Friday, September 4, 2015

From Setting to Inciting Incident

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.

This particular story idea started when I fell in love with Empire Mine. In its day, Empire Mine was the richest hard rock gold mine in California and, in the middle of Gold Country, that's saying something. The mine itself is an hour's drive from my place and the first time I visited was eleven years ago. That's right, I've been stewing on this setting for far too long and I think it's high time I did something with it.

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.

25 comments:

  1. Oh, settings definitely inspire me. I think that's why my characters had to travel the world in my most recent novel--there are just too many amazing places out there. And right now I'm working on a fantasy that has some Scandinavian cultural elements.

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    1. So fun! I'd love to write a world traveler. Though, I think I need a little more experience in that area myself! ;)

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  2. I recently watched Lord of the Rings, and I felt like Tolkien had created so many fascinating places in his story that he wanted to show them off. Each time the characters were forced into a new and dangerous location, half of me was as apprehensive as the characters (oh, no! Not the mines! Don't make us go in the mines!) and the other half felt like I could see the author behind the characters holding out his hand and saying, "Come see what I made!"
    For LotR, I definitely felt like the setting was intricately tied to the plot.

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    1. Oh yes! I completely agree. I'm a Tolkien fanatic, in fact, LOTR is what go me writing. I am reading his essay, “On Fairy Stories” and its is amazing. It is all about his thoughts on fantasy. Tolkien loved creating the setting for his characters, putting each tree, rock, and blade of grass in its place and giving it almost a life of its own. His love for setting and description is amazing and beautiful. :)
      (Sorry. Don't mind me I could talk about Tolkien all day long :D)

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    2. wisdomcreates - you have got to be kidding me!?! You JUST watched LOTR for the first time?????? How is this possible????

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    3. Great observation! Tolkien's imagination is a force to be reckoned with for sure. And you're absolutely right. The stories would not have been the same without Middle Earth and, if you think about it, the inciting incident was crucially tied to the setting.

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  3. All my stories are actually inspired by settings. I always wonder: who's living behind that door? What is life like in this place? That's what kicks my writer brain. But I find developping those thoughts into a plot really really hard. Thanks for the great post, it'll definitely help for my next project!

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    1. That is the way a lot of writers began. By asking "What if...."

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    2. SAME:) Setting is a really big deal for me:)

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    3. Oh yay! I don't know if I've been a setting inspired writer until now. I mean, I'm always inspired by settings, but the stories that I've stuck with till the end have been more deeply established in something other than their location. I'm hoping to really dive into this one with abandon.

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  4. Love the idea of connecting the inciting incident to the setting to get a story rolling. It would really tie the setting to be crucial to the story, rather than just a pretty backdrop. And so many stories (especially historical and speculative) begin with the idea for an amazing setting. Setting alone isn't story. But add an inciting event that is interlaced with that setting, one that forces the characters to take action ... and now you have something really neat to write about.

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    1. I totally agree! Can't wait to really dive in.

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  5. I definitely have gotten inspired by different locations, but not to the point of writing a novel. However, when I create different places for fantasy novels, I tend to search Pinterest a lot for pictures that reflect my ideas.

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    1. Yes, yes, yes! This will be a new adventure for me as well.

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  6. Hmmm...the place I live in is absolutely beautiful--always. I'm very used to seeing wonderful scenery all the time, and while I make scenery very important in my stories, I don't actually make a story just to use the scenery. It's an interesting idea, but I tend to just write a quick blurb describing a really cool place if I want to use it at some point, and then if I'm writing and need a place, I'll look at what I have to see if I can use any.
    I have a non-scenery related question: how do you keep motivated while writing, essentially, first drafts? I just started majormajormajor rewrites on my first completed (yay!) manuscript, which was about forty thousand words and will probably end up around ninety thousand, and I just started another WIP, which has a whopping three thousand words (meh. at least it's something). The big problem I'm having is that I just can't seem to get myself to write. I know exactly what to say, and I even have the entire plot figured out, but my writing side apparently thinks it is done for the year. Now, no matter how many times I sit down and promise myself to write, I normally end up just staring at the computer screen for a few hours.
    Any ideas? All would be appreciated. Very much appreciated.

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    1. Hmm ... normally when my writing side is being lazy, I'll pull up some pictures from my 'story inspiration' folder, and choose one to write about. Or I'll find a story prompt on the internet, and write a short piece for it. It also helps sometimes to put my WIP away and not work on it for awhile. By the time I come back, typically it's when I miss writing it, and I'm quite ready to get started again. Hope this helps! ~Savannah P.

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    2. Lil Taylor,
      I would write a few tips but I'm thinking it would be quicker to direct you to this post I did on the topic. It's short and sweet because I think the whole "writer's block" thing is very overdone. Hope it helps!

      http://daswhatchuthink.blogspot.com/2015/01/tips-for-writers-block.html

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    3. Like Kay, I too wrote a post on writers block. It's here if you want to reference it: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/09/writers-block-shans-thoughts.html

      THOUGH, when you tell me you're all plotted out and just can't seem to sit and write, I have a piece of advice for you that you are going to hate. Seriously. Hate. But it just might work.

      When I was writing my detective story, I knew that I knew that I knew how it was going to end. And that really, truly kept me from writing the middle. I wanted more than anything to be at the end already. My suggestion is to throw a wrench in everything. Maybe not enough to take you completely off course, but enough to force you to think. Have your character make a horrid decision or blow up your favorite set piece or cut a scene. Do something to force your writer's brain into problem-solving mode. It might just be enough to get you excited about a story you feel you've read three thousand times.

      I told you you'd hate it.

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  7. I have a historical fiction short story I am writing. I have never written in that genre before so I am learning as a go. The hardest part of a historical fiction is that you are working with real people and you can't change history. I never knew anything about Olaf Tryggevason beyond that he was christian king before I started the story and now I know I can tell you all about him.

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    1. Love this and I totally agree. It can be a huge hinderance when we feel we can't change history. That said, I'm always inspired by historical fiction authors who leave us notes at the end of their story. They'll tell us what inspired them to write about such and such and then they'll confess to all the things they changed and why they felt they had to change them for the sake of the story. I'll have to remind myself this a zillion times, I'm sure, but let's not be paralyzed by history. Let's be inspired and then be creative.

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  8. I can find characters and settings fairly easily for my novels but i often have trouble finding my story's "problem".
    This was a very helpful post:)

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  9. Shannon,
    You were exactly right:) I have no idea what "inciting incident" was (or, had never heard of it before anyway) - but you were right, I've written so many without knowing it! While setting is a really big deal for me and comes very naturally I've never actually had a problem with "ii" because, unlike alot of you, I only have one story (shocking, I know) and I've been working on it forever and the "ii" was pretty much built into the... for lack of a better word, the inspiration to write the story.

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    1. Having only ONE story is nothing to be ashamed of. Some of us linger long at our tales while others move on at a different rate. Neither is wrong. :)

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  10. Good morning, you guys! I was away from the computer most of Friday, so I'm just sitting down to your comments now. Forgive me. I hate it when my schedule takes over.

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