Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
In the comments of a recent article on the inciting incident, Making Something Happen in Story, a reader asked about the timing and location of the inciting incident. We had some discussion about the topic, but when he had a related question, I thought we could cover it in more depth with an article of its own.
His comment/question (edited by me)—
Suppose the inciting incident does come at the one quarter mark. This upset will cause the protagonist to clearly state a goal. However, there can be no plot until the protagonist states a goal and takes the first step towards achieving that goal. That would leave the first one quarter of the story plotless, and most people won’t read that far without a plot. Making it hard for me to rectify putting the inciting incident anywhere but the first few pages.
Can it be that my definition of a goal is lacking something? Here it is—The inciting incident turns the protagonist’s world upside down, the protagonist clearly states a goal to return her world to normal. The first step she takes towards achieving her goal starts the plot. Prior to this there is no plot.
I don’t bond to a character until after the inciting incident and after I know the goal. Anything I read before I’m bonded leaves me outside the story looking in, sort of like reading a journal or a newspaper, just a bunch of facts, leaving me no personal involvment in the story. Waiting for one quarter of a story to start enjoying it seems counter productive.
My answer to this, as is typical for me, is pretty long. Let’s look a bit more at plot, character goals and the inciting incident and address this reader’s question. This is definitely a discussion in progress; please check out the other article and the comments there for full details.
I think that the answer to this quandary is going to center on the definition of plot. So what is plot?
There are plenty of definitions for plot and all might be correct without being complete. That is, one definition might suffice for one need, but a different might be necessary for another need.
In general terms, plot is what happens in a story. A plot summary is a couple of lines that relay what happens. At a generic level we might find—
Romance—Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl
Quest—Character in search of something valuable
Rescue—Character sets off to save another character
More specifically, related to a particular story, we might have—
Romance—Tommy meets Sally, his parents fight to keep them apart and despite obstacles, they marry
Quest—Reginald leaves his home in search of the famed Book of Memories
Rescue—Allison Arthur goes after the president’s kidnapped daughter
But plot is also more than generalities. Since plot is what happens in your story, that means all the causally related events. And that means every event, even those that take place before your protagonist relates her goals and commits to an action to try to restore the status quo or her world’s equilibrium. These events may take place before the protagonist is ever seen. So plot actually begins before the protagonist decides to act and before she takes that first step.
Those moments—the revelation of a character’s goal and her commitment to act, that first step toward action—highlight a shift in the story, a turning point, but they aren’t the beginning of the plot. If so, the inciting incident wouldn’t be part of the plot, which obviously isn’t possible. It’s a major element of the plot.
While plot in general is about the protagonist—events that stir her to act and react—not every plot event is directly connected to her. With some events, there are only indirect connections.
Thus some plot events feature the antagonist or secondary characters in a direct way, with them involved hands-on in the action. Or some events may be directed toward the antagonist, not initiated by him, and compel him to act. That action may eventually create problems for the protagonist, but it will be the antagonist’s response to the preceding event that causes the protagonist’s reaction, not the first event itself.
What I’m getting at here is that plot events aren’t solely directed by or toward the protagonist. So the plot can definitely begin before the protagonist becomes involved. Everything changes—intensity, focus, tone and mood, behaviors, and so forth—once the protagonist reveals his goals and begins a course of action, but that’s not the beginning of the plot or the story.
Does this shift in thinking about the definition of plot help?
Every story needs a setup and that typically includes setting details, the establishment of mood, the depiction of the everyday world, the introduction of protagonist or antagonist or victim (not necessarily all three and not necessarily the protagonist). The events that take place during the setup are part of the plot—and they will all come before the protagonist commits to her path.
So while the protagonist’s journey may begin at the moment of commitment and with her first steps toward righting her world, that’s not the beginning of the plot. I actually don’t think that I ever heard plot defined that way, that it doesn’t begin until that moment.
As for bonding, I agree that it’s difficult to become bonded with a character until there’s emotion involved, until something’s at risk, until we have a reason to care. But writers should give readers enough in the early pages to snare their interest before they can bond with the characters. Something’s got to come before that bonding, and that may involve stimulating the readers’ senses, appealing to their minds, raising questions, posing conundrums, introducing the unusual in terms of location or beings, appealing to their fears, shocking or surprising them or promising a thrill or a puzzle or an emotional roller coaster ride. Even tempting readers with a what-if may be sufficient to secure their attention until stronger connections are forged.
Writers should be doing many of these things as a matter of course in the opening pages. These, then, and not character bonding, are the first ways to connect with readers. While bonds will grow between readers and characters, that’s not the only connection between readers and story. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be. There must be other connections such as interest in the theme or setting or the determination to solve the mystery or puzzle.
Ties must be made; they aren’t instant. So readers can’t be instantly bonded to a character any more than real people are instantly in love. Connections have to be built and strengthened. The story’s setup begins this process.
Wanting, needing, to get involved early in story is a common desire, and the inability of readers and viewers to get involved with the story is probably the reason some movies and books aren’t as successful as others. A great character alone isn’t sufficient to make connections between reader (or viewer) and the story. And wild events alone aren’t enough. Readers have to care about the character in order for the events to mean anything and the character has to be involved in attention-worthy events in order for the reader to want to follow the character through the story. Readers, whether they care more about characters or more about plot events, need both.
So where does this leave your question? All story events contribute to plot. (That is, they should. If they don’t, that a problem of its own.) Something must happen early in the story to capture the readers’ attention. Something must happen early to compel the protagonist to action, to try to right a wrong in her world. These two events do not have to be the same event and quite often are not.
Both events occur in the first act. The first, the hook, may simply be an attention-getting device. The second provides the goad for the protagonist. Both are necessary. Both are part of plot. The hook comes before readers have had a chance to develop connections with the protagonist. The second, what is commonly called the inciting incident, likely comes after the writer has used elements of the craft to begin to bind readers to the fictional world and its characters. The protagonist’s response to this second event, this inciting incident, will color the readers’ response to the protagonist, showing the kind of person he is, allowing ties to the character to strengthen.
Does this cover the question? If not, let’s talk more.
If anyone has something to contribute, please join in.