After The Inciting Incident

In last week’s post “Plot Weaving – Where To Start” we looked at where to begin the plot of a novel, often called the inciting incident — an event the protagonist responds to by forming a plan and taking action.

What comes next?

In the process of putting a plot together (either in outline form before writing or by piecing together scenes after writing, depending on the preferred work style), the novelist should remember three things.

First, every scene needs to move the story forward, that is toward bringing the protagonist closer to change or toward showing why change is impossible. Scenes that do not contribute to this end slow the pace and may cause the middle of the novel to drag.

Second, every scene — in fact, every page of every scene — needs tension. But where does tension come from? Some professionals have said when the story stalls, pull a gun. But that kind of solution is why novels become episodic rather than organic. Instead, a novelist can create tension by raising the stakes for the protagonist, by adding natural and believable complications, and by creating situations in which the character actually may fail.

Recently, Writer’s Digest offered a free download of Donald Maass exercises from his latest work The Breakout Novelist. A number of these will help a writer create more tension. Take, for example, Exercise 13: Raising Public Stakes or Exercise 14: Making Complications Active. In these assignments, the novelist must consider what will make the story problem worse and what might actually cause the protagonist to fail.

Scenes must move the story forward and there must be tension on every page, but there’s still a third element that helps the writer craft what comes next. Each of the events must be connected causally.

In other words, in a linear telling of the story, the inciting incident takes place, causing the protagonist to react. He must take action, put a plan in motion, establish a goal. His first step then becomes the cause of the next event which in turn causes him to react. His step then causes the next event which in turn causes him to react, and so on.

See how this cause-effect cycle works out at the beginning of the plot of the fable “The Monkey And The Crocodile”:

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree. [Inciting incident] ‘Hello’, called the monkey, who was a friendly animal. [Protagonist Reaction] ‘Hello’, replied the crocodile, surprised. ‘Do you know where I can get some food?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t had anything to eat all day – there just don’t seem to be any fish left in the river.’ [Next event]

‘Well,’ said the monkey, ‘I don’t eat fish so I wouldn’t know – but I do have plenty of ripe purple jamuns in my tree. Would you like to try some?’ He threw some down to the crocodile. [Protagonist Reaction] The crocodile was so hungry that he ate up all the jamuns even though crocodiles don’t eat fruit. He loved the sweet tangy fruit and shyly asked whether he could have some more. [Next Event] ‘Of course’, replied the monkey generously, throwing down more fruit. ‘Come back whenever you feel like more fruit’, he added when the crocodile had eaten his fill. [Protagonist Reaction]

After that the crocodile would visit the monkey every day. [Next Event]

By utilizing this cause-effect means of determining what happens next in the story, the plot arises naturally out of the personality, wants, and needs of the characters. The writer does not appear to be imposing his will from the outside, though of course he is. After all, he has given the character her strengths and weaknesses, her goals and plans, and the inciting incident that starts all the dominos falling.

In addition, the writer keeps back a few twists that will still arise organically but will nevertheless surprise even the most astute reader. We’ll look at plot twists another time.

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