Monday, April 25, 2011

Robert Kernen’s “Building Better Plots”, part 13

Incite: provoke, inflame, ignite.  These suggest the sense of intensity necessary, I think, for the moment that sends a main character off on the road through the novel.  It doesn’t *have* to be something as dramatic as a beat-down by a street gang, but it should grab readers and pull them right into the story.  It’s pretty much the first thing we notice when we pick up a new book and open it. Okay, maybe *first* we notice the main character, but doesn’t meeting that person make you think, “Why am I reading about you?  What do you *do*?”

Before I start reading Kernen’s chapter 3 “Inciting Incident”, I’ll state that for Neal, his beat-down by his gang’s leader is the action that crystallizes his need to get out of the gang.  That prepares him to grab a way out when it presents itself.  We’ll see if I change my view after reading the chapter.

Kernen does say the Inciting Incident should happen a short way into the story rather than on page one, but this book was published in 1999 and that statement may reflect an attitude that’s passed.  But that’s not a huge issue, really.  As an unpublished (and therefore unproven) writer, agents aren’t going to want 100,000 words from me.  I have a fair amount of plot to spin out so my Incident needs to happen fairly quick.  My most recent draft has the beating start in paragraph one, though I could conceivably move that down a bit so readers can meet Neal before he gets thumped.  That might make it easier for readers to sympathize.

Reading a few paragraphs along, I can compare the Incident to, let’s say, a hammer floating in space.  When that hapless astronaut first takes his hand off it, it just sort of hovers there.  There’s nothing to move it forward.  But then the astronaut creates an Inciting Incident by bumping the hammer, and it spins off recklessly into the starlit gloom stretching out before it.  It’ll keep going until a fleck of space dust bumps it again, sending it in another direction.

*sigh* If I had the head for science, I’d write sci-fi.  I love to read it though.  C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, yeah.  Space opera is as close as I can get.

Ooops, sorry.  Bit of ADD there.  Kernen says that many writers wait too long to get to their Incident, because of that issue referred to a few posts back: inexperienced writers feel they have to introduce the Main Character fully, explain why he’s in that particular room, what his hopes and dreams are, why readers should identify and sympathize with him, build suspense by hinting that Something Big really is right on the threshold, and generally talk too much.

I want to spend a minute on this, because it’s important.  As I crit stories on Critique Circle, I see this problem come up often.  I did it too, so I understand the impulse to over-explain.  We want to make sure our readers “get it”.  We don’t realize that the best way to make sure of that is through word choice, and leaving stuff out.  That’s the inexperienced stage.

If you set up the Incident, and plot points that come after, properly and pay close - obsessive - attention to word choice, and readers *will* get it.  Think about novels you are totally in love with.  I bet you feel that way because they grabbed you, kept you interested, didn’t bore you, moved the plot along without making you stop to admire the scenery, and by the end, had you hyperventilating for more.

You need some distance from your own work in order to see what should stay and what should go.  I’m terrible with reducing my plot to short sentences, such as for a synopsis.  Everything is important; haven’t I been working on only including stuff that’s important?  If I leave out any action or reaction for a synopsis, then why is it in the manuscript?

It’s really not contradictory.  The purpose of a synopsis is different than that of a manuscript.  In a synopsis, we don’t need to know *why* stuff happened, only that it did.  If we want to know why, we can read the manuscript.

I’ve pre-empted myself by going off on a tangent.  Another bout of ADD.  Next post will get to the elements of a good Inciting Incident.

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