Monday, I gave a short overview of storytelling using the example of Lego bricks in a bucket. If you missed that, you might want to go back and check it out.
Yesterday, I began my overview of plotting. I’m going to jump right into part two here, so if you haven’t read yesterday’s post, take a minute to do so before coming back, as I’ll be picking up right where I left off.
Rather, I’ll be picking up where the story starts, with thoughts on how to open the story.
With a careful working of push/pull scene building, the simplified three-point plot structure of RISING ACTION, CLIMAX, and RESOLUTION creates a general blueprint for telling your story that nearly all great storytellers throughout the last hundred and fifty years have relied on.
One thing this general blueprint doesn’t show you is how to begin your story.
In writing circles, the event that kicks off your rising action is known as the INCITING INCIDENT. Think of this as the Pearl Harbor moment of your story. Something happens which disrupts the day-to-day lives of your characters. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a surprise enemy attack, but it does need to be as important in the lives of your characters.
For example, my current WIP begins when the main character learns that his father has died. This forces my character to return home to the rural community he left years ago and the brothers he abandoned when he made the decision to pursue a different kind of life in New York.
There are many different ways to approach INCITING INCIDENT. Some examples include:
- A car crash.
- A stranger moves to town.
- Loss of a job.
- Landing a job.
- Decision to pursue a dream.
- Decision to abandon a dream.
- Falling in love.
- Falling out of love.
- A wedding.
- A divorce.
- A birth.
- A death.
- A huge failure.
- An unexpected success.
The only thing your inciting incident must do is leave the future uncertain for your characters. The events don’t even have to be important to your reader, as long as they create enough disruption to provoke uncertainty in the reader’s mind.
Many writers chose to put the inciting incident at the beginning of their story. However, it doesn’t have to be. Some writers begin their story with exposition, showing the day-to-day life of their characters, or demonstrating some other aspect of their characters’ lives.
Take, for example, the film RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The movie begins with the hero, Indiana Jones, searching for a fertility idol in a Chachapoyan tomb. For the first fifteen minutes of the movie, we follow Indiana Jones through a booby-trapped temple, watch him narrowly escape death time and again, see him betrayed by his sidekick and ultimately defeated by a rival adventurer, and watch him narrowly escape to fight another day. Almost nothing in this opening sequence, save for the rival who appears later on, has anything to do with the main plot. The inciting incident occurs nearly twenty-minutes into the film, when government agents request that Jones recover the Biblical Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s archeologists do.
In book terms, this puts the inciting incident nearly one sixth of the way into the story. 20k words in for a 120k book. And it works, if only because this introduction was itself a story, tied in with the larger story by the introduction of the main rival.
Contrast this with the way Shirley Jackson’s inciting incident unfolds in THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. Jackson begins with a bit of exposition introducing us to the haunted house, and then the inciting incident comes a few pages later when the main character, Elanor, steals her late mother’s car from her sister to travel to the house. Almost from the very beginning, we’re faced with the inciting incident and thrown into the rising action of the story.
Jackson didn’t begin the story on page one with the inciting incident, in part, because the exposition of the first few pages creates an appropriate sense of dread in the reader’s mind that heightens the tension when Elanor sets out on her journey.
EXPOSITION is the art of telling the reader important information, or showing that information through story events that have little or nothing to do with the main plot. Some suggest that all stories begin with exposition, while others suggest that the inciting incident begin on the very first page. Because storytelling is an art and not a science, it is best left up to the author to determine how best to begin the story.
Exposition occurs throughout the story. Anytime the writer gives the reader information that isn’t available on the surface of story events, it’s called EXPOSITION. If you notice, in the scene about Billy I gave as an example yesterday, there was a bit of exposition about how Billy had worked a second job to buy the TV. As far as ham-fisted blog examples go, it was meant to assign value to the object, to show that Billy couldn’t just go out and buy a new TV with the money in his wallet. In essence, it revealed what that broken TV actually meant to Billy.
Think of exposition as salt. Just enough seasons food and makes it taste better. Too much ruins it.
The biggest mistake beginning writers make is starting their story too soon, using too much exposition. They may have three or four chapters involving their main character, showing that character doing routine day-to-day things that the reader finds boring, or catching the reader up with all the major events in the character’s life. Then inciting incident comes in chapter five. Often I’ve heard the advice given, that the first four chapters should be dropped and the story start on chapter five.
Should it? Maybe, but not always. Maybe not even most of the time. Remember, we’re building our story with Lego blocks. And in order to build with Lego blocks, we need some idea of what the finished product should look like.
Take Billy, for example. Is his story about his friendship with Tommy? Or is it a story about landing the girl of his dreams? If it’s a story about the friendship with Tommy, then the beginning could be when they move in together or any significant point thereafter. Say, the first time Tommy and his brother break something with their basketball. Or the first time Billy meets Tommy’s brother. Or, it could simply be Billy coming home from class and hanging out with Tommy.
If, however, the story is about Billy landing his dream girl, it would make more sense to involve her in the opening. Maybe the first time they meet. Maybe he’s staring at her in class one day, doesn’t even know her name. Maybe he walks into the women’s bathroom by mistake and gets confused when he can’t find the urinal, she comes out of a stall and thinks he’s a creep. Or maybe she finds it funny.
The point is, your opening is the first impression of your story. It needs to somehow relate to the theme of the story. Openings should provide an image that sticks with the reader long enough to propel them into the rising action. It should give them a glimmer of the finished product, to create in the reader’s mind the promise of what the ending will be like. In a sense, the opening should work with the ending to bookend the story.
If you look at a story as a slice of life, a microcosm of events that radically alter the character’s life, then it only makes sense that we as readers should get a feel for what changes are about to happen from the opening imagery.
Of course, it never hurts to start right out in the middle of a Pearl Harbor attack either.
Tomorrow, I’ll finish my discussion of plotting with a look at how to tie everything together.