Friday, March 8, 2013

Down and Dirty - Where Can I Begin?

Down and Dirty Twelve Step Program - REVISION

Step One : Begin your story in the right place - “the inciting incident”

Writers break into a cold sweat at the very thought that the beginning of their story is not the real beginning at all.  A very good friend of mine sold her first novel only after she lopped off the first three chapters.  She sold it rather quickly after she realized she hadn’t begun the story in the right place and was willing to make the change.  
Screenwriters call the right place the “inciting incident,” and now the term has caught on and is so popular that novelists, short story writers, heck everyone uses it to describe that moment in the beginning of your story when your protagonist is jolted out of their normal routine or “ordinary world.”  In the oft used example, the Wizard of Oz, it’s when the tornado whisks Dorothy out of Kansas (her ordinary world) into the land of Oz which becomes her adventure.  The story of the novel becomes her struggle to get back home to Kansas.  

         In Jaws, the inciting incident is the shark attack, which disrupts the ordinary world of protagonist Martin Brody, who is the police chief of a resort town.  The story of the novel is Brody’s attempts to get the shark and stop the attacks.  

The inciting incident can take many forms.  Eric Borg, Hollywood scriptwriter, in his blog called The Flying Wrestler describes at least 15 variations of inciting incidents that have occurred in Hollywood movies.  

In the Hollywood cult classic Casablanca the inciting incident is when your deepest and darkest secret is made public, wrecking your comfortable existence, and you are forced to face this underlying thing that haunts you.  Remember Rick when Elsa walks back into his life?  

In one of my personal favorites Jerry Maguire, the inciting incident is when the thing that defined you and/or supported you (the key to your identity, your mission, your sense of self, your well being,etc.) is suddenly taken away or threatened.  Remember Jerry (played by Tom Cruise) struggling to win back his clients and finally ending up with only one athlete to represent?

In Pretty Woman or Twilight, the inciting incident is when you meet (or have a first real interaction with) someone who seems like they could be your perfect counterpart, and somehow change your life for the better, but it will be incredibly hard to win them over, or make a relationship work--long term.  Remember Vivian Ward, the warm-hearted prostitute, who ends up falling in love with wealthy businessman Edward Lewis who she meets on Hollywood Boulevard?

Log onto the website to see some other examples of inciting incidents and the movies associated with them:  

In Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife, the inciting incident occurs in the opening scene of the novel.  This is taken from the back cover blurb:  A pilot’s wife is taught to be prepared for the late night knock on the door.  But when Kathryn Lyons receives word that a plane flown by her husband, Jack, has exploded near the coast of Ireland . . .   This is where the protagonist’s ordinary world is shattered. The story of the novel is her attempts to piece together the secret life he led; a life that is slowly revealed.  

Inciting incidents are enticing ways to begin a story because they act as powerful hooks to pull the reader in.  A character is jolted out of his ordinary, hum drum world.  The danger, of course, is that if--as in the example of The Pilot’s Wife--all this undeserved misfortune is heaped on the character too soon, we might not have the opportunity to bond with her.  Shreve’s biggest challenge is to find a way to make the reader like her, care about her, and sympathize with her.  

But we’ll talk more about why that is so critical in Step #2 of Down and Dirty.



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