Monday, May 7, 2012

What exactly is an inciting incident?

A writer wrote to me last week asking me about "inciting incidents" and where they belong in a story.

For those who are wondering, the inciting incident is The Thing That Happens that makes your character move from their place of safety into the story world. In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss volunteers as tribute in place of her little sister.



The phrase "inciting incident" is a fine one and probably works for many, but I prefer James Scott Bell's (you're shocked, aren't you?) description of structure. In Plot & Structure, instead of talking about inciting incidents or plot points, he refers to "a disturbance and two doorways."

The disturbance is something that's messing with your main character's normal existence. Going back to The Hunger Games, Katniss and Gale are enjoying a normal afternoon of hunting ... only it's not a normal afternoon because the reaping is about to happen and they're nervous.

The "doorways" James Scott Bell describes are two points of no return in the story, transitions from the beginning to the middle, then the middle to the end. The first doorway takes the reader from the character's normal, albeit "disturbed" world, into the story. The second doorway occurs leads to the final battle. For our purposes, today we'll just discuss doorway number one.


'Doorway' photo (c) 2007, Aaron Harmon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/


Your character will most likely need a push out of their normal world and into the story. This is a doorway that they should decide to walk through. How much better is The Hunger Games because Katniss decides to go rather than just getting drawn? Suzanne Collins had an easy way to get Katniss in the games (she'd already established that Katniss's name was in the lottery tons of times) but her choice of a "doorway" - Katniss choosing to take Prim's place - makes for a much stronger story.

James Scott Bell says when you're trying to figure out if your character has gone through the first doorway is, "Can my character walk away from the plot right now and go on as he has before?" If the answer is yes they can, you haven't gotten them through the door yet.

When should a character walk through that first doorway? The popular opinion is the 1/4 mark, which I won't disagree with. I could be wrong, but I think Katniss volunteers for the games at the end of the first chapter, and I think that works great too. It'll depend on the overall pacing of your novel, I feel. A book like The Help might require a bit more time to get to the doorway than something like The Hunger Games.

In your manuscript, does your character have a doorway to walk through? If so, are they choosing it or are you the author shoving them through?

43 comments:

  1. Hmmm, I think my MC chose to go through the door... She's realizing that that's happening to her is real and not a joke and she can't turn back. :)

    Can we go over other elements of story structure? ;)

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    1. Sure, Allison! Any in particular you'd like to know more about or just story structure in general?

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    2. Could you talk about the middle? I can write a decent beginning and end, but not middle.

      Thanks!

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    3. Yes! I had actually just been thinking we needed to spend some time talking about middles. Great suggestion!

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  2. Love this. In a novel I'm redoing, I'd originally had circumstances force my heroine onto her new path--but in my new version, she's the one who put the wheels in motion by asking her friend to dig into her past for her. Not that she doesn't second-guess . . . =)

    In another WIP, tragedy forces my heroine on a literal journey--but that isn't really the door. The door is when she puts her trust and well-being into the hands of the hero a few chapters in. Should be fun! And the door thing is a great way to look at it.

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    1. I loved reading this comment since I just read your blog post on the story you're redoing! So exciting!

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    2. I know, I recognized the first story too and I had to smile. I am excited to read a story set in the Victorian era!

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  3. That's something to think about. So the doorway is like 'the point of no return'. I think it would be when my character decides to save this group of people. I don't think she could go back to her normal life after she had made that choice. It then begins to bring in a few characters that help her, further tying her to this goal. So it has to be their choice? Is that a good example of a doorway?

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  4. I like this! So can there be more than one door In the story? Or is one ideal? My character is strong willed but is forced into a lot of things are those doors? Thanks!

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    1. Leila, the way James Scott Bell explains it, there are two BIG doors - the one that moves you into the story and the one that transitions the reader into the final battle/conclusion. But the conflict and stakes should be continually ratcheting higher and your character will ideally have lots of choices to make.

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  5. I was trying to think this through in regards to Captives, but it was tricky since this is my first multi=POV story. But if I think about it, each of the characters has a moment where they decide to do something. Omar chooses betrayal, Mason chooses to negotiate, Levi chooses to rescue everyone. Jemimah's choice is still my weakest, but I did give her one.

    I suppose Omar's choice is truly the inciting incident, though, since it is what sends everyone else through the door.

    Cool post, Stephanie! :-)

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    1. Ooh, yes, that's an interesting point, Jill. It would be different for various POV characters.

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  6. I like the doorway idea. Helpful post, as always ;) Thanks a ton!

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    1. When I first heard it, it really clarified things for me. Glad you found it helpful as well, Sarah!

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  7. This was a really helpful post; thank you. The disturbed normal world in my story is where my MC and his sister are living peacefully in their village, but are still troubled by their parents' death; the doorway is when they realize they need to embark on the journey that makes up the plot. The doorway, as yet, is an extremely weak point...

    Like I said, the post was really helpful. Maybe it will help me make that doorway stronger. :)

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    1. I'm glad it was helpful! My initial attempts at "doorways" tend to be weak too :( That's what editing is for, right?

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  8. I'm not the first one to say this, but this is really helpful to me. :)

    I think there are several doorways in my book. For starters, he does get coerced into doing what they want him to do. But then he decides the rest. After they escape, he could have just left, and hoped for the best for them. After he was stuck with untrained operatives, he could have hidden them somewhere and called the police. There are any number of ways he could have gone back to his old life, the one he was doing so well in. But he realized there was something missing.

    Haha . . . now that I have worked it out for myself, I can go put it in. :D

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    1. Lol, Becki. Love it when that happens :)

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  9. I THINK my doorways are chosen by my characters, but that's because I wrote them that way. A question I've always had is what exactly does one really mean by saying "the story's moving on it's own" or "the characters are deciding for themselves" the concept of that doesn't really make sense to me.

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    1. I've had that experience, JT, and I think what I'm actually experiencing is immersion in the story. I'm no longer thinking about "what would I do?" or "does this choice work?" but instead I've gotten to know my character and my storyworld well enough that I've removed me from the equation. Does that make sense?

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  10. Hmm...in one of my stories, I guess the inciting incident would be my MC becoming a true Christian. She is a "Catholic" foreign exchange student from France and she comes to the states for her last year of highschool. There she meets a family that really helps her grow and mature. Her friend her age has an older brother and sparks fly as they grow closer and as my MC tries to reconcile with her family (who hates and wants to disown her, but they can't because of a vow).

    In one of my other plotlines I am not really sure. Maybe when her parents are killed and she is forced to help provide for her two younger brothers?

    Thank you for such a helpful post! This site is more valuable to us than gold!!

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    1. I just realized that my Catholic comment may offend others. It is not meant that way at all. My family has several Catholic families we are friends with and they are true Christians. I simply meant that in France, my MC's family was religious in name only. They went to church to look good, not because they were practicing believers. I realize that this is not true in most cases. Obviously, in every religion, in every church, there is a family of two like my MC's. But everyone else is there because they want to be. I am sorry if that came out the wrong way. That is not how I mean it.

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    2. In your original post, you said she was "Catholic" which I took to mean just by heritage and not by beliefs or practice. I think you're fine :)

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    3. That's good! I was re-reading my comment when I realized that it may not be understood. So it is a relief to know that it doesn't read the wrong way!

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  11. Excellent post, as always. Thank you for answering my question so splendidly, Stephanie! ;)

    I really like the "disturbance and doorways" deal. Much less confusing to me than the phrase "inciting event." I can see this structure in the novel I'm polishing off today. And my heroine is choosing to walk through. :)

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    1. Sure! I love any excuse to pull out a James Scott Bell book :)

      And it's so great when you discover you did something right on instinct. Ah...

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  12. I really enjoyed this post, it opened up some doors. I was pushing my character toward a door that I didn't know was there! This is why I read your blog Stephanie :P Now that the door has materialized I can see new plot ideas as well as things that will make what I was "trying" to do a whole lot easier. Sierra
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
    Philippians 4:8

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    1. Yes, I agree Sierra! I am trying to do things that only sort of work and then a post like this comes up and helps me figure it out!

      By the way, I love your name! A little unique, but not strange. It has a bit of a flare to it. I love it!

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    2. Thanks! I really like it too :) Aren't names so fun? Yeah it's pretty cool, I'm just trying to work something out and boom! Stephanie comes out with a post explaining everything :) I get so much out of these posts!Sierra
      Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
      Philippians 4:8

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  13. I was reading that part in plot & structure this morning. Then, I saw this title & thought "the door of
    no return" :)
    Anyways, this morning reading it started me thinking & then this post doubly thinking....in my WIP I think the doorway starts on page one!
    I thought I was being creative just jumping in & then referencing the way things were but today I'm wondering that's all wrong?

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    1. Yes Tonya, when that happens I just have to smile. I will be looking at something ad then a bit later I will see something related to it!

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    2. Without reading it, I can't say for sure Tonya, but you might be okay. In Me, Just Different (which I'll use, since I know you've read it) Skylar's near date-rape happens right before the book opens. It's certainly a door of no return for her. But another one comes at the end of chapter three when she finds out Abbie is pregnant and that Connor overheard.

      So, I could have chosen to back the story up further and have the near date-rape be the first doorway, but I'm not sure anybody but me could have tolerated unchanged Skylar for that long. It worked better to start the story right after it had happened.

      I'm saying all that to say leave it as it is but keep in mind that you COULD back it up if you wanted.

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  14. Jessica StarickaMay 7, 2012 at 9:44 PM

    My WIP definitely has an inciting indecent. (The 'door' metaphor is awesome! Sure useful. I'll think of it like that from now on.) My WIP makes the choice to test the superstitions surrounding an old boat he's bought. Once it transports him (and friends) to an alternate world...well, he can't easily go back through that doorway. :) I've been planning on having him chose to do it. I think it would be more powerful (in this situation) if it's his decision and he must live with the consequences.

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  15. I'm doing One Year Adventure Novel this year for English, and Mr. S explains it this way: You have the Inciting Incident (something happens to the hero which s/he can't ignore) and Embracing Destiny (when the hero decides to accept their destiny and do something about the Inciting Incident). I like this explanation because it shows the two parts to the doorways you talked about (a very good way of describing it, by the way). There's the thing that happens (in my WIP, my hero's castle gets destroyed), and the moment the hero chooses to do something about it (my hero decides to quit merely running from the people trying to kill her, and get some help to fight them off - she goes on the offensive). Sometimes Embracing Destiny will immediately follow the Inciting Incident, and sometimes not. Usually it takes some impetous to get the hero to get off their couch and go have an adventure, but not always. Just another way of looking at it... Thanks for these posts, by the way, I find them really helpful!

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    1. I like that description a lot. Mr. S is a wise, wise man.

      He's also very kind. Oddly enough, we're in the same writer's group here in Kansas City :)

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  16. It depends on which one of my books... a co-write I'm working on still, the MC is shoved into his situation.
    And then in my WIP she chooses to go step into something unknown.

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  17. My MC's best friend basically shoves her through the door because he can't forgive her after she caused a terrible event to occur!! She actually wants with all her might to resist the change but inevitably accepts that she isn't wanted and has to step out into the unknown world... I'm terrible to my beloved MC... lol :)

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  18. Thanks for this post, I just realized that my mc is on the threshold not actually through the door.

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  19. Wow, this was soooo helpful! This concept is new to me, I had the door there but didn't know what it was called - thank you!! In one of my WIPS my MC chooses to go through the door, but it slams shut behind her... If that makes any sense. So she's chosen to do this, but gets more than she bargained for. In another, which is multi-POV, one MC is forced and the other makes a choice, but because he feels he kind of has to. Idk, I like it when it's the character's choice, but I'm finding it tricky to work that in. Especially for WIP #3... I don't think that idea will be possible as MC's choice... Hrm...

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  20. Thanks so much.
    I'm still in the "sparks" phase, but I was wondering is it always better to have them choose?
    I might be having three completely different girls assigned to do a school project together. That isn't them choosing, of course. But then maybe the choosing point is when they stop fighting it and asking the teacher to rearrange them?
    So... that sounded awfully boring compared to some fantasy or sci-fi books. But I'm really more into realistic fiction. ;)

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