Monday, October 6, 2014

Let Me Incite You

There's a lot of talk in the "writing world" [I'm not exactly sure what the "writing world" is, which is why it's the "writing world" and not the writing world. I think it must be like, to some extent, the "wizarding world" (which probably doesn't need the quotation marks (or maybe it does)) but, then, I wonder if there is a special school for people in the "writing world," a Penwarts or something, and, if there is, why wasn't I invited?] about starting in "the middle of the action" (this feels like it's going to be a quotation mark-heavy post) and how important it is to hooking your reader. However, I'm not quite sure that people understand what it means to "start in the middle of the action."

See, the problem there is the word "action." We all have this Idea of what Action is, and it involves car chases and shootouts and smashing and crashing and all of that just like at the beginning of the movie The Goonies, which is rather brilliant, actually, in putting all of that in there and making it mean something without actually skipping... oh, wait, I think I'm jumping ahead. At any rate, what people think when they read that about "starting in the middle of the action" is "starting in the middle of the Action," and that's not what that means.

For those of you that don't know, I've been teaching creative writing for a few years at my kids' (well, now, "kid's," since there's only one left at the school) middle school. One of the things that I have to talk about every year -- and not just every year but multiple times every year -- is where the kids should begin their stories, how it starts. About half of the short stories I get start with the protagonist (almost always a middle schooler) waking up, getting dressed, brushing her teeth (the teeth brushing is always included, which is good, you know, because I'd say that probably means the authors are brushing their teeth, too, but I do, also, find it curious), eating breakfast, and going off to school. I equate this with standing in line, a long one, for a roller coaster at an amusement park. Lines are boring and pretty much the same no matter where you're standing in it, at an amusement park or at the bank or in a grocery store. And most everyone does the same kinds of things when they get up in the morning, and we don't want to read about it.

The thing is, the line is not part of the roller coaster. It is not "the action."
The action starts somewhere around the curve going up. How much before is, yes, subjective and probably depends upon the kind of story it is, but I'd say it's the part of the line where you're actually on the ride itself or, maybe, when you're in the little herding areas being sent along to the meat processing... oh, wait! Roller coaster... right! ...being sent along to the specific part of the ride where you're going to sit or to the specific car (or boat or whatever) that you're going to be in.
That part of the story is called the "exposition," and you can see it circled in the above drawing.  "The action" of the story starts with the exposition, not somewhere up the line of rising action. If you have to skip the exposition because you think it's too boring to draw in readers, then you need to strengthen your exposition, not find some sequence of Action to start in the middle of and, then, flashback to the exposition so that it makes sense.

Those of you who pay a little more attention may have noticed a red line through the action in the middle of the exposition: That line is called the "inciting incident."
The inciting incident is the moment in the story where the protagonist's life is sent off in a different direction. We also call this the "point of change." The exposition should be centered around this event, thus you are starting in the middle of the action, not somewhere back in the boring, mundane stuff that makes up everyone's life. Like getting up every morning and getting ready for school or work.

I most frequently use Star Wars (specifically A New Hope) to illustrate this (because it is the most common denominator among the students. Always. Even more than Harry Potter). The action starts with Luke buying the droids, his inciting incident, the point where his life changed (and, yes, I know that's not where the movie starts. That stuff up in space with Leia and the droids is prologue). That moment, the purchase of the droids, is not Action. It is, however, in the middle of the action.

Another curious thing about my middle schoolers: The most common inciting incident is the protagonist receiving a mysterious note or book.

The point is that "starting in the middle of the action" does not mean, necessarily, starting with something exciting, starting with Action. It just means finding that point in which your protagonist's life changes, where it veers off course. That can be a very boring thing, in all actuality. Like buying a pair of droids or finding a mysterious note or a birthday party. Not everything has to be explosions and gun fights.

All of which leads me to what had me thinking about "inciting incidents" in the first place, other than that's what we're working on in class, right now. The thought was something like, "If someone was making a biopic of your life, what would your inciting incident be?" I mean, there's no need to cover anyone's whole life in one story, right, so, if you were looking for the most significant moment, the moment of change, what would it be? Sure, that can be a lot of different things depending on the story you want to tell, but, let's say, it's about, for me, being a writer. That inciting incident is not one of Action. It was just a quiet moment where I read something (I talked about it way back here if you want to read about it), but it changed me.

Anyway... That was just a stray thought that prompted all of this, but I do think it's important to not skip the exposition and to know what your inciting incident is. If you're a writer, that is. Or if you're not, depending upon how you want to take this. Maybe you've never had an inciting incident in your life and you need one? Sometimes, all it takes is a decision.


  1. Guess that depends on what part of my life I wanted to focus on. There could be many incidents.
    At least you know your kids are brushing their teeth.

  2. I don't like stories or films which start "in the middle".

    Teeth cleaning is important. Bet you could write a novel about it.

  3. But what if teeth brushing IS the inciting incident?

    "Max Carter's life would forever be changed with that final brush stroke..."

  4. This is a good one. Haven't written much fiction in awhile, but this is a good lesson. "And her life was changed forever when the toothbrush changed into a golden wand..." Yeah, needs some work.

  5. Somebody's sure into parentheses and quotation marks today.

    Maybe with you there, the kids will learn how to start after the roller coaster line. Now you just need to get them to stop finding mysterious notes.

  6. Alex: Exactly. You pick the incident for the arc you want rather than just start at birth for all of them.

    Jo: But would I want to?

    ABftS: You know, I did mention that to my students before. Seriously, I did. I said something like, "I don't need to hear about the teeth brushing unless the toothbrush is an alien or something."

    Jean: Hmm... a wand or an alien? Tough choice.

    Jeanne: Well, I did warn you.
    At least about the quotation marks.

    Maybe I should start leaving actual mysterious notes for them to find and see what they do with that. heh

  7. Maybe reading this post is my inciting incident.

  8. This was very very seriously helpful.

  9. Rusty: As long as it's inciting you to something good.

    Briane: Well, awesome, then.

  10. This is a point that seems to be lost on many writers. I've lost count of how many stories I've critiqued that start in the middle of a chase, a fight or gunfire. You've done a great job of clarifying "action". I will be referring them to your post from now on.

  11. Jean: Hey! Cool!
    The worst part about all of this is that it trains the reader to expect things that make for weaker stories, so more people do it, etc.