Friday, January 20, 2006

Inciting Incident

Writing advice goes in waves. For a while, it will seem like everyone is talking about a particular aspect of the craft. Then focus shifts to something else, and eventually comes back to that original topic when everyone misunderstands what was meant by it.

One such aspect is the inciting incident, or "start at the right place." Last year it seemed there was a lot of discussion (in articles and workshops and online) about stories that start too early and are loaded with what should be backstory, sometimes pages, sometimes whole chapters, that bog down the beginning of the story. With excitement, authors talked about cutting the first two chapters and sprinkling in those details instead, and how much better the book is. And that's a good thing.

The problem is, now many authors are starting too late.

I have been reading a lot of unpublished work lately, for large and small contests and to help out some friends. Some of these have been novels, but most have been short stories or novellas. I've actually seen it in some published books, too. "It" being a starting point in sequel rather than scene.

Don't show me a character walking into her house, despondent or freaked or angry or even happy, then have her sit in a chair thinking about--or worse, telling her cat about--all the exciting stuff that just happened to her, and all the events that led up to that exciting stuff. The "inciting incident" that launches the story is not the main character's REACTION. It's the ACTUAL INCIDENT. If someone gets fired, open the book with "you're fired." If their house burns down, show me the character fighting the flames, or struggling to get out, or even what they were doing when the Molotov cocktail came through the front window. I don't want to be standing out on the street, tapping my foot as they stare at the smoking ruin and REMEMBER all that. I want to be in it with them.

One published book I read--it was a good book, too, and I was glad I kept going with it--started with the heroine trying to get up the nerve to go into the police station with an incredible story. She stood next to her car recalling the events of that incredible story, then started up the steps. Scene break. Next scene is the heroine arriving home, proceeding to think about what had just happened in the police station. I wanted to BE there with her during the incredible events as they happened, and I wanted to BE there when she had her horrible debriefing with the police.

What happens is that misunderstanding "don't start the story too soon" ends up violating "show, don't tell" in the most basic of ways, and that's even more detrimental to the story than infodumping backstory.

Luckily, it's not that hard to fix. The events are there, becuase you're describing them. Just back up, and describe them in active voice, unfolding them as they happen, without "had"ing the story to death.

I guarantee you'll have a better book.

1 comment:

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

Good post. Makes sense.