Does Nonfiction Need an Inciting Incident?
Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s 19-million-view TED talk, “Your Elusive Creative Genius?”
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.