April 19, 2016

Catalyst on a Hot Tin Roof

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

One of the most intriguing parts of any tale is the inciting incident.  That turning pointwhen the main situation of the plot is set into motionis when we find ourselves committed to the story to see how things are going to play out.

By this point we've usually gotten to know the characters and their normal circumstances.  Just as we've gotten acclimated, along comes the catalyst that turns everything upside down.
Back to the Future: Marty's about to lose track of time
In Back to the Future that moment comes when Marty escapes terrorists by speeding away in Doc Brown's time machine and finds himself transported back to 1955.

In most cases, the inciting incident is something that happens to the hero, not something he or she causes.  Even in The Hunger Games, when Katniss makes the decision to take her sister's place in the deadly contest, it is because she is forced by her own sense of duty to do so.

In a romantic tale, multiple events will come along to complicate things, but it's the moment the lovebirds first lay eyes on each other than can usually be considered the one that turns everything topsy-turvy.

Katniss pays tribute to her sister in The Hunger Games
How soon in the story it should take place will vary, but plotters generally agree that this catalytic converter should occur during the first quarter.  For example, in Back to the Future, it happens at exactly the 1/4 mark, 30 minutes into the two-hour movie.  In The Hunger Games, it occurs only 15 minutes into the 2 1/2 hour flick.

In a different kind of example, the Oscar winner American Beauty centers around Lester's midlife crisis, which is triggered by more than one thing, including a lousy job and a cheating wife.  But the pivotal moment comes when he attends a school event and becomes enamored with his daughter's friend.  Everything prior is setup.  That inciting incident, for the record, takes place 15 minutes into the two-hour film.

Lester's life is about to change, and not for the better
Basically, the inciting incident is the event without which the main story cannot happen.  Doc Brown can invent a time machine, hunger games will take place no matter what, and Lester's unsatisfying life is already underway, but without these other key moments, the main crisis will not be inflicted upon the hero.

The most effective inciting incident will cause the audience to wonder how in the world he/she is gonna prevail over this problem.  At the very least, it will set the stage for bigger crises to increase the dilemma later.

Done right, this turning point will not only ignite the TNT of your story, but will become the no-turning-back moment for your reader too.

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