Thursday, July 23, 2009

Initiating event-- response

I'm teaching a class in Major Scenes, and so I'm thinking about the initiating event, often called the inciting event, which is the early event (often at the end of the first scene, in fact), which forces or encourages the protagonist into the action of the plot. ("Did you hear? Tom Wilson got fired. So there's an opening now in Corporate Communications. Are you going to apply for it?" or "The tornado is coming! Dorothy! Where is Dorothy? We have to go into the storm cellar!")

So what is the character's response? Yeah, we know she has to join in somehow, else there will be no story. But does she JOIN in? Apply for that opening? or does she have to be DRAGGED in? Swept away by that tornado?

And what is her internal response-- dread or excitement?

Well, you know, a lot of it will depend on whether she likes her pre-existing life or not. She will probably dread a change if she likes the status quo, and welcome a change if she hates the status quo.

If you watched Buffy (and everyone should :), you'll remember she had what she considered a great life-- she was 15, pretty, popular, a cheerleader, a good student at a cool LA high school. Then some guy came and told her she'd been Chosen to save the world from vampires, and she didn't like it. It ruined her perfect life. This was something imposed upon her from above, and though she accepts the mission, she never-- and I mean never-- really feels normal again. It's years before she thinks of herself not as "Buffy forced to be the Slayer," but "Buffy the Slayer".
But then there's Harry Potter. Before Hagrid appeared, he did NOT have a perfect life. He was orphaned and being raised by relatives who resented him. He had a cousin who was obnoxious and spoiled. He slept in a closet. No one loved him or thought he was special. Then out of the blue came the message that he WAS special, and he was so special he got to go to this cool school and learn magic. And suddenly he feels like for the first time, he's HIM, he's found himself and his place in the universe. So he's happy with the news that he's got another identity, and enthusiastically plunges into his new life.
So think about that for the first major scene, when life changes for the protagonist in some important way. Is he/she enthusiastic or reluctant? Not that being enthusiastic means there'll never be any conflict! So maybe hint at the conflict to come-- Harry, for example, learns not just that he's a wizard-to-be, but also that the mark on his forehead wasn't a birthmark, but a scar from an infantile fight where he killed Voldemoort. He also learns that V killed his parents. So while he learns who he is and enthusiastically embraces his new life, he also learns of the central conflict that had been hidden from him along with that identity.

A mixed blessing, an opportunity AND crisis, as turning points should be. :)


Jami Gold said...

Hi Alicia,

I tend to break my story down into 3 Acts. My Act 1 goes from the Inciting Incident to Embracing Destiny (still doesn't mean my POV character is happy about it, however). What you're talking about fits exactly in with how I analyze my POV character's attitude in how she embraces her destiny. Of course, I like making my characters' lives hell, so I don't keep things cut and dried. She has to deal with external and internal conflict in her Act 1 journey as she's both forced (external) and makes choices (internal - lots of guilt) that set her on her path.

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

I also go with 3 acts (in a novel), and the first is short-- just setup and getting the characters into the change, past the inciting event.
Most of my action is in Act 2.

Generally, which act is longest for you?

Julie Harrington said...

I think the inciting indicent is often one of the most common underdeveloped aspects of a story. The *why* the character is even involved at all. The event puts everything into so much perspective -- it presents an overall story goal, it introduces a core conflict (emotional and otherwise/external), it shows you what the character has to lose and why they're afraid to go after it and why they're afraid to fail. If there's nothing at risk from the get-go, the story never picks up that sparkle.


Jami Gold said...


Yes, my Act 2 is generally my longest as well. In my current WIP, Act 1 goes from Prologue-Chapter 4. The way I've defined the Black Moment, my Act 2 goes from Chapter 5-15. This Act contains virtually all of the world-building while the stakes keep getting raised as she tries and fails various ways of dealing with the situation. Act 3 goes from 16-21 and follows her depressing slide after the Black Moment to the Final Showdown through the Denouement.

As JewelTones pointed out, Act 1 is the set-up for story goal and consequences/risks. Act 2 and the Black Moment is where I pull the trigger on many of those threats.

Act 2 can be a hard Act to write, pacing-wise, because you have to make sure that you're not just marking time to the Black Moment. The best way I know how to do that is to set the stakes, protagonist tries/fails, raise the stakes, protagonist tries/fails, raise the stakes, repeat... You've got to be ready to make your characters suffer to pull it off. I think of the worst thing that could happen to them - and I make it happen. By the time Act 3 comes around for the Final Showdown, she literally has nothing left to lose. I'm very mean to my characters. :)

Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

Hmmm...? Acts, eh? I was always taught to believe this was a beginning, a middle and an end. (insert shrug) I like the idea of 'acts' better, so I'm keeping it. Thanks Alicia!

Like Alicia, I think my act two in a novel, has more action and I try to purposely make this the longest segment of the story. Why? Well...

Once the inciting incident occurs all kinds of consequences present themselves. This is why I think that act two must serve to propel the story as there’s naturally a lot of action in this segment. Inciting incident leads to a consequence - that leads to another - so that decisions need to made, choices must be weighed, leading to more unexpected consequences - hence, constant movement - right? I also like to add an unexpected twist in this part of the story (to keep it interesting) something bad that can only be resolved through the black moment but because the H/H don’t know about this final crisis YET - they’re totally bummed because things are looking very grim (poor babies) - until the inevitable Hail Mary pass is thrown (so, I guess this would qualify as my character’s blessing in disguise?).

And, hey, Jami? You mean? Did your characters TELL you - you're mean, or are you just assuming that's how they feel about you? ;D

Jami Gold said...


No, my main characters in my WIP are either low-self-esteem or tortured soul types. So they never whine about me being mean. :)

Jami G.

Taymalin said...

I do a three-act structure for my novels as well. The first half constitutes a quarter of the novel, the second is half of the novel, and the third is the last quarter.

In the first act I present the inciting incident--in the first paragraph, more often than not. I also start the subplots and introduce the secondary characters. That act ends with a very nasty surprise for the hero.

Act two is the hardest act to write. Well, it is for me anyway. I'm plotting the second act for my current novel, and it is slow going.

Anonymous said...

Love the stark examples, Alicia. Buffy is the best - and watching on DVD with Joss Whedon's commentary is fascinating and inspiring.

I've found HP is a great example for plants and payoffs too.

I also have three Acts. Although, I've split my second Act into Part 1 and Part 2, so I can structure/pace my midpoint and midpoint crisis better. LOL. This is no doubt what everyone else is doing and calling Act 2, so I admit, I'm a little slower than everyone else and need more boundaries.

Jami Gold said...


Yes, you're right about HP and its penchant for plants and payoffs. I think the abundance of them is one reason for the large web community that analyzed the stories as they came out. She gave readers tons of things to pick out and discuss if/how they were clues to something. I admire her skill with the long-term setup, and I'm trying to do something similar with my trilogy.

Jami G.

Anonymous said...

I love all these comments, I don't feel so alone anymore! ;-)

I'm so happy to see I'm not the only one using the three act structure! I wish I'd known about it when I wrote my first novel, because the three act structure has really made working on my current WIP wonderful.

My inciting event takes place in the first two chapters, then I'm in act two for the majority of my novel. Right now I'm concerned about the climax. My protagonist and antagonist will face off, but I will have at least one chapter, maybe two after the climax.

I don't want to go on too long after the climax because I've read too many novels where I'm going, yeahyeahyeah where's THE END?

So I'm gnawing my nails and worrying myself sick over how far to go.

Thanks for the post, Alicia, and the opportunity to vent! I love reading what all the other writers here are doing with their works.


Jami Gold said...

frohock said:
I will have at least one chapter, maybe two after the climax.

I'm right there with you. My story has several sub-plots and it takes one full chapter to reach their conclusions, and another short "chapter" of what I almost think of as 3 epilogues to wrap things up (which also sets things up for the next book). But even with all that, one of my feedback readers told me that something felt rushed. *sigh* We can't win.

Personally, I hate books that end too abruptly. Some only have a paragraph or two after the resolution of the conflict and IMHO, that's not enough down-time to leave the reader in a "happy place". :) Especially since I'm doing a trilogy, I have to make sure that the reader is satisfied with the ending of this book. Each of them have to be able to stand on their own. So, yes, it's a definite balancing act. If you figure out some magic formula, let me know. :)

Jami G.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jami!

Right now, I'm looking at books that I really love and I'm just re-reading the endings, the last few chapters. I'm trying to put together some magic formula, but so far it's eluded me. I think a lot of it has to do with the way the novel is paced and the writer's voice.

So sometimes, one chapter is enough, sometimes two.

At this point, I'm willing to sacrifice my sub-plot if that will bring the devil home quickly. I can't stand a lingering death. ;-)

I believe that eventually I'm going to have to rely on my "cold readers". When I'm completely finished the manuscript, I've asked three people to read my manuscript from beginning to end as if it were a novel they've purchased. One of the questions I'm going to ask them answer is regarding the climax.

Did the ending come too soon or not fast enough after the climax? I know the writer has a certain latitude before we give the reader their catharsis, but I beginning to think it's a more of a feeling than a technique.

If Alicia or Theresa have any hints, I'd love to hear it!


Patience-please said...

I love this blog!

Jami Gold said...

frohock said:
I beginning to think it's a more of a feeling than a technique.

Yes, I think so too. Which is why I can't imagine cutting my ending at all. Of the three epilogue-type scenes, the one that would be the easiest to cut plot-wise, would leave the reader feeling cheated as it's the main resolution to the story goal. The second one has plot details galore and a huge tie-in to the premise/theme. The last one sets up for the next book and leaves the reader in the happy place. And I can't cut any of my subplots or I wouldn't have a story (the story goal is based more on a subplot than the main plot). I've accepted that I'm stuck, and if it's a problem, that's just too bad. :) Luckily, none of my cold readers have had a problem with it feeling too long. I'm hoping that it's because I do have so much stuff happening in them, that they don't feel that things are dragging out.

Jami G.