Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Inciting incidents and the incidents that incite them

Most writing students learn about the inciting incident--the event that kicks off a story and sets the protagonist on his/her journey. For Cinderella, for example, it's the announcement of the ball that she and her evil step-sisters want to attend (and that will lead her to the prince). But there's usually also a deeper layer to that incident--something that happened in the past, or a larger journey, that lends the inciting incidence (and the story) greater significance and momentum. To go back to Cinderella, this is the moment when she is orphaned and left in the care of her evil step-mother, who refuses to acknowledge Cinderella's noble birth and condemns her to servitude. Her desire to go to the ball, then, stems from her desire to take her place in the world where she belongs. (By the way, this excellent example comes from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.)

It can be surprisingly difficult to "plant" that initial seed, but it's so important to a lot of stories, because it is what will bloom into the larger meaning of the story (if you'll forgive the botanic metaphors). Anyway, I'm re-reading a YA novel that I fell in love with when I was a kid--My Name is Sus5an Smith. The 5 Is Silent by Louise Plummer--and I've been admiring how the book starts off with a moment from the past that's crucial to the front story.

Armadillo snipped from here.
In the novel's front story, Sus5an (pronounced like regular "Susan" because the "5" is silent--a sort of artistic pseudonym) is a high school senior and budding painter in Springville, Utah, who scraps her way towards moving to a big city and becoming a professional fine artist. But her overarching "quest" really starts when she is 8 years old, and her aunt Marianne's husband, Uncle Willy, takes off in his car--never to return. 8-year-old Susan is devastated because Willy is the only person in her family who truly understands her artistic vision, and she feels they share a special bond. In fact, his very last contact with the family is a package sent to Susan for her 9th birthday--a special silver armadillo necklace, because she asked him for an armadillo before he left.

The novel's arc will follow Sus5an as she develops into an independent young adult and artist, but it will also cover her quest to find out who she is and a place where she will finally belong--and it will also include a search for her ex-uncle, Willy. So, instead of opening with Sus5an's departure from Springville high school to Boston, the novel begins with a 4-page scene of the last time she saw Willy. It's such a smart beginning, because it's a simple, specific moment; it's a discrete milestone (the very day that Willy left); and it sets 8-year-old Susan up for the eventual inciting incident (Susan's high school art show and graduation) and the book's larger journey.

It also leaves us with a great metaphor that helps guide the rest of the novel--the idea of flying. At first it's literal flying--Willy swings Susan around in circles by her hands and feet--and then it transitions into more figurative forms of flying. First, Willy--who was an airforce pilot--describes his overseas tours to a wistful Susan who longs to travel to exotic locations, and it's clear that both uncle and niece are dreamers who long for escape. Then, Susan tells Willy that she, too, wants to fly a plane, and presents him with a picture she's drawn of him flying over the mountains. His reaction cements not only their relationship, but Susan's future aspirations:
Snipped from here.
"'...Listen girl,, he said, holding me around the waist. His arms were brown and smooth, his fingers long and nicely shaped: artistic fingers. 'When you do fly over the mountains, make sure you fly in your own plane so no one else can tell you where it is you have to go. Remember that. Fly in your own plane. It's real important.'"
Despite its economy and simplicity, its emotional intensity and the importance of this moment in future Sus5an's life  are more than enough to invest the reader in the remaining 200 or so pages of the book--and Willy becomes a force powerful enough to vie for Prince Charming's role, or at least the Prince Charming Sus5an wishes him to be.

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