Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Dorothy Gale discovers she's not in Kansas anymore
I usually start my stories with an inciting moment, the point in the action that launches the rest of the narrative forward. (In the film version of L. Frank Baum’s novel, for example, the story begins when the protagonist, Dorothy Gale, runs away from home, because, had she not done so, she’d have been with Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and the farmhands in the storm cellar and would have avoided the cyclone that carried her off to her adventures in faraway Oz.)
A story’s inciting moment can be virtually anything. I once had a list of a couple hundred potential inciting moments. A few on this list might have been:
- The protagonist receives a strange package.
- The protagonist makes a spontaneous (and, as it turns out, a poor) decision.
- The protagonist is abducted by strangers.
- The protagonist buys his girlfriend a present different than the one he’d intended to buy for her birthday.
- The protagonist awakens in a strange place, not knowing how he or she got there.
The change doesn’t have to be drastic, although it should be significant. The change may involve in alteration in the protagonist’s aspirations, attitude, beliefs, decisions, emotions, perceptions, reasoning, thoughts, understanding, or values. Whatever type of change occurs, however, it will derive from the experiences that he or she undergoes during the course of the story, and his or her change will constitute a lesson of sorts for him or her. In fact, I often think of the theme of a story as the lesson that the main character learns as a result of his or her experiences.
Looked at backward, so to speak, the story’s theme (the lesson learned, as reflected in the protagonist’s change of behavior) can be the springboard for the narrative’s entire action, a kind of inciting moment in reverse, as it were. In other words, by determining beforehand how the main character will change, a writer can then plot the story’s action in reverse, determining what will make him or her change and what lesson he or she will learn as the result of the experiences that he or she thus undergoes.
Job, in better days
Let’s take the Biblical story of Job (a horror story, if ever there was one) as an example. At the end of the story, Job’s understanding of God increases: Before the story, Job has a simple idea of God as One who rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior; by the conclusion of the narrative, Job learns that God’s will is inscrutable, or unknowable, and that He must be trusted despite human beings’ ignorance of His ultimate character, or, as Job phrases his newfound knowledge (the story’s theme), “The just shall live by faith.”
Job has not learned the lesson that bad things sometime happen to good people and not just to the bad guys. Therefore, he is puzzled when things go from good to bad for him, and his faith (trust) in God is severely tested. By knowing in advance that Job’s understanding of the nature of God is what will change as he learns his lesson (“The just shall live by faith”), the writer would be able to select the incidents of the plot, including those of the exposition (God points out Job’s faithfulness to Satan during an assembly of the heavenly host which the devil also attends); the inciting moment (Satan is allowed to test Job’s faith); the rising action (the increasingly horrific torments that Job must endure during the testing of his faith); the turning point (Job’s refusal both to curse God and to himself accept blame for the catastrophes that befall his fortune, his family, and himself); the falling action (God’s interrogation of Job out of the whirlwind); and the denouement (Job’s confession of both his ignorance of, and his faith in, God and God’s restoration of Job’s fortune, Job’s family, and Job himself).
By plotting backward, so to speak, from the story’s theme and using it as a sort of reverse inciting moment, the narrative’s sequence of action, including the elements of its plot, can be determined in such a way that this sequence of action will result in the protagonist’s change of behavior and the learning of his or her lesson. In addition, this approach allows the writer to connect plot to character much more closely, perhaps, than he or she might have been able to do had his or her story begun not with the final outcome (the theme of the story, which accompanies or leads to the protagonist’s change in behavior), but with a simple change in the routine of the protagonist’s normal, everyday life. Moreover, this approach helps the writer to ensure that everything that happens in the story is related to the character’s development and change and to his or her recognition of a new truth (the lesson that he or she learns).