by O-Dark-Thirty Senior Editor Jim Mathews
Have you ever started reading a short story (or started writing one) where the prose is flawless and the characters believable but halfway through you realize…you’re just reading flawless prose with believable characters? I mean, don’t we already have that in real life (give or take a flaw)? And isn’t that why people turn to fiction? To get something they can’t get from life? Or from a well-written newspaper article?
Chances are what’s probably missing is a clear “inciting incident,” the precise moment where your protagonist’s routine is interrupted, setting him or her on an upward path of tension and complication, toward that all important climax and, one hopes, a fully satisfying denouement. In other words, a story.
If you consider Freytag’s Pyramid – or “bell curve on acid” as a workshop instructor once termed it – the inciting incident should occur early, at the starting edge of the curve, at a point where the story’s tension separates from the linear and spikes upward on a jagged ascent to the climax. It is the break from the routine, the ordinary. More important, it signals to your readers that they are not going to be reading a character study or even a flawlessly written character study, but a story. They are going to read about a character whose life or immediate circumstances have dramatically changed. Everything that happened before the inciting incident is the “ordinary world” (the world we all share and know and read about in newspapers) while everything that happens after the inciting incident is the fiction we crave to escape from the ordinary world.
One prime benefit of a crystal clear inciting incident is that when you do begin to apply flesh and add background to your characters, even their routine (whether in flashbacks or exposition) take on added heft for the reader.
In my workshop, through reading assignments and critiques, we spend time learning to spot the inciting incident and then ask, is it in the right place? Has the writer waited too long to introduce it? Has the writer given readers a clear picture of what’s different about the protagonist’s today (the extraordinary) compared to his or her yesterday (the ordinary)?
Being the clumsy writer that I am, I usually stumble upon my inciting incident halfway through a story draft – which explains a Rubbermaid container in my den filled with, er, story drafts! Try not to make this mistake. In a short story, the absolute best place for the inciting incident is, in my opinion, the very first sentence or at least the first paragraph; for a novel, your readers should at least get a whiff of it in the first paragraph or by the end of the first chapter.
Here’s a great example of an inciting incident from the T. Coraghessan Boyle’s short story, “King Bee”:
In the mail that morning there were two solicitations for life insurance, a coupon from the local car wash promising “100% Brushless Wash,” four bills, three advertising flyers, and a death threat from his ex-son, Anthony.
What you’ve just read is the story’s first sentence, complete with a clear and compelling (if disturbing) inciting incident. Boyle could have spent several paragraphs describing a day in the life of Ken — Anthony’s father and our intrepid protagonist — perhaps by showing him shuffle down the driveway in bathrobe and slippers, grumbling about his neighbor’s shabby lawn, casting a wave at his wife who is hunched over a patch of petunias in the front garden. We would have read it and enjoyed it, of course, because Boyle’s such an exquisite craftsman. But that would have been time and energy wasted on the ordinary world and Boyle understands we’ve come to him to escape all that. So he immediately delivers the precise moment where Ken’s ordinary world has ended and his new normal begins.
But what about a much longer work? Here’s another Boyle opening (full disclosure–I’m a rabid Boyle fan!) from his novel The Tortilla Curtain:
Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces – the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye – but he wasn’t very successful. This wasn’t a statistic in an actuarial table tucked away in a drawer somewhere, this wasn’t random and impersonal. It had happened to him, Delaney Mossbacher, of 32 Pinon Drive, Arroyo Blanco Estates, a liberal humanist with an unblemished driving record and a freshly waxed Japanese car with personalized plates, and it shook him to the core. Everywhere he turned he saw those red-flecked eyes, the rictus of the mouth, the rotten teeth and the incongruous shock of gray in the heavy black brush of a mustache – they infested his dreams, cut through his waking hours like a window on another reality. He saw his victim in a book of stamps at the post office, reflected in the blameless glass panels of the gently closing twin doors at Jordan’s elementary school, staring up at him from his omelette aux fines herbes at Emilio’s in the shank of the evening.
The whole thing had happened so quickly…
Again, Boyle could have spent more time showing us Delaney’s life, perhaps introduce his wife in a scene or his spoiled kids or insufferably nosey neighbors, but that’s Delaney’s ordinary world and, no matter how well-written, what fun would that be?
Not every inciting incident has to be as intense as a death threat or hit-and- run (unless you’re Boyle, of course!). And there are always exceptions to every rule – especially in fiction. But a clear inciting incident is usually key to a good read – and the start of an extraordinary relationship with your reader.
James Mathews holds a Master of Arts in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and teaches fiction at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He is also a Chief Master Sergeant with twenty-five years of military experience in both the U.S. Air Force and the District of Columbia Air National Guard. He has been deployed overseas numerous times, including two tours to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (in 2003 and 2006). His fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including the Northwest Review, Carolina Quarterly, The Wisconsin Review and The Florida Review. In 2008, the University of North Texas published his collection of military-themed stories, Last Known Position, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. His website is www.jamesmathewsonline.com