Friday, October 31, 2014

The importance of the inciting incident

Why not start a story with… oh, let’s say a day in the life of a poor family? That will give the writer some time to develop the characters before the first turn in the plot, and it won’t be devoid of conflict. The fact that this family is struggling to feed themselves should be gripping.

When a manuscript with this start was offered for critique, the question of the inciting incident came up. It made me think about whether such an incident was necessary, and if so, why.

First, imagine three scenarios:

1. Poor family struggles to earn enough to buy food.
2. Poor family which struggles to earn enough to buy food finds out they've won the lottery.
3. Dad gives up and walks out on poor family.

The first story can be made compelling. I love Anita Desai’s The Village By the Sea because it describes life in a rural Indian village beautifully, evoking sounds and smells and colors. But this start essentially tells a day-in-the-life-of story. The family was struggling yesterday, they're struggling today and they'll be struggling tomorrow.

Until something significant changes, the setting and characters and style have to hook the reader and carry the story. Whereas with the other two scenarios, there are inciting incidents. Things change, either for the better or for the worse.

I was hooked like a fish at the start of The Thorn Birds. That has long, long passages of exposition and description, but it starts with an inciting incident: the only daughter of a poor family gets something expensive for her fourth birthday. It doesn't start with "here's another day for the Clearys".

The writer whose manuscript we were critiquing was concerned that if the story leaped into the major conflict, there would be no reason to care about the characters (and no chance to develop them). But the inciting incident doesn’t need to lead directly into the overarching plot. It can be a small conflict instead, and it can bring out the characters as well as their background.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s my critique of the start of The Thorn Birds, with my comments in blue:

On December 8th, 1915, Meggie Cleary had her fourth birthday. Sets the tone: there’s a sense of 'this is how it all began'.

After the breakfast dishes were put away her mother silently thrust a brown paper parcel into her arms and ordered her outside. “Thrust” and “ordered” sound cold, at best—and from her mother, on her birthday? Her mother doesn’t want to watch her opening her gift? Wow. Also, the present parcel is wrapped in brown paper, not anything pretty.

So Meggie squatted down behind the gorse bush next to the front gate and tugged impatiently. She’s four years old, but she’s already so used to her mother’s cold commands that she doesn’t find them unusual. I’m getting a hint of the family dynamics here.

Her fingers were clumsy, the wrapping heavy; it smelled faintly of the Wahine general store, which told her that whatever lay inside the parcel had miraculously been bought, not homemade or donated. Sensory appeal here, and we see why the gift was wrapped in brown paper—the family is poor.

All that information in one paragraph at the start. Plus, after reading that I had to keep going, to see what Meggie got for her birthday—and what her family is like, and why she was given something new. The rest of the chapter unfolds with lots of description of a typical day for the Cleary family, but because I was hooked (and because it was a well-written slice of life in the past), I enjoyed reading that. But what I remember most is the inciting incident.


Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I've never read The Thorn Birds and now I'm intrigued!

I've thought about this as well. I think we've all read at least one novel which started far too early, in the crust of the story instead of the meat. I think we've all started books and stories too early as well, which is one reason to try very hard to find good beta readers!

Marian Perera said...

It's definitely worth reading, though I think the first half, Meggie's story, is much better than when the focus shifts to her children.

And yes, good beta readers are worth their weight in gold. :)