f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 of Stakes and Conflict - The Inciting Incident vs. What’s at Stake

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Day 1 of Stakes and Conflict - The Inciting Incident vs. What’s at Stake

For the remainder of the week, I’m going to talk about books at the 1 end of the yesterday’s scale. For lack of a better term, they’re most commonly referred to as “character-driven stories.” Usually, these are the books whose plots can’t be neatly summarized. The reason why, depending on your druthers, is either because there’s “no plot” or “it’s all plot.”

Our discussion is spurred by a comment made by Becky in HaloScan from yesterday referring to particular stories in a recent short story contest. From what I can gather there were a lot of stories in which someone reacting to a parent dying was the story. There were so many of these that people started crying “cliché.” Becky’s query was how one could find high stakes—which dying parents seem to be--without falling into repetition.

It’s the most important question any author can ask. I’ll say it again. This is foremost importance. And there are no easy answers. But we’ll try to gain some ground.

I am the author of a dead parent story. It was called “The Art of Packing Boxes” and was written in 1993, I believe. It was about a chef whose estranged father had died, leaving him with a mound of boxed belongings to sort. (Original, huh?) At the same time, his daughter is packing for college. In the course of sorting all of these belongings, my main character is faced with the understanding that his life, as well, is neatly boxed. He has segmented family from work from this past that had included this missing father. And he feels like three separate people. And he has to decide if he’s going break down those walls and share his life with those closest to them or keep himself packed into neat and orderly containers.

The first thing to realize is that “dead parents” aren’t what’s at stake. Dead parents are, at best, an inciting incident.

Think of this in terms of chemistry. You have an inert solid that you want to do something: explode, fizz, turn color. To make this happens you need to add something else, something powerful enough to enact that change. That’s the inciting incident.

A parent dying—anybody dying—is an inciting incident. A wife’s death incites a man to teach his dog to speak English in Dogs of Babel. The death of dog incites a young boy to take a quest in Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime. A woman’s disappearance, and subsequent death, incites a pastor to question her faith in Passion of Reverend Nash. Lisa Samson uses death as an inciting incident in The Living End. Dubus’s "A Father’s Tale" is sparked by a hit-and-run accident. It’s not a cliché, though. Because you can’t talk about mortality without death in the picture. You need the memento mori. But you need it to be meaningful and powerful, too.

But to restate: these things aren’t what’s at stake. They’re the inciting incidents. (Tomorrow we’ll get to what’s at stake.)

Some other common inciting incidents:

Disease/Illness. See Lying Awake. Godric.

A new face arriving in one’s life. See The Risk Pool. Some Wildflower in My Heart. A Prayer for Owen Meany. The Food of Love. Most love stories.

An old face returning. See Nobody’s Fool.

A new opportunity. A failure. A tragedy. A miracle. A mistake. A discovery.

None of things can be the point of the story. But they can fuel the story. They can be the spark that ignites the story and helps push it forward.

A final point: these things we’re talking about, they are not unique to “character-driven fiction.” If you break down almost any novel, there’s an inciting incident.

Girl Who Loves Tom Gordon – ignited by a girl getting lost

The Firm – ignited by a seemingly-perfect new job opportunity

High Fidelity – ignited by a break-up

It’s not terribly hard to come up with the inciting incidents. You must simply be sure they’re powerful to bring forth the forward motion you want. It’s the “stakes” that are both devilishly hard and terribly important. And those stakes are what separate character-driven books from plot-driven books. We’ll get to them tomorrow.
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Continue to Day 2 of Stakes and Conflict