Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.
You may or may not have heard the phrase "inciting incident." But whether or not you know what it means, you have certainly read plenty of inciting incidents in the fiction you've read and odds are fairly good you've written one.
So, what the heck is it?
I've heard it defined several different ways, but there are five little words that turn this fancy phrase into an image we can all understand.
The inciting incident in your novel is the point of no return. It is that thing that happens--usually very early on in your story--that forces your protagonist to move forward, to make a decision, to do something.
Harry Potter receives a letter from Hogwarts.
Lucy climbs into a wardrobe and finds Narnia.
Peter Pan invites Wendy to the Neverland.
In each of these moments, the protagonist MUST make a choice. And it is this action that propels the story forward.
There is a ton that can be said about inciting incidents and if you search this blog, you'll find a number of excellent articles written by Stephanie and Jill that will help immensely. What I thought I'd do today is walk you through a brainstorming session I had relating to a story I'm currently working on. I thought it would do you good to see my process and to understand just how the creating of an inciting incident can turn a beautiful setting into a story.
So. I have a setting. Now what?
I should tell you, writing a historical terrifies me. Historical novels are my escape, you know? I love them and I do not want to ruin the experience by butchering one. But over the years, much to my surprise, my imagination has started to craft shadowy characters to fill the glorious grounds of Empire Mine.
But setting and characters do not a story make. You know what makes a story? A problem.
And that's what had me settled in at a coffee shop with my notebook and a pen and one goal: to come up with a problem for my characters to solve. See, they can't just wander around the enchanting grounds. That's not a story. It's not a very good one in any case. There must be action.
And to get to the action, I needed something to propel them forward. I needed an inciting incident. And to get there, I gave my brain permission to get a little stormy. Here are some of the things I came up with.
Significance of the location: A highly profitable gold mine located in the middle of Gold Country in the middle of a gold rush. Yeah. I'd say that gives me something to work with. I'm not compelled to use this fact, but how rich would my story be if I could somehow tie the inciting incident to it. And since this idea of mine did start with a setting, there's something romantic about giving this angle a go.
Social roles / expected behaviors: Back in the late 1800s, life was a lot different than it is now. Men and women were expected to act a certain way. They didn't always conform to these expectations and I'm certain that caused problems. Could some unique facet of my characters' daily lives play a role in this thing that must be resolved? Maybe. There's potential there.
Local traditions / celebrations: What if there was some sort of celebration being hosted on the property? What if something went wrong? What if tragedy struck right in the middle of all the frivolity? A dark blotch on a gorgeous night. Yessss. I like that. I like it a lot. It could be more simple than that, of course. The receiving of an invitation could, in itself, be enough to incite action. Certainly something to consider.
Real life history: Since Empire Mine is an actual place and was founded by actual people, there is a fair amount of research for me to flip through. Because I've been fascinated by the family for years, I happen to know how influential they were in California and how rarely they were actually at the mine. I also know that they dealt with life and death issues and faced tragedy on more than one occasion. I don't have to steal these events outright, but they just might give me a few ideas. And if I can spruce them up with a little fictional magic, I just might have something here.
I have two pages of ideas like this. Just scribbles really, but when I flip through my notebook, I see the potential for a story and that's what a good brainstorming session should leave behind. The feeling of possibility. And while I haven't nailed down my inciting incident just yet, it could very well involve the owner's daughter bucking tradition on Empire Mine's biggest night.
I fear it won't end well for her.
How about you? Have you ever been inspired by a particular setting? Have you ever wanted desperately to turn it into a story? Did you do it? Did you find an inciting incident so compelling you just had to keep writing? Tell us about it.