ‘em loose to have neat-o adventures. That isn‘t a novel, unfortunately. Even Indiana Jones isn’t an episodic story, although it may appear to be so on the surface. Everything he does is to resolve his problem—recover the Holy Grail (and, win his father’s approbation).

The story problem is the spine of every good story. It’s what everything in the novel has to be attached to and firmly. It’s causal. The plot simply must be causal.

A novel isn’t a journey in the sense that the protagonist is traveling around having adventures. (Another instance of a writer assigning a lay definition to a writing term.) It’s a journey with a destination in mind all the way and with every single step. The destination is the resolution of the problem. Nothing can or should interfere with that, not even for five seconds. If the protagonist can depart, even briefly, from the goal of resolving their problem, it wasn’t a good enough problem for the novel. Nothing can get in the way of that goal for any reason.

In Thelma & Louise, to the person watching it on a surface level may think that that’s mainly what Thelma does—drive around with Louise, go to bars, pick up guys, etc., and have a series of adventures. But, that’s a person who’s not thinking as a writer. When she pleads with Louise to go to the roadhouse, it’s an action she’s taking to resolve the problem of her overbearing husband. When she kicks back the traces and gets drunk and dances with Harlan, it’s an extension of the same action to resolve the problem of her husband who’s kept her in a prison during their relationship. And so on. Everything in the story is a direct and causal action to resolve her problem. And, each action fails to resolve the problem until the final action and scene which both reveals to her her true problem and resolves both the surface and story-worthy problems.

Therefore, there isn’t any “inciting incident to begin a scene.” Each scene is simply the next action the protagonist takes to resolve the surface problem. The failure to resolve the previous scene is the “inciting incident.” To create an inciting incident for scenes just doesn’t make any kind of sense whatsoever. It’s already created. She failed in the previous scene. She still has the problem, only now it seems even further away. Her motivation is that she desperately wants to resolve the problem. Period. To even think about creating some kind of “inciting incident” to begin scenes with is… well, it’s really ludicrous. It’s not this writer’s fault—it’s something she heard at a workshop. Personally, I’d ask for a refund… Or, she may have misunderstood what they were talking about.

We haven’t talked about sequel, but I suspect that’s what she may have been thinking of. Sequel is the novel element that follows scene. I won’t go into depth here about sequels as I’ve covered that in prior posts and it’s in my book, Hooked, but basically, sequel is this:

Scenes all have to end in failure (in terms of the protagonist not resolving the problem.). Okay? Well, just as in “real life” when this happens, immediately after a setback like this an emotional reaction occurs. (This is the beginning of sequel.) Upon failure, the character feels something. Frustration, sadness, anger, despair, whatever. She failed to achieve resolution. That’s the emotional part and beginning of sequel. This is the place in our novels where we get to do all that exposition and summary. This is where flashbacks go. Backstory and all that junk. And then, during the course of sequel, the protagonist begins to switch from the emotional to the intellectual, and the protagonist begins to figure out a Plan 2 to resolve the problem. As soon as that plan has been decided on, the sequel is over and… you guessed it… the next scene begins.

Possibly, this is what my emailer was thinking about. The end of the sequel following the previous scene. But, that’s not an inciting incident. It’s what creates the occasion of the next scene, but it’s not an inciting incident. It doesn’t fit any of the definition of an inciting incident. It fits the definition of the end of sequel. BTW, for a great discussion of sequel, get Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure.

I hope this helps anyone else who may be struggling with plot or have a misconception about inciting incidents!

Remember: One inciting incident per novel…

Blue skies,


Lily Mulholland said...

Les, I could kiss you! Metaphorically speaking of course :)

You have absolutely nailed what I am struggling with - in my short stories. I have written plenty of flash fiction and a handful of short stories. More to the point, I've read hundreds of them and have come up feeling empty and asking 'so what?' of so many of them. Now I know why - they are all surface. My job now is to make sure the story-worthy problem is a) apparent and b) resolved! Thank you :) Mwah!

Marisa Birns said...

I've followed Lily's pointing finger here and so glad I did.

And, yes, your post does help a lot. Thank you!

Raquel Byrnes said...

Love reading posts that help me focus and fine tune my writing craft. Clear, concise, and packed with great advice. Thanks!
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Lily--saw you'd tweeted this--thank you! I'm tickled pink (to use a cliche I never get tired of hearing...) that it's helped a bit.

Welcome, Marisa, and thanks.

And thank you, Raquel! Appreciate it.

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Lily--saw you'd tweeted this--thank you! I'm tickled pink (to use a cliche I never get tired of hearing...) that it's helped a bit.

Welcome, Marisa, and thanks.

And thank you, Raquel! Appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

You always manage to simplify it, and it makes so much sense in my head. I'm a huge Coben fan but now I'll see his books differently because of the story-worthy problem and surface story problems.

Unknown said...


I found you through Vinny I think you call him.;)I really enjoyed this post. I can't wait to dig into your past posts. I do want to pose this question to you. Do you think its possible that some authors have a talent for creating trouble naturally?

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Dawn! Glad it helped.

Hi Bri and welcome! Thanks for tweeting this--I appreciate it. Vince and I were in the same class for our MFA at Vermont College. He's a great writer but I can outdrink him any day of the week... (Don't tell him I said that...)

And, to answer your question, I do, indeed think that some authors can create trouble naturally. Or, at least at an earlier age than others. I think it's something we can learn to do and some learn it quicker than others and some... never learn it, alas. I think the problem is, in "real life" we do everything in our power to avoid trouble--we learn social white lies, we learn to run the other way when a threatening situation occurs, and the like, when a writer has to develop a different mindset and seek out trouble at every possible opportunity for our characters. Just goes against what we do to survive. But, absolutely necessary as a writer. Good question!

Unknown said...


You are very welcome. And I must be a natural in that trouble field because I am so telling him you said that!

V is one of the authors I had in mind who is a natural. I guess I am too. However, your response explains why. I have never conformed to anything.


Anonymous said...

"This kind of stance suggests to me that she’s thinking of episodic stories. (Which, incidentally, aren’t publishable.)"

I'm sure Lucy Maud Montgomery would disagree. The Anne books including the first one were all episodic--and worked well that way. The story arc of Anne finding a place to belong happened WELL before the end of the story.

I notice that you wrote only about movies. Books have a whole lot more leeway for subplots that are not so tightly woven and serving the primary story. There are subplots that can be wholly removed and leave the core of the book intact. They add richness and depth (sometimes only characterization or a different angle on a theme, but nothing wholly related at all), but they are not necessary.

But yes, I agree there is only one inciting incident and that is a point you developed very well and accurately.

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Airo25--thanks for your comment, but Lucy Maud Montgomery died in 1942! All of my comments about publishing are always about contemporary standards. As are my writing books. While episodic stories were publishable in her time, they really aren't today. To think they are is like thinking one can publish a novel like the very first novel, "Pamela" which was epistolary and novels of a series of letters are no longer in vogue. That doesn't mean that one might not be published (although, I doubt it), but my advice is always about what's publishable today. I give countless examples of it in my writing books. A "for instance" is Faulkner's stream of consciousness. He was one of the two creators of the technique, but compared to today's practitioners, he's considered a bit dated. Writers like Gordon Lish are infinitely better at it. Doesn't mean Faulkner's bad--he's not at all. He's just frozen in time being room temperature and can't improve. If he was alive today, he'd undoubtedly be at the forefront of s.o.c., but he's not. Writing standards, techniques, and what's publishable change as tastes change. The thing is, Montgomery wouldn't find a publisher today and she's a poor model for a contemporary writer to emulate.

It's like O. Henry stories. For his time, they were fine, but they're just not publishable today. We've become more sophisticated readers and his surprise, twist endings would be considered manipulation today. Doesn't mean a person can't enjoy him, but I wouldn't advise that person to write similar stories and expect to be published. At least not published well or significantly.

Also, didn't write about just movies. Silence of the Lambs was a novel. And, sorry, but I stand by my stance that subplots cannot be stand-alone stories in a contemporary novel. I'm speaking of publishable, quality novels. I'd be interested in hearing of a novel that fit that description.

The fact is, what was publishable even twenty years ago isn't today, in many instances. And, my aim is simply to pass on information that will hopefully help today's writers sell their work.

I appreciate your comment!

Mark said...

I rewrote my latest novel to these specifications. It started as a sequel, but to be stand alone the inciting incident had to be moved up to the first two pages instead of coming in chapter 7. I think it works now. Great advice, Les. Modern is a whole new world.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Mark. It is a whole new world, isn't it! Some of it I like, some I don't, but I'd never ignore it. I like being published.

Have you sold that novel yet? When you do, let me know so I can get a copy. I always buy friends' books.

Speaking of writer friends, I just heard from my friend Cort McMeel whose novel SHORT I reviewed in a recent post. He just did a reading in Denver and sold over 100 copies of his hardcover edition. This week he's giving a reading at KGB, which is in my Top Five of things I want to do before I die. KGB might even be #1. A friend of mine, Fran Gordon, used to be the hostess at their readings and I had a standing invite to read there years ago and always wished I could afford to go there and appear.

Susan Fields said...

Thanks for your awesome explanations of inciting incident, surface problems, and story-worthy problems. This exact topic is something I've struggled to understand for a while. It's definitely clearer now. The example of Thelma and Louise really helps me make sense of it.

The Teddy Bear Family said...

Just a thought from someone new enough to understand how new writers think still.

I can see, kinda, what the fellow writer might have been thinking, and it is close to your sequel explanation.

Going with your formula - Stability + inciting incident = instability = struggle to gain stability (with more trouble) = new stability - could her version of "inciting incident" mean the extra trouble hurling at our poor protagonists?

Example: Inciting incident is man loses job. Not a biggy, but the rest of the trouble that comes along makes it bigger - bad economy, physical health failing, finances tank, foreclosure, and then it gets bad. In this case "inciting incident" is no big deal, but the following incidents makes it "worser and worser."

My stories (and don't judge by my blog. That's a hobby that got me interested in the real thing of writing. lol) tend to start out with no biggies, but the multitude of trouble hurled makes the inciting incident get worse. It's like canoeing down a river, but the protagonist doesn't originally know there's a waterfall coming. I agree that there is one inciting incident, however, if it's not the worse thing that happens, the rest can feel inciting. Canoeing doesn't feel like anything big, until you hear the waterfall and can't get to land fast enough.

Did that make sense?

Robin B. said...

Thanks, Les. And happiest of holidays to you and yours!