Friday, April 29, 2011

"Building Better Plots" by Robert Kernen, part 14

“How long the [inciting] incident lasts is just as important as when it occurs.”  This too is something I’ve seen in a few stories on Critique Circle.  The writer wants to be subtle about their Inciting Incident, and stretches it out over three or four scenes.  Well, being too subtle for my own good is something I was guilty of myself, and maybe still am.  I will say that for the Inciting Incident for my Work In Progress, “Street Glass”, I’ve always known it’d be something obvious.  Originally it was the scene between Sandy and Neal where Neal holds a knife against Sandy’s throat but Sandy doesn’t wimp out.  Instead, he offers to help.  Surprised that somebody takes him seriously, Neal thinks about the offer.

Critting and being critted made me realize that I need to show a bit of how Neal got to the point of being able to accept help.  Neal handcuffs Sandy, takes his wallet, and scares the crap out of him by pressing a blade against his throat and demanding that Sandy beg for his life.  Then Neal hauls him to his gang’s hangout where the gang’s shot caller (leader) terrifies him again.  After exchanging words, Neal again threatens to slit Sandy’s throat.  Why would somebody like that care about hearing “I want to help you”?  He seems pretty happy robbing and threatening people.

While I’m at it, I also need to show why Sandy wants to help somebody like that, but that’s a separate issue.

That’s why I have to show Neal’s personality and mindset before that all happens.  I might do that by adding a scene with him and Trist, who is Coyote’s (the shot caller) girlfriend.  Neal’s got a love/hate relationship with her, and a short (page or less) scene with her would show Neal’s humanity.  Then, when Coyote pounds him, readers will feel the unfairness of the beat-down.  They’ll understand that Neal feels completely helpless when he meets Sandy, and that’s why he behaves so brutally.

But that’s not the Inciting Incident, that’s set-up.  Geez, do you guys ever feel overwhelmed by categories and descriptions and labels?  I do sometimes, but kept to a reasonable level, they are helpful.  If I can pull it off properly, by the time Sandy offers to help Neal, readers will wonder if he’ll accept or if he’s given up on his life.  Then, when he accepts, readers should realize there’s a long road ahead.

And again, this should all happen pretty quick.  I’m thinking that by the end of chapter two, Sandy should be in the gang’s hangout, and he should already have had one conversation with Neal.  I’ve got a lot to get to once Neal breaks with the gang.

Kernen warns us not to make the Inciting Incident so dramatic and intense that everything else feels like an anticlimax.  That’s something I hadn’t considered.  For example, if Neal tries to stand up for himself when Coyotes thumps him but other gang members join Coyote in beating him, Trist makes a move to break it up but gets punched too, then somebody bursts in saying a rival gang is on their way waving semi-automatics, readers will feel let down when Neal and Sandy talk.  Oh, give up the gang? they’ll ask.  But that’s the exciting part!

Instead, by making the beat-down between just two characters, giving Neal only minor injuries, and keeping it to three or four paragraphs, I keep the focus on the Inciting Incident.  I don’t set the bar so high that the rest of the story reads like afterthoughts.

I like to compare writing well to walking a tightrope.  Performers who really do that practice long, long hours.  You can’t expect to juggle six or ten things without practicing, either.  Rewriting, editing, and revising really do have to happen.  I’ve been working on this project for a solid two years now, and I’m not done yet.  That’s fine.  I could probably find somebody to publish a less-than-good effort, because I’ve read some not-very-good books.  But why do that?  I want to touch people, to move them, to make them think, and that doesn’t happen with half-assed efforts.

Next entry . . . Juggling eggs while tightrope walking.


  1. Hi Owl Lady,

    What a thought-provoking post. Good job breaking down the mechanics of making the hook interesting, but not so overpowering that it runs over the rest of the story! :)

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Rachel! I really like Kernen's book because he simplifies a lot of the issues around creating a compelling plot. It's funny, it seems you have to distance yourself from your own writing to learn how to draw people into it.

    Thanks for commenting, and I hope to "see" you again!