Building Characters – Inciting Incident

Jeff Gerke’s book Plot vs. Character teaches how to build a believable character. Today I’ll outline Step Two in the character’s inner journey, the Inciting Incident.

Your character has a knot, a problem, a fear. She has a way of compensating so that her pain is numbed and she can live a normal life. Things are okay, and there’s no need to change a thing. But not for long. Introduce the Inciting Incident and your character can no longer ignore the problem.

Scrooge is visited by three ghosts. Dorothy’s home is carted away by a tornado. Dwarves show up on Bilbo’s stoop and carry him into an adventure. 

The lead character is forced to go in a direction she doesn’t want to go and there’s no turning back. At the same time, she can’t afford to NOT go on this journey. The pain/fear/knot she’s been living with is no longer comfy, and despite her belief that this detour is a minor nuisance that will soon be over, it’s not. 

Jeff says for the reader to care about this inciting incident, she first has to care about the character. So spend some time in the character’s life before this incident intrudes, and the reader will care more deeply when the dookey hits the fan. Dorothy protected her dog from the wicked neighbor lady before the twister hit. Bilbo loved the shire and couldn’t think of a single reason to ever leave before the dwarves showed up. Scrooge wasn’t sympathetic at all, but we got to see what kind of man he was before the ghosts showed up to teach him the error of his ways and offer redemption.

An inciting incident can be almost anything. It’s an interruption. Maybe it’s huge. Maybe it’s tiny. The important thing is that it diverts the character toward his Moment of Truth. Frodo would have never travelled to Mt. Doom if the ring hadn’t come to him. Luke Skywalker wouldn’t have launched the proton torpedo if the droids hadn’t entered his life. Moses wouldn’t have led the Children of Israel out of Egypt if he hadn’t been sidetracked by the burning bush. 

Grab your hero, pull her off her intended path, and push her toward her destiny.

Jeff suggests working from the end. I happen to know it works, as that’s the way I do it. Think of your character’s Moment of Truth. What has to happen to get her to that moment? Then back up. What has to happen to get her to the brink of that decision? Back up some more. What has to happen to get her almost to that brink? What would have to happen before that? Keep backing up until you get to her initial condition. Jeff offers a detailed example from the story My Fair Lady, if you need more.

Moving on, Jeff says the inciting incident can be nearly anything, but it should have these qualities:

1) It should be unexpected. A surprise, an ambush, a blind-side. Moses saw a burning bush. Lucy found a magical portal(The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe). Scrooge saw the ghost of his dead colleague.

2) It should have something to do with the hero’s knot, even if it’s not clear to the reader the moment it’s introduced. Luke’s parents were killed by stormtroopers, eliminating his convenient excuses for not joining the rebellion.

3) It should represent a massive change for the hero, not just a minor interruption. Scrooge couldn’t avoid his ghosts. 

4) It requires action from the hero because it affects him directly and demands that he respond. In The Lion King, Mufasa demands the Simba grow up and face the responsibilities of kingship. Simba is the heir – he cannot escape that destiny.

5) It works with everything else you want to do in the story. The entire story revolves around it, so make it relevant. Don’t begin a fluffy chick-lit piece with the hero discovering she has late-stage cancer or has been abducted by aliens. 

In the next post I’ll delve into the mysteries of The Escalation.

-Sonja
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