Does Nonfiction Need an Inciting Incident?

Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s 19-million-view TED talk, “Your Elusive Creative Genius?”

Elizabeth Gilbert, from her 2009 TED talk

I am a writer. Writing books is my profession but it’s more than that, of course. It is also my great lifelong love and fascination. And I don’t expect that that’s ever going to change. But, that said, something kind of peculiar has happened recently in my life and in my career, which has caused me to have to recalibrate my whole relationship with this work. And the peculiar thing is that I recently wrote this book, this memoir called “Eat, Pray, Love” which, decidedly unlike any of my previous books, went out in the world for some reason, and became this big, mega-sensation, international bestseller thing. The result of which is that everywhere I go now, people treat me like I’m doomed. Seriously — doomed, doomed! Like, they come up to me now, all worried, and they say, “Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all, ever again?” 

See the inciting incident? It’s the moment when “people” (and by extension Elizabeth herself) start to fear for the writer’s future, as she endeavors to follow up her huge bestselling hit.

In this moment Ms. Gilbert, like a protagonist in a novel, acquires her intention—to find some mindset that either obviates or overcomes this terror. (Full disclosure: she does.)

You and I as writers of nonfiction need an inciting incident just as much as fiction writers do.

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23 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on June 24, 2020 at 3:43 am

    If I hadn’t watched that TED Talk three times, her total would have been only 18,999,997. I like to think I put her over the top.

    • Fiorella on June 24, 2020 at 9:30 am

      hahahah that was funny

  2. Mary Doyle on June 24, 2020 at 5:25 am

    I’ll definitely check out her TED Talk – I really liked her book on writing, too – Big Magic.

  3. Victoria A Labalme on June 24, 2020 at 7:53 am

    LOVE THIS, SP!
    And your timing on this post couldn’t be more perfect as I finish up my (non fiction) book and review the flow and order.
    THANK YOU.
    xx,
    V

  4. Todd Corelli on June 24, 2020 at 7:56 am

    Wish you would’ve said a little more on this.

  5. Robin Puchala on June 24, 2020 at 8:02 am

    The description of the struggle in the War of Art is so valuable to artists and creatives! Your post points out the danger all of getting trapped in the giant of fear and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. I totally agree… Every book, every creative project has to be a fresh and new endeavor full of potential and all our best efforts to make it succeed. It doesn’t hurt to note though that “Eat, Pray, Love” hit on a universal pain point that women feel & related to. Timing and relevancy have a lot to do with how a book will be received in the general public.

  6. Gwen+Abitz on June 24, 2020 at 8:03 am

    “You and I as writers of non-fiction need an inciting incident just as much as fiction writers do” Well I believe the “inciting incident” has taken place for me. Thank you for this Post.

  7. Todd Corelli on June 24, 2020 at 8:04 am

    I wish you would’ve said more on this.

  8. Dr. Linda Moore on June 24, 2020 at 8:06 am

    Reflecting on the “psychology of this” … interesting.

  9. Jorge Melendez on June 24, 2020 at 8:08 am

    The one incident that we all encounter is stepping out of what we know in order to discover what we can become. Thank you for being a powerful reminder of this in so many ways.

  10. Zack+Derese on June 24, 2020 at 8:25 am

    Wow. Inciting is so powerful it’s one of the only forms of speech outlawed. I suppose when that vehicle is turned towards good, it is just as powerful…
    “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works…”
    Whether you are Christian or not, that has great implications. And it’s what Steven does every Wednesday. Thank you.

  11. Yvonne McCoy on June 24, 2020 at 10:48 am

    This same fear (whether or not I could “top” any book that I’d publish) has kept me from moving forward, so I’m especially glad I read this today. As always, a timely and helpful post, right when I need it!

  12. Julie Curwin on June 24, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    When I first started writing short stories about 14 years ago, I won a fairly major competition (The Commonwealth Short Story Prize) with only the second story I’d ever written. I won a decent cash prize and was flown to London to collect the award. This should have been an unmitigated blessing, but instead I found myself unable to write consistently (or well) for years afterward—with many of the predictable consequences of “resistance” that Steve has written about. There were two books that eventually helped get me back on track with my writing. The first was “The War of Art”—and I will be forever grateful to Steve for that gem, which I still pull out and re-read from time to time. The second was Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic.” Both of these books have had a profoundly positive effect on my writing–and therefore on my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you and thank you again. And please keep doing what you do. PS: My first published book–a collection of short stories–is due to be published this Fall.

  13. Diane on June 24, 2020 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks, Stephen. Resistance shows up in many forms, a master of disguises–self-doubt, fear, failure, and, yes, even success. You’ve exposed a really insidious one. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. Marina+Goritskaia on June 24, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    It occurred to me that everything needs an Inciting Incident, since in Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet the Theme Stated beat goes before the Catalyst and not instead of it. In nonfiction, as I understand, the structures like Payoff-Build-Payoff or Payoff-three-times are allowed and prominent – but they look academic and probably reduce readership. Someone might have data on this.

  15. Tolis on June 25, 2020 at 6:04 am

    I think this fear is indeed inside many of us. Its in me for sure – not only do I combat succesfully the thoughts of grandeur every day (how annoying they are!) but I also feel that after this creation Im doing now there will be no other ideas and inspiration.

    I inspired and created a facebook community 7 years ago, we are sharing knowledge about mythology and archaeology in Greece for a long time now. The first months were so exciting and full of stress too, as fear inside me was all over the place. A person who was participating told me then that ‘well, we wrote all the basics about mythology these months, so we’ll soon run out of ideas’ and that person told this to other members of the writing team too. But the truth is that the world is infinite. There are countless and timeless ways to move forward, to explore your field. Not only did the community flourish the next years, but even when resistance caught me the other members kept feeding people with wisdom and knowledge until today.

    So lets stop kidding ourselves. Our field is infinite, the only question is if our discipline will be infinite too. Its really hard.

    Thank you mr. Steven

  16. Bonnie Lacy on June 25, 2020 at 7:57 am

    Thanks Steven! Always thought provoking and inspiring—comments included!

  17. Aqeel Ali on June 25, 2020 at 2:23 pm

    One amazing conviction to commit to:
    We were the source of that amazing thing. Keep mining each vein daily, the gold is clearly there.

  18. Anthony Dukes on June 25, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    Weird! I was just thinking of this. Well kinda.

    I read this and thought 2020 BLM and Covid19 is the inciting incident:

    “When an individual’s sense of selfhood is challenged by dramatic changes in society, it can be a very painful experiencee. And one is likely to resent those responsible for those changes.”

    The natural consequence of BLM and Covid19 (like it was in the 1960-70s when there was enough support to assassinate MLK and then enough hate crimes that the military was needed to give the cops a chop out) is to turn violently against “the Others/Them”.

    That is, blacks and asians/Chinese.

    In the Atomic age of increasingly siloed and narrative journalism and now repeated massive economic shocks and populism the norm in statesmanship, we need to communicate and cooperate our way out of this heated political (and meteorological) climate.

    Otherwise large scale violence is the default collective human response.

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