Tag Archives: inciting incident

A Story’s Bare Bones

1187803_skeleton_1What IS a story? The dictionary isn’t particularly helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary says a story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

Perhaps the key lies in the “for entertainment” part of the definition. Clearly anyone can give an account of a group of characters and what they do without actually telling a story.

For example, my neighbors across the street held a yard sale today, and the man down the block is mowing his lawn. Another set of neighbors is holding a party and playing loud music. Earlier today, my downstairs neighbor did her laundry in our new washer and drier.

Entertained yet?

I fulfilled the first two requirements–gave you characters and events. But entertain? Not unless you have some strange fascination with what happens in my neighborhood. 😉

The “for entertainment” part of the definition, then, is actually the place where story lives.

Perhaps the easiest way to examine a story is to take one apart. Here’s the shortest one I know:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. (by Mother Goose)

Humpty_Dumpty_In the first line we are introduced to the main character and we’re given an opening that shows us what “regular” life was like. This is critical to the success of any story.

Too many writers are in a hurry to write something blood-pumping, that will move readers to the edge of their chairs. But those scenes don’t happen unless the reader cares.

If I tell you Jeff drowned in the ocean, I doubt if anyone would think twice about the statement. We don’t know who Jeff is or why he was in the ocean. If, however, I say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean, now we might be a little intrigued. What if I changed it to say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean while trying to rescue a ten-year-old boy. Now there’s another level of intrigue, but not enough. We could think Jeff did something foolish or wasn’t skilled enough for the job. If we learned that a warning just went out about a riptide, that Jeff was putting up the red flag when the boy went into the water, the story begins to take shape.

The point is, first readers need to know who this person is so that they can care about him, all without boring them to death with a lot of backstory.

Line two of our example gives us the inciting incident–Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Something happened that interrupted his regular routine, that set in motion a sequence of events.

In most stories, those events are put in motion by the protagonist as a way to solve the problem which the inciting incident created. In our example, however, Humpty Dumpty is in no shape to do anything about his predicament. Instead, enter the minor characters who work on his behalf. All the kings’ horses–not one or two, but all of them–and all the kings’ men worked to rescue Humpty Dumpty. Each action increases the tension, ups the conflict. At last there is only one more horse, one more man, and they fail.

This story resolves in a sad way. Nothing they did solved Humpty Dumpty’s problem. Most stories resolve in a more hopeful or positive way, but certainly not all. But “resolve” they must. At the end of the story, readers want to know “what happened.”

How detailed the resolution, of course, is up to the author. What did the kings’ men do with what was left of Humpty Dumpty? Some authors might write that as part of their resolution.

These then are the bare bones of a story. Yes, there are muscle and flesh and skin that need to be added, but without the bones, the story won’t hang together, so it’s a good place to start.

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The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 1

A recent Writer’s Digest article, “Building Backstory” by Larry Brooks, stated that a novelist should show only ten percent of his character’s backstory — the “iceberg principle” he called it. Suspense author and writing instructor Brandilyn Collins holds herself to a firm rule about backstory — none in the opening chapters.

Why such categorical statements about backstory? But perhaps our first question should be, what is backstory?

Mr. Brooks succinctly identifies backstory as “what went before and behind the actual [storytime] event.” Brandilyn’s definition is a bit broader: “backstory is anything that isn’t current action,” possibly including description.

Quite frankly, all that before and behind and not action is boring. Until the reader has a reason to know the “what happened before” information, backstory comes across as superfluous. It isn’t moving the plot forward, but rather, holding it back. Some readers might even be tempted to skip backstory.

Old style fairy tales usually began with backstory, and novels of yesteryear often did as well. Today’s faster-paced fiction, however, requires a different approach.

Brandilyn gives a clear rule of thumb: use backstory “only when it is absolutely needed for the reader to understand the current action.”

Let me illustrate this with the opening of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” retold by Rohini Chowdhury. As written, the story begins this way:

Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The emperor’s love for clothes was well known. Traders, merchants and weavers from far and wide would bring fine silks, flowered brocades and softest satins to sell to the Emperor, knowing he would buy even the most expensive cloth if it caught his fancy. One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, arrived in the Emperor’s city and asked to meet him. The men were not real weavers at all, but crooks.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor to himself. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

The Emperor in his imaginary new clothes.

I marked the backstory in reddish brown. The actual inciting incident was the arrival of the two con men.

But, you may be thinking, the reader needs to know the facts in those opening paragraphs. Yes, and no. The reader doesn’t need to know all of it right away.

Nor does the backstory need to appear together in one lump sum. Instead, the facts detailing what came before (the emperor spending his days thinking about and buying new clothes) or what is behind the story (the two men are crooks) can be sprinkled throughout as they are needed. Hence, the opening of this fairy tale could go something like this:

One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, came to a city ruled by an Emperor famous for his love of beautiful clothes. At once they asked to meet him.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor who spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

Clearly there is more backstory that needs to be included. Based on this opening, the reader would not yet know that the two men are crooks, but that’s one of the advantages of weaving backstory in rather than delivering the goods ahead of time.

The reader is left to wonder if the two men claiming to be weavers have some magic ability or if they are duping the unsuspecting emperor.

The question makes the story more interesting and creates curiosity. The reader will want to continue reading if for no other reason than to find out the answer to the questions the missing backstory creates.

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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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Plot Weaving – Where To Start


Novelists report common problems. One has to do with “sagging middles” — stories that dead end or lose steam somewhere in the middle. A second is not knowing where to start.

In actuality, the two issues might be related. Story consultant and critic of the popular three-act story structure, John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story says this about crafting a plot:

Because plot involves the intricate weaving of characters and actions over the course of the entire, story, it is inherently complex. It must be extremely detailed yet also hang together as a whole. Often the failure of a single plot event can bring the entire story down (p. 258).

It’s fair to say, then, that a bad beginning can affect a story’s middle. That’s not to conclude that a good beginning will automatically eliminate the possibility of a slow or stalled middle, but I’ll explore causes apart from the beginning another day.

I’ve suggested in earlier articles — “How to Start A Novel”, “The First Five Pages”, and “What Goes Into A Plot” that the writer should know his protagonist and his main opponent. He should know his theme and have the setting firmly in mind. But that still begs the question — where to begin the plot?

To figure out the answer to that question, it’s important to know where the story will end up. Mr. Truby says it like this: “An organic plot shows the actions that lead to the hero’s character change or [that] explain why the change is impossible” (p.259).

He then makes, what I think to be a central observation about good plotting: the events of the plot need to be “causally connected.” In other words, one event needs to cause the next event, and in the end the character needs to be changed (or the reason he isn’t clarified). To accomplish both of these goals simultaneously, the writer must weave the story events together in such a way that they appear to grow naturally, one from the other.

It’s possible to do this as an outliner who thinks through the events ahead of time, or as a seat-of-the-pants writer who creates scenes, then pieces them together and fills in gaps later on.

But that still doesn’t answer the “where to start” question. Think of a story as the reason why — the reason why Gillian is blind, the reason why Tad loves soccer, the reason why the sky is blue, or any of a countess number of scenarios. Each of these names the outcome. The story will detail the events that brought about the outcome. The start, then, is the first of those events — the trigger, if you will, or what most writing instructors refer to as the inciting incident.

As a reminder, I suggested in “The First Five Pages” that the opening scene should be a bridge between the story and the back story, so a novel generally doesn’t start with the inciting incident. In reality, however, the inciting incident is the beginning of the plot.

Here’s what Mr. Truby says about the inciting incident: “This is an event from the outside that causes the hero to come up with a goal and take action” (p. 278).

From that point on, the events will have a cause-effect connection.

Fairy tales often used a nice prompt to alert the reader to the inciting incident. After setting the stage, a paragraph would inevitable begin, One day … The implication is that on that day something new and different will happen — the inciting incident, the first step in a series of steps leading to ultimate change.

And that, my friends, is where a plot should start.

Examples
From “The Monkey and the Crocodile”

Once there lived a monkey in a jamun tree by a river. The monkey was alone – he had no friends, no family, but he was happy and content. The jamun tree gave him plenty of sweet fruit to eat, and shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree …

From “Little Red Riding Hood”

Long, long time ago, in a little village at the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl with her mother and her father. This little girl was the sweetest, kindest child there ever was. She was always dressed in a pretty red cloak and hood that her mother had made for her, so that everyone began calling her Little Red Riding Hood.

One day Little Red Riding Hood’s mother called her and said, ‘Daughter, your grandmother is very ill. Please take her this pot of butter and some custard that I have made.’

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