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Plot, Goal, Inciting Incident—A Reader’s Question

June 18, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 18, 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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Does this cover the question? If not, let’s talk more.

If anyone has something to contribute, please join in.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Definitions

24 Responses to “Plot, Goal, Inciting Incident—A Reader’s Question”

  1. Benjamin says:

    Hi Beth

    Your explanation of plot and reader involvement has broadened my writing ability. Thank You much.

    My previous definition of plot was so confining it was hard to get started with a new story. Trying to plunge the reader deep into the story within the first few paragraphs was a chore. LOL

    I appreciate you sharing your expertise with me, and I’m sure there are others who feel the same. Your blog on the subject was articulate, to the point, and immensely helpful.

    Thanks again

    Benjamin

  2. Ian Modjo says:

    Can the inciting incident occur in the prologue,with the intro of the protagonist and the rest of the plot following on from there?
    Your piece has been a great help to me….I’ll be making some changes to my near complete novel as a result. Cheers

  3. Bellakentuky says:

    I agree with everything you said. I would like to add that nowhere is it written that plot must occur in chronological order. So, stating that your inciting incident occurs one-third of the way into the book could be a bit stifling to your creative efforts. Take for example, Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar, You can open that book at chapter one, begin reading, and by the end of the book, you will have a complete plot. Or, you can read the book in the following sequence of chapters, (73-1-2-116-3-84-4-71-5-81-74-6-7-8-93-68-9-104…etc. through 155 chapters) This is Cortazar’s own guide. Hopscotch has a complete plot in a scrambled chronological order. It is as literary masterpiece of this particular technique.

  4. What could possibly make you wait for 1/4 of the book to start the story. Start the ‘incident’ with the first paragraph, then use flashbacks or something similar to fill in the reader. The point is… Get it moving from page one.

  5. Ian, I had to roll your question around for a bit.

    I typically advise that writers can try anything, so an inciting incident in prologue? I’m sure it can be done. A little investigating confirmed that others think so as well. Yet . . .

    Would you want to put the inciting incident in a prologue? It wouldn’t be an event that took place years earlier, so it wouldn’t work in prologues that give us info from the past. And it wouldn’t be an event that happens far into the future, so prologues that give us a peek into the distant future wouldn’t have a inciting incident.

    Even a prologue that teases at events to follow in the story, perhaps a word-for-word report of a scene to come, wouldn’t include the inciting incident. (This style of prologue shows a scene in the story, and then chapter one begins before that point and the story plays out until the prologue scene is reached and the story continues from there.)

    So then, the inciting incident wouldn’t fit into some styles of prologue.

    It could work in a prologue that shows events that happen in a distant country or another world, maybe in a setting different from where the rest of the story takes place. But that kind of event could just as easily be chapter one rather than a prologue.

    So could you put the inciting incident in the prologue? You could. If you mean the event that gets the protagonist involved and committed to act. But you still need to capture the reader’s attention in chapter one, still need to do everything you’d normally do to set up a story and get it moving. If your prologue is other in some way, which is true of most prologues, you are starting the story twice. And so the early pages of chapter one still need an incident to get the story moving. So why put the inciting incident in the prologue rather than in a chapter?

    Why put the event that jump starts the main character’s responses into a prologue? Keep in mind that some readers don’t read the prologue. What if they miss this event? You can’t be blamed for readers not reading, of course. But you do need to be aware that some skip prologues.

    And do you plan to include your main character’s response to this incident in the prologue as well? Not that you’d have to. But how much story time and page space will separate the response from the incident?

    Why couldn’t your prologue, with inciting incident, simply be chapter one?

    Now, if you’re using as your incident something such as an event in a political thriller that takes place halfway around the world, that event could definitely be reported in the prologue (comments in the article that prompted this one cover this kind of event). But you’ll still need some additional event that draws the main character into a response; such an event alone wouldn’t be sufficient. You’d need something that pushes your main character into action—he discovers his brother was on an oil platform that was bombed (the bombing is the incident shown in the prologue); his superiors reveal that the child of the president or the prime minister is being held by fanatics who plan to blow up some major cultural site, maybe use the child to do it (the takeover of the site is the incident related in the prologue); the main character’s best friend and former partner is revealed to be the master thief known as The Invisible Man (the prologue showed the most recent heist).

    These examples show that while an incident does take place, something that could well play out in the prologue, the story would still need a goad for the main character in order for him to act.

    Just some thoughts, some options to consider. I’d certainly like to hear what others say about this.

    Great question, Ian. I’m not sure how much this answer will help you.

    • Ian Modjo says:

      On first reading, your comprehensive answer is more than I would have hoped for and a great help, Beth. I plan to study your points further and wait to see what others may say on the subject. I already feel sure I can actually use the inciting incident in the prologue as it does in fact occur in a faraway place and this will easily set the scene for the protagonist’s reactions to the event and all its associated repercussions and consequences throughout the following chapters…happy writing all.

  6. Bellakentuky, I’ve not read Hopscotch. It sounds like a well-constructed and clever puzzle.

  7. Gerry, the story does indeed need to begin early in a novel—it’s not the story or the plot that begins at the quarter mark. That’s simply the general moment when the main character steps into action, commits himself to a course of action, typically against his better judgment. But the incident that gets him moving happens before that point. And it happens early enough in act one for him to fight against getting involved. It happens early enough for other characters to try to sway him either toward or away from the action he’s contemplating. It happens early enough that he might try some half-hearted response, hoping that it, rather than the response he knows the situation is going to require, works.

    But while an event has to take place in the first few pages, that event, as I’ve explained in these two articles, isn’t necessarily the one that lights a fire under the main character. This second event, the fire-lighting one, does take place in act one. But it doesn’t have to happen on page one. Many stories need more than a line or two of setup before that event takes place. But some event or events do have to occur. The story does have to begin.

    Yet what happens when the main character decides to act and then steps into action—whatever action means for the particular story and genre—sets the story on a new course. In the hero’s journey, this is the stage when the hero has answered the call to adventure and crosses the first threshold.

    A lot can and does happen in the opening pages of a novel before the main character commits to a course of action and takes his first steps to remedy the problem and return his world to what it should be. The story isn’t on hold, waiting for him to act. But once he does act, the story moves in a new direction.

    Just a bit more explanation concerning inciting incident and its place in a novel.

  8. William says:

    Hello Beth:
    I loved this piece. I found it interesting, detailed, and educational. You’ve addressed issues I’m having with one of my current projects (issues that have, quite frankly, been making my brain hurt). I’m presently composing the first in a multipart story.

    Sadly, the first book lacks the type of structure you’ve outlined. I am telling two stories with two protagonists that are chronologically running parallel to each other in two locals. Since both protagonists are essentially pawns of the same antagonist, neither is ever spurred to action. Instead, my desire is for the first book to end with the events that spur both protagonists to action in the subsequent book.

    So… my question would be, given such a lack of structure, might I need to rethink my concept?

    Again, thank you for providing such a wonderfully detail article.

    • Bellakentuky says:

      William- I am interested to see what Beth says. My response is a resounding YES! You need to rethink your plot structure. I just did an analysis of a book for an author. A book which was to be the first of three in a series. It was a terrible read. The author introduced all these characters and situations in book one and left them dangling with no resolve at the end. When, I told him this. He said, “Well, it’s all going to be resolved in book two.” I told him, “Nobody, (with the exception of his family and friends) was going to get to book two if he left it like that. As an example, I pointed out Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series. There you have seven books, all tied together by story, and yet a reader could pick up any one of the seven, read it without knowing the others existed, and come away satisfied. That’s because each book has a complete plot (story arc).

      • William says:

        Thank you, Kent. I’ve probably been agonizing over this because, in the back of my mind, I’ve known restructuring the story of the first book would be the eventual outcome.

        I also may have been misleading by omitting the detail that while the primary plot of the series is left unresolved by books end, each protagonist lives within an important plot in their own story. These two subplots are blocks on which aspects of the larger story are built and are resolved by the conclusion of each arc. As well, because they exist, chronologically in parallel, I am torn between telling them in alternating chapters or telling one in total, then the other, and concluding the book with a segment that draws all of the plays to the same location.

        Oh well, I guess life would be boring without challenges. I’ll ponder your suggestion and keep an eye out for Beth’s response, as well. The project has given me enough difficulty that I’ve put it aside to work on the sequel to my first book. As such, I have time to consider new directions.

  9. William, if I’m understanding what you said, I’m in agreement with Bellakentuky that you do need to rethink your structure.

    It sounds as if your first book of a two-part series is all setup and maybe back story. But where are the elements that make it story? Where are the parts that will make a reader want to read it?

    There are several issues here, some that connect and others that don’t, so let’s see if we’re reading this right and if I can’t spark some ideas for options that might work for what you want to do. Set me straight if I’ve got any of this wrong.

    You’re telling two different but related stories. And yet rather than one protagonist featuring in both stories, your antagonist is the recurring character. So far, that should work. You could simply write two books, with each protagonist dealing with the antagonist in the traditional manner. Yet you also say the events in the lives of the two protagonists run parallel, which I’m assuming means at the same time. So your antagonist is messing with both of the other characters, independent of one another, but generally at the same time.

    Does this mean you couldn’t have two separate books that cover almost the same time period? Not necessarily. You could even build interest for book two into book one by mentioning, ever so briefly, the antagonist’s dealings with the protagonist of book two. (You wouldn’t even have to mention the protagonist of book two by name, just show the antagonist interrupted in his dealings with protagonist One. Only in book two do you need to show who caused the interruption and what that interruption meant.) It might be unusual for the second book to revisit the same time period as that covered in book one, but it wouldn’t be impossible.

    A second option—

    I don’t know if or why the events in the lives of both protagonists have to occur at the same time, but a simple fix would be to change your timeline. Have the events of book one take place before the events of book two. Allow the protagonist of book one to be bested by the antagonist. If you want the two protagonists to then work together to bring down the antagonist, bring protagonist One into the second book and have the two work to defeat the antagonist.

    Or, in a variation, have your antagonist defeat both protagonists in their own books and then bring the two of them together in book three to challenge and defeat the antagonist. Maybe it takes the two working together to win.

    I get the impression that you want to keep the stories separate, not simply combine them in one book, not alternating chapters with the story of one protagonist and then the other. But this, alternating chapters, is a valid option. This way, at the end, you could have them join forces against your antagonist. And this could happen all in the same book.

    If you pursued this option, however, it’s likely that one of the characters would give up his position as protagonist. There’s a lot of discussion about whether it’s possible to have dual protagonists of equal measure in the same book (or film), so we won’t get into that here. But it’s likely that if you want to fully develop both characters as protagonists (not simply as main characters), they should probably get their own books. So we’re back to multiple books. And the question about the timing of story events of each book needs to be answered. Do you write the books as if the events happen at the same time, do you stagger the events, so that only some overlap in terms of timing, or do all the events of the second book take place after the events of book one? Maybe the climax of book one sets the opening of book two into motion—that’s an option.
    ————
    Next, what about this sentence—Since both protagonists are essentially pawns of the same antagonist, neither is ever spurred to action. What does this mean? Your protagonists should be acting and reacting a lot. They should be causing others to respond as well. That’s what makes your story move forward. If the protagonist isn’t goaded into responses, you have no story.

    Plot is the series of connected events that lead from one to the next to the next until they result in a climax or showdown. Readers need to be able to anticipate what might happen to characters, they have to fear what could happen or be upset when the expected doesn’t happen or cheer or cry when the unexpected happens. If characters don’t react to story events, are not spurred to act, then you have something other than story.

    I could go on and on, but maybe you can fill in the blanks and tell us what you do have in the manuscript for the first book. There may be other options you could consider, but if what I’ve mentioned here seems to fit what you’ve got, see if any of these comments can help frame the stories in a way that will work for both characters and readers.

    • Bellakentuky says:

      Great information, Beth!!

    • William says:

      Thank you Beth. Your comments have given me a great deal of help. I’m not stuck keeping the two stories in the same book but I feel more explanation may be in order. I neglected to provide more, previously, not because I wanted to hide elements but because I always worry I’m just being long-winded.

      Time travel is an important part of the story, with the two protagonists being mother and daughter having been separated when the daughter was an infant. The separation occurs (in real time) at the climax of the book. However, the daughter is raised to her early teens on another world in a time prior to the story’s opening.

      The events in both stories take place over a period of ten years. In the daughter’s story, she believes herself an orphan, having lived unto this point, in the ghetto where other purge refugees have gathered following the fall of a matriarchal society. The world where she lives is also home to the matriarchal Empress in hiding following the collapse of her dynasty. The primary plot of the story is her relationship with the Empress’ grandchild, a girl of the same age. The secondary plot involves repeated attempts to uncover the Empress’ existence and subsequently her assassination. During the years of the story the child protagonist eventually enters the military academy and by the conclusion, she returns to her home world to commit the genocide of her own people.

      The mother’s story involves the colonization of her home world. She eventually meets and marries an officer in the military of the colonizing empire. Over time, strife builds between the two cultures as a result of the woman who leads the expeditionary force that initially located the world. That woman is the elder sister of the granddaughter in the child protagonist’s story. Her efforts are fueled by the belief she had uncovered the race of witches mentioned in ancient writings of her fallen matriarchal society. The primary plot of the mother’s story is, however, her relationship with her husband. At the story’s onset, she was told she would meet him, who he was, and the names of their children. This information is given her by the husband’s mother, a woman traveling time who lived on their world for several decades and departs before the arrival of the colonizing force.

      Both stories converge with the genocide of the colonized world, however, each story lives independent of the other until the ending. With these things in mind, it may be best to create each story as a separate book with a common ending.

  10. William, that’s definitely a complex story, made more so by the time-travel element. If you did put everything into one book, working through the intricacies would take time, but I’m sure it could be done. Yet separate books works too.

    Do you have Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress? In one chapter (The Middle: Staying on Track), she has a section explaining four structural designs for novels. (You can find this info and much more about story structures online, but if you’ve got the book, why not pull it out for a quick reference?) In her explanation of parallel running scenes, she mentions Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which sounds much like your setup. Of course you have two protagonists and The Dispossessed has only one, but stories unfolding in two different times, yet as parallel stories, can work.

    What’s important for you, regarding your original comment, is making sure that each book is a complete story. And that means conflict, action and reaction, stimulus and response. It means a satisfying ending to the story you begin. It doesn’t have to mean the defeat of the antagonist.

    Who knows, if you end up with multiple books rather than one, perhaps you’ll find that the antagonist for the second is not the same antagonist as in the first. It could be the same person, but if you find that it isn’t, that another character would work better as a challenger to your second protagonist, don’t worry about changing your mind. You could always bring back the first antagonist in a third book.

    What might be a worthwhile option is to write the stories as separate stand-alone books and then, if you still want to join them, combine them into one narrative once you’ve finished both. That way you can be sure that each is complete on its own. You might have to work at creating extra connections if you put them together this way, but as you write, you could also make notes—this is where, in the other story, XXX does YYY to ZZZ or this action causes the XXX, which brings about YYY in the other story.

    If combining doesn’t work, you still have the independent stories that you know do work.

    I hope you’ll keep us updated on what you try, maybe what works and what doesn’t. Here’s to your success.

    • William says:

      Once again, thank you Beth. I do not currently own Ms Kress’ book but, providing it is still in press, I will acquire it before week’s end.

      I have been writing each story, as you’ve suggested, as if they would stand on their own. Structurally, I’ve worked to insure each contains the elements that would to be told without being dependent upon one another.

      Once I’ve completed my current project, I will dive back into this one. Your comments and suggestions have served to reinvigorate me and I believe my fears have been belayed to the point where I can, again, enjoy crafting the story.

      I thank you, one last time, for you time and effort in these comments.

      Be well,
      William

  11. Jack Durish says:

    Several decades ago I took a class in scriptwriting at a school in Hollywood. The teacher was an experienced scriptwriter with several fine TV and film credits. Although I never intended to write scripts beyond a couple of documentaries and advertising spots, it was interesting to learn the difference between scripts and narrative fiction. Scripts are necessarily tighter. The instructor offered this little homily for our benefit: “When conflict lags, interest sags”.

    As I said, I don’t write scripts, but the class had a profound effect on my writing. I establish a goal in the first paragraph and conflict within the first page. Although I have yet to be “discovered”, I suspect that my readers will eventually come to appreciate this style.

  12. Jack, we do need to capture the reader’s interest early. And conflict certainly does that. I love that there are so many ways we can introduce and manipulate conflict—change the intensity of it, change the focus, use different characters, create it between friends. We can make it simmer, causing a palpable rumble to run under all character interactions, or we can make it blast, shooting it out into the open.

    As you noted, without conflict, there’s no reason for readers to pay attention. Conflict is a great snare.

    Thanks for joining the discussion. Here’s hoping that you will be discovered.

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