Every story has an inciting incident – maybe obvious, maybe not. It’s the moment when everything changes. The status is no longer quo; it has shifted.
Think of the old fairy tales:
– The princess falls ill so the king sends out an edict.
– The young farm boy sets out to win fame and fortune.
– Jack’s old mother sends him to market.
– The king in Cinderella’s country decides to hold a grand ball.
The story falls naturally into place after that and involves many other people. The same thing happens in current fiction:
– A plane lands and a young woman arrives in a new country
– Someone steps through a door into a sci-fi universe
– A company hires a new employee
– A young man playfully waves a toy gun
Besides precipitating events into motion, sometimes an inciting event is an opportunity to reveal character in a story. Revealing the character that lies beneath the usual facades of life might take a very large jolt propelling people out of comfortable day-to-day day routines. The following story is true (with a couple of minor changes). It was a learning experience for me, but much more than that.
Last weekend, in a family I know, a beautiful young girl died suddenly away from home in a foreign country. It was a shocking event and it laid characters bare.
Her competent dad became a lost soul.
Her mom, a gentle, thoughtful woman, once she managed to step beyond her initial grief, turned into a tiger who fought her way through miles of official red tape.
Uncle #1, a senior figure in law enforcement, was revealed as being dominated by his wife and shown to be a tall, imposing wimp. His wife, a social butterfly, was shown to be controlling and selfish. People had inklings of this before, but suddenly it was in the open where everyone could see it.
Uncle #2, a scientist, found emotional depth and empathy where none had been apparent before.
Uncle #3, a pleasant but rather unmotivated man, became the tower of comfort who had hugs for anyone who needed them and a shoulder for anyone to cry on.
Aunt #1, another social butterfly, ran true to form and opened her house to everyone who needed support. When people needed to do something to help she found something for them to do, with a meal and a hug afterwards.
Aunt #2, a financial powerhouse, turned into a frightened rabbit
They say that a leopard can’t change his spots but clearly, under this dreadful stress, people who had appeared to be coping quite well with life changed in a variety of ways. Some grew, some shrank. For some the veneer was stripped away. Under pressure some found latent depth, others found…not very much. None of them will ever be quite the same again. They will not be seen the same way again.
Glimpsing this complexity of human behavior gives you a lot of latitude when you write a story. As a writer you can show dramatic change in your characters if you apply enough pressure. What overt or covert inciting incident can you develop to apply that pressure?