As writers, we’re taught that a story rightfully begins with an inciting incident; an event that changes something for our hero/heroine, throwing them off their traditional path and setting everything in motion. It can be as simple as meeting a cute guy in the bar, the death of a family member, or being transferred to a new job, or more complex, like being transported into a whole new world. Typically, the inciting incident is something that happens to the hero/heroine, rather than something they actively do.
Simply put, before the inciting incident there is equilibrium. Afterwards, the balance has been upset and there is a problem to be solved.
- In our oft-quoted Loretta Chase favorite, Lord of Scoundrels, the inciting incident occurs when Jessica and Dain first meet in the antique shop, upsetting equilibrium for both of them.
- In the classic story, The Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident is when Dorothy finds herself transported from Kansas to a whole new world where she must solve the problem of how to get back home. (Note: Alternatively, some instead consider the inciting incident to be when Dorothy runs off with Toto, causing her to be caught in the tornado. There is no right/wrong answer.)
Once the inciting incident happens the story only moves forward if the impacted characters choose to cooperate. If Jessica and Dain had walked away from their initial meeting in Lord of Scoundrels and never thought of each other or interacted again, there would have been no story. If Dorothy had landed in Oz and said “I’m just going to pretend this is Kansas,” we’d have never had a fascination with ruby red slippers and the Wicked Witch of the West. Fortunately for us, these characters cooperated and the stories were set in motion.
Though characters may try to ignore the inciting incident or resist it in the early part of a story, they will eventually hit a point where they need to answer the call to action and commit to taking the journey (solve the problem) that was initiated by the inciting incident if the story is going to continue.
Recent current events provide a good example of the inciting incident / call to action concept.
- You could say we experienced an inciting incident with our most recent presidential inauguration which, if the news is any indication, has disrupted equilibrium for many.
- For some people the incident did not disrupt their equilibrium at all, so there is no story there.
- Others found the event disruptive but chose to ignore it (“there’s nothing I can do about it”) or decided to wait and see what might happen next. They’re waiting for the event to resolve itself or for a bigger, more disruptive event to occur before they take action. They may or may not wind up with a story.
- Still others have taken up the call to action initiated by the inciting incident. They’re marching and writing letters; protesting and making plans to solve the problem caused by the inciting incident. They’ve set their stories in motion and have committed to the journey.
From a writing perspective, this slice of real-life is a story-telling gold mine. Throwing together characters with different responses to the initiating incident provides the potential for some great conflict. Even if both characters have taken up the call to action, they could be going about it in different ways and/or have different ideas about what the real problems are. Family members on different sides of the issue or, even better, our romantic interests on opposing sides could present some real challenges.
These last few days I’ve been playing around with some new characters tossed in the middle of this very kind of real-life situation. My heroine and hero are on different sides of an issue and both have answered their call to action. I’m not sure about him yet, but she’s a reporter. They met / became involved first and then found out that they were opponents, which has put them in an uncomfortable situation. Complicating matters, they have to figure out how to work together to solve some Big Problem (still cogitating on the details).
If all goes well, you’ll meet these two in a few weeks in my February Short Story post.
For now I’m going to go catch up on the day’s current events (and possibly mine them for story ideas).
So, do you have any stories inspired by real-life events or have you answered a Call to Action recently?