Okay, we’ve gone through our major characters and discussed how to make them come alive with traits and characteristics distinct from one another. Then we discussed the importance of showing the normal world—the world our hero, the protagonist, lives his or her daily life in.
Now, how do we get from that normal world into an exciting story filled with conflict that will entice the reader to continue reading? Our hero may be Joe the Nerd, a bank clerk or a grocery cashier goes about his business completely unobtrusive to the rest of the world.
But a story about that would bore everyone to death and would never get off the ground. Joe needs to face up to some big challenge or series of challenges. Something that will allow him to grow into Super Joe. What’s going to cause that?
We need an inciting incident. Some situation or event comes along he must react to. Something that’s going to change his life—for the worse if he doesn’t rise to the occasion or for the better if he does.
In the movie Wait Until Dark, Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) is an ordinary housewife living in a small, plain apartment. She’s blind and hardly capable of bringing a major criminal to justice all by herself. But she doesn’t need to. Her life is plain and uneventful.
That is, until a drug mule slips a doll filled with drugs into her husband’s luggage. He unknowingly brings it home and leaves it there, but the druglord, Roat (Alan Arkin), traces it to the Hendrixes. He manages to lure Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) away on a several-hour wild goose chase to give himself a chance to terrorize Susy into giving him the drugs she doesn’t even know she has.
Faced with a life-or-death challenge, she rises to the occasion. Susy Nerd becomes Super Susy, and she ends up defeating Roat.
Without that chance occurrence when the mule slipped the doll into Sam’s luggage, there would have been no story. The movie wouldn’t have been made, and no one would have watched it if it had. But that one incident changed everything for Susy. She had to sink or swim.
She didn’t have the choice of giving the drugs back, since she knew nothing about them. Her choice was defeat Roat or be killed.
In the movie Dead Ahead, Maura Loch (Stephanie Zimbalist) was a housewife whose biggest conflict was wanting to accept a teaching job at a university that would involve the family’s moving while her husband Bryan (Tom Butler) wanted to stay where they were because of his deep roots and the store he owned.
On a camping trip, Maura and their two kids Heather and Doug stayed at the camp while Bryan went back to run the store. A car carrying four bank robbers broke down, and they attacked the camp to get Maura’s while the kids were away on the adjacent river.
Jumping into the car and driving it into the river so the outlaws couldn’t use it, she then swam downriver while they tried to shoot her. She got away, but Doug came back and was kidnapped by the bad guys, who forced him to lead them to an airstrip where they were to meet a confederate who would fly them out of the country.
When she discovered what had happened, Maura had no choice but to go after them with her bow and arrows for a weapon—she was an expert archer. She couldn’t call for help or go into town for her husband, because she might lose her son forever. She had to do it herself.
Lovely as the riverside campgrounds were, there would have been no worthwhile story just showing their life there. It was only because of the inciting incident—the breakdown of the criminals’ car—that this idyllic scene turned into an exciting adventure.
In both of these movies, the stories began by showing the routine lives of the people (normal world). It was only after showing us this normal world and giving us enough of a glimpse of the protag’s everyday life—along with a reason to like and care about the protag—that the writers let things change and moved the stories into high gear.
This is what the inciting incident is all about. It’s the gear shift between idling along in the normal world and accelerating into the action of watching the protag meet the challenges thrown down by the antag.
Ø Think of some books/movies you’re familiar with and isolate the inciting incidents.
Ø How did those inciting incidents change the story and make heroes of ordinary people?
A graduate of Duke University, I spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of my career was spent in Texas, but for a few years I traveled many other states. I started writing about 20 years ago, and have six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. Since my retirement from insurance a few years ago, I have devoted my time to helping Kristen Lamb start Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp and trying to learn to write a successful novel myself.