Part one of two. Maybe three.
Yeah, it’s that worthwhile if you’re serious about story structure. A bit complicated, too. Because it challenges what we thought to be true.
Allow me to contribute to the potential confusion relative to what has been long referred to in the vocabulary of storytelling as the Inciting Incident.
A classic term. Writing 101. And just possibly, outdated.
Not confused? Read on, you might be in a moment. Because what you think you know about the Inciting Incident may not be completely correct. Maybe not even complete.
Let me add, too, that I’ve contributed to this confusion. Both here and in my ebook, Story Structure Demystified, which I’m revising accordingly.
This isn’t something I read about elsewhere. This is something I’ve discovered.
I realized the conventional definition of an Inciting Incident was perhaps deficient while I was wrapping up the final submission draft of my manuscript for my Writers Digest Book project – Story Engineering: Understanding the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, due out February 2011.
Sometimes our work informs us, when all along we thought it was the other way around.
This issue – the purpose, nature and location of an Inciting Incident within a story, and why we will all benefit from a better definition of it – needs closer inspection. Greater clarity. An enthusiastic drill down into the nuances.
Great storytelling is nothing if not dependent on nuance.
I’ve also realized that in going there, this might actually stir up more fog than it settles. So be it. Nobody said this storytelling stuff was easy.
Wrap your head around what I’m about to share and you’ll be a significantly better writer. Promise.
The Present Take on an “Inciting Incident”
So what is an Inciting Incident? The highest ranking search engine answer was this: It’s when the story gets humped up and leads to the climax.
Swear to God.
Wow. Color me under whelmed. That’s like answering the question, “What is puberty?” with: It’s when you grow hair in strange new places and babies happen.
Virtually everywhere in the vast oeuvre of conventional storytelling wisdom the Inciting Incident is considered synonymous with the First Plot Point.
In fact, while screenwriters toss around both terms, novelists hardly ever use the term First Plot Point at all, which is perhaps why so many of us are confused.
A First Plot Point is the partition/break moment between Part (or Act) One and Part/Act Two in a novel or screenplay. The place where set-up yields to a game-changing revelation or action. The place where the hero gets her/his marching orders, where the stakes are plopped right into her/his lap, and where the antagonist surfaces to an extent that we understand what the hero must do and what will oppose them along the way.
The First Plot Point is where the hero’s story – the journey – really begins. Everything prior to that moment, regardless of how huge it is, is part of the set-up of that moment.
All of that still applies to the First Plot Point.
And it applies to the Inciting Incident, too… unless it doesn’t.
Because – get ready to get dizzy – while the Inciting Incident can indeed be (and often is) the First Plot Point, it doesn’t have to be. It can actually happen earlier, somewhere in Part/Act One prior to the optimal 20 to 25th percentile FPP mark.
It can even happen right off the bat. When it does, that’s called a hook. Yes, a hook can be an inciting incident, but it’s never a First Plot Point.
When an inciting incident happens early in a story, even mid-way through the set-up, then you still need to deliver a proper First Plot Point in the target zone of your story, right at the end of Part 1. When this is the case, the FPP is preceded by an inciting incident that is actually part of the set-up for it.
In which case, they are very different milestones, not to be confused
The risk is in allowing your early Inciting Incident to – in your writerly mind – serve as your First Plot Point. Big mistake. Maybe a deal killer.
The good news is you get to keep that early inciting incident scene, and your can make it as big as you want. The other news (not bad) is that you still need to push your story forward later, at the First Plot Point, and in the proper way, and in context to what you’ve put into play with your early Inciting Incident.
Put another way… an Inciting Incident can be part of the Part 1 set-up itself…or it can be the actual Plot Point One itself. Either way works.
Which means the terms Inciting Incident and First Plot Point are not really – or at least, not always – synonymous after all.
They are two powerful storytelling milestones than can be the same thing at the same time… or not.
What’s not flexible is this: when they aren’t the same, the Inciting Incident must precede the First Plot Point. Never the other way around. Because, as stated above, when the Inciting Incident comes earlier in the story it becomes part of the set-up (in Part/Act One) for the forthcoming critical, game-changing, story-launching FPP moment.
Where this gets really sticky is when you realize that the definitions of the two milestones, even when they exist in different places (for example, the early II occurs at the 15th percentile, and the FPP at the 24th percentile), can seem almost identical – something huge happens… a game-changer is thrown into the mix… the hero’s path is suddenly altered or even blown to smithereens… etc.
All of that can be either an Inciting Incident or a First Plot Point.
Here’s the difference.
So why, if an inciting incident (notice how this is not capitalized in this instance, to help make this point) shows up early, isn’t it simply an early FPP? Especially when it does most of the assigned work of a FPP? Who cares if the FPP happens at the 15th percentile, anyhow?
Well, a prospect agent, editor or reader, for starters.
Because when that moment does happen early, even when it knocks the criteria for an FPP (other than sequential location) out of the ballpark, you still need to deliver a proper FPP at the proper location for purposes of optimal pacing and drama.
It’s like telling your 15-year told to move out of the house. It’s too early. Not smart. Not good parenting. Wait until the proper time to allow reality to overwhelm them.
When you do follow up an early Inciting Incident with a properly placed FPP, you’ll be building on the earlier II in such a way that the story is imbued with meaningful stakes and the hero’s journey once again takes on new direction and tension, which weren’t there when the earlier II occurred.
That’s why this is so important.
When the FPP is too early, an empathy-grabbing set-up is the sacrifice. And in fiction, reader empathy is everything.
An example will help illustrate.
If you’ve been on Storyfix for a while, you may recall me discussing the 2004 movie Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. Rent the DVD, it’s a structural and character storytelling clinic, especially on this issue.
Foxx is a humble but ambitious taxi driver in Los Angeles. Our hero, a great guy. Instant empathy. Cruise is the bad guy, an assassin arriving in L.A. to whack five different clients.
After some initial set-up that establishes stakes and reader empathy for our hero, Foxx picks up Cruise as a fare-paying passenger. Delivers him to an “appointment” and is told to wait in the cab for Cruise to return.
Foxx relaxes, munches a sandwich, goes over his business plan for the taxi company he dreams of starting. More sandwich. Family pictures. Dreams at stake. Soft background music. And then…
… a body sails out of a window above and comes crashing down on the roof of the taxi. Followed moments later by Cruise appearing, pointing a gun at Foxx.
Everything changes. What Foxx does in these next moments determines whether he lives or dies.
Sounds like a First Plot Point, doesn’t it.
All of the criteria are in place… except one: placement.
This scene occurs at the 16th percentile. Too early for the FPP. As such, and because there is indeed a proper and legitimate First Plot Point lurking later at the 25th percentile, which also nails the requisite criteria for an FPP, this cab-crashing body moment becomes part of the set-up for the FPP.
Even though – and here it is – it is actually an inciting incident. Because it incites the story.
Call it what you will. Just don’t call it the First Plot Point. Functionally, the body dropping on the car is an inciting incident, pure and simple.
Next — Part Two of this brain scrambler.