Starting Your Real-Life Story
Let’s talk about the inciting incident in The Knowledge.
It’s an interesting question because how do you identify an inciting incident in your real life? Is there a true, real-world event? Do you make it up? And if you do, how do you know what to make up?
The inciting incident in The Knowledge comes on page 29, the first page of “Book Two, The Turk.” Everything before that is set-up.
I’m following a fox fur and a pair of black leather Cossack boots.
Abigail Bablik crosses Eighth Avenue at 40th Street and turns up the block on the west side. I fall in, fifty yards behind her.
I’m following Marvin Bablik’s wife.
This is the job the Turk wanted to talk to me about.
The inciting incident in The Knowledge is when Stretch accepts his boss Marvin Bablik’s offer to tail his wife, ostensibly to find out if she’s cheating on him.
This incident is totally fictitious. But a tremendous amount of thought went into it. I recognized, planning ahead and structuring what was to come, that the whole story would turn on this moment. It had to be exactly right and it had come at exactly the right moment.
Let’s put this inciting incident up on the examination table and see what makes it tick.
First, why. Why is this the inciting incident? Why is this the event that officially starts the story? Because
1) With this event, our protagonist leaves the Ordinary World and enters what Blake Snyder calls the Inverted World. This is, in Joseph Campbell terms, “the Call.” In this moment Stretch embarks upon his hero’s journey. He steps out of his everyday universe and into the Extraordinary World, where all things are new and where major changes are not just possible but inevitable.
This moment is Dorothy getting swept away from Kansas; it’s Rocky learning that he’s been picked to fight the heavyweight champ; it’s Mark Watney getting left behind on Mars.
2) With this event, the internal becomes external.
Remember we said in the first post on this subject that the writer using her real life in fiction must, before all else, make the internal external?
This is that.
Stretch’s story up to this point had been entirely inside his own head. He was wrestling with issues of guilt, regret, self-doubt, self-sabotage, and self-destruction.
In other words, Snoozeville
Boring, tedious, uncinematic.
When our protagonist signs up to become an amateur gumshoe for Marvin “the Turk” Bablik however, he enters a world where vivid, butt-kicking action—car chases, beat-ups, gun fights, sex scenes, clashes with the law—are not just plausible but obligatory (even if Stretch himself is blissfully oblivious to this at the start.)
3) With this event, the genre of the story is established.
When Stretch agrees to take on this assignment, he sets the tale clearly into the Private Eye genre—and we the readers get it. We recognize that this is Jake Gittes accepting the gig to follow Hollis Mulwray. It’s the Dude saying yes to delivering the ransom money for the Big Lebowski.
4) With this event, the reader knows she can expect to see certain obligatory conventions of the genre. She knows that Bablik is lying. She’s immediately two steps ahead of Stretch. She knows that Stetch is being played for a sucker. She knows that multiple double-crosses and plot twists lie ahead. If she’s especially clever, she susses out, from this inciting incident alone, that Stretch is destined to become romantically involved with his boss’s wife whom he is tailing. Etc. Etc.
All of this sounds like fun. It’s promising. It pulls the reader forward into the story.
5) Note too that the climax of the story is embedded in the inciting incident.
We the readers may not know exactly what’s coming, but we can be pretty certain that our protagonist’s situation is going to evolve from trouble to more trouble to even more trouble.
6) Note, as well, that this inciting incident is on-theme.
The Inverted World that our protagonist now enters has not been selected randomly, nor is it designed only to carry car chases and plot twists.
Bablik’s world is a duplicate of Stretch’s.
The gangster’s universe is Stretch’s own—only made external.
Bablik—we (and Stretch) will come to learn—is also driven by guilt. He also has committed a crime for which he can never forgive himself and which can only be atoned for, in his mind, by his own extinction.
When Stretch enters this Extraordinary World, he is entering his own universe made visible and enacted, not in his mind, but in the external world.
Writers are often asked, “How much of your stories do you plot out in advance and how much just happens along the way?”
In this case, ALL OF IT was planned.
I very consciously sat down and asked myself of the inciting incident:
Does it get the story started?
Does it launch the protagonist into the Inverted World?
Does it make the internal external?
Is the climax embedded in it?
Does it establish the genre?
Is it on-theme?
I’m also asking myself, “Will this incident hook the reader? Will she get that flash-forward sense of What Is Coming? And will that pull her forward into the story?”
Are you working with material from your real life? Are you using true stuff as the basis of a piece of fiction?
Bear down, then, on the moment when the story starts.
Use a real-life event if that works.
Or make it up completely.
But, for sure, apply to that moment all the tests and criteria you would apply to an inciting incident in pure fiction.
There’s no difference.
The principles are the same.