In Sanity Snippet #10 we determined our first-act break (AKA, the first plot point). Today, let’s consider the inciting incident.
This may appear backwards. For sure, you can plan your story, step by step, starting with the inciting incident (which normally comes around the 12% mark). The important thing to remember is these two key points in our story—the inciting incident and the first-act break—are causally connected. The inciting incident causes the first act break. So, if you know your first act break you simply ask yourself, “what could have caused X to happen?”
In The Boaz Stranger (my WIP), Lee (protagonist) leaves his job and home in New Haven, CT and returns to his North Alabama hometown. This is the first act break. Lee returns for two reasons. His in-laws asked for some legal help, and he wants to investigate something he just learned.
And what is that? Secret journal recordings Lee discovered in his deceased wife’s well-hidden diaries. This is the inciting incident. It causes Lee to take a break from teaching law and travel a thousand miles to his hometown to investigate a fifty year old cold case (disappearance and death of his high school friend in 1970), and the details concerning an abortion his wife had that ultimately caused her suicide.
Note, a physical change of setting often occurs as part of the first act break.
Even though Lee returned to North Alabama to assist his in-laws with a legal matter, his primary reason for doing so was to investigate what he’d discovered in his deceased wife’s diaries. It’s likely, without this discovery, Lee wouldn’t have been motivated to travel that far. He could have simply associated a local lawyer to assist with the required local court appearance.
Now, for your story. Whether you work backwards from your first act break or forward from your inciting incident, make sure the two events are connected. In fact, make sure that connection is causal. If not, your story won’t have the draw it needs to motivate readers to continue.
In the real world, humans look for connections. Often we conclude there is a causal link between A and B when there may be none. However, in fiction, causality must be more certain.
Take a pencil and paper and start doodling. Draw lines, stick figures, maps, and landscapes. Whatever, to brainstorm A causes B, keeping in mind that A (the inciting incident) gets the story going, and B (the first act break) is the point of no return for your protagonist.
For now, let’s focus on the protagonist. We know he has an external problem, and he wants to solve that problem. His want is a desire for a future state. His goal is more tangible. It’s a point in time he has to reach. It’s the point at which he solves his external problem.
Readers want to know our protagonist’s goal, how he’s going to solve his external problem. They’re constantly asking themselves, “will Wild Bill reach his goal?” Readers likely won’t buy into our story if the protagonist’s goal is nebulous.
Would you get excited enough to invest ten or fifteen hours of your precious time in a story where the hero’s goal is to “feel better about himself”? Not likely. We want him to stop the serial killer. We want him to win the girl. We want him to discover the vaccine, win the election, or expose the conspiracy that sent an innocent man to prison.
Goals transform a random walk into a chase.
As you probably suspect. The protagonist goal (to be a fitting goal) takes a while to accomplish. Our hero’s journey, and thus our story’s plot, will comprise the steps he has to take to reach his goal.
It might take the entire novel. Or, our hero may accomplish it by the story’s midpoint. If the latter, the second half of our book will deal with the consequences of our protagonist reaching his goal. Maybe, he realizes, reaching his goal didn’t fulfill an inner need, and there’s something else he needs to do. Maybe he discovers there’s another wall to climb before learning the truth, or finding the princess.
It’s your turn. Take out a pencil and start brainstorming. If you haven’t already, give your protagonist an external problem, and describe what he wants. Finally, give him a clear and definitive goal.
In my next Beemgee post, we’ll consider our protagonist’s task.
Let’s beemgee. If you missed my September 3rd post, Beemgee is a company that offers a story development tool of the same name. Note, I didn’t say a story writing tool (think Scrivener). Before we can write, we need to know a few things (preferably many) about our characters and what they’ll be doing. Of course, if you are a pantser, you just start writing and discover your story as you go along.
This is my second post about Beemgee. This is also my second story development series. See my Sanity Snippets posts to review H.R. D’Costa’s method for outlining a novel. I encourage you to buy, read, and study her book, Sizzling Story Outlines.
Beemgee is clear that story development requires a detailed and thoughtful consideration of both character and plot. It recommends starting with character since plot emerges from what our characters do.
My first post in this series was about our protagonist’s external problem. This is either a situation he finds himself in or a mission he chooses or has been assigned. External problems are not limited to our protagonist. Other characters, especially the antagonist, will have their own external problem. It could be the same but usually, as far as the antagonist and his helpers are concerned, it is directly opposed to the protagonist’s problem. Think of a detective and a killer. The detective is working to discover who killed the victim. The killer is working not get caught.
For now, let’s limit our thoughts to the protagonist. After we’ve discovered his external problem we should address what he wants (we really don’t have a story unless our protagonist wants something). The answer is rather simple. He wants a resolution, to be free from his external problem.
There’s actually two different types of want: the wish, or character want, and the plot want. We’ll limit our consideration to the latter. However, to put the two wants into perspective, review this example (from Beemgee):“Marty McFly wishes to be a musician (character want). He also wants to get Back to the Future (plot want).”
As to the plot want, Beemgee puts it like this: “The desired result of this solution is usually a state of being: solving the problem leads to marital bliss, wealth, power, immortality, survival, etc. So the want tends to be abstract – a state as opposed to a specific thing or point in time. It is distinct from the wish because it comes about because of the external problem. The want is the implied reward for achieving the more concrete goal of the story.”
Here’s an example from my second novel, The Boaz Scorekeeper.
Micaden Tanner attended a high school graduation party at Club Eden, a secluded cabin owned by the families of five classmates known as the Flaming Five for their basketball prowess. Twin girls from another school also attended the party and never made it home that fateful Friday night. A few days later, Micaden is arrested and accused of kidnapping and murder although the twins have not been found. He quickly learns he has been set up.
Micaden’s external problem is apparent. He stands to lose his freedom if he’s convicted at trial.
What Micaden wants is also apparent. He wants to be free of his external problem, his arrest and his upcoming trial.
There’s more. He wants justice for the twins. In essence, Micaden wants to live in a world where the Flaming Five are held accountable for the crimes they committed that fateful night.
It’s time to determine our story’s first act break. But first, let’s summarize.
We are using the three-act structure to develop our novel. Why? Because all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is well-established the beginning (Act I) comprises 25% of our story; the middle (Act II) is 50%; and the ending (Act III) fills the remaining 25%.
Act I is the setup, where we introduce our protagonist in his ordinary world. It’s where we learn a lot about him and develop a favorable attachment. He has an external problem and is called to do something about it. Even though, at first, he is reluctant, a mentor convinces him to go forward.
We are now at the end of Act I, close to the 25% mark. This is where our protagonist commits to the journey. In other words, he reacts to the Call to Action/Inciting Incident that occurred around the 12% mark. The first plot point is the point of no return. Some say this is when our hero crosses his personal Rubicon (Dictionary: “a line that when crossed permits of no return and typically results in irrevocable commitment”). Everything changes. It is a personal turning point for the protagonist. Often, it involves a change in physical setting.
Here’s an example provided by K.M. Weiland’s website: “It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): Throughout the first quarter of the story, George Bailey’s plans for his life have progressed uninterrupted. Despite his various misadventures in Bedford Falls, he’s on the fast track to a European vacation and a college education. Then the first plot point hits, and his life is forever changed. When his father dies of a stroke, George’s plans are dashed. As in Pride & Prejudice, the standards that have already been established in the story are dramatically altered. This is no longer a story about a carefree young man freewheeling around town. From here on out, this is a story about a man forced to take responsibility by working at the Bailey Brothers’ Building & Loan.”
Notice, the protagonist thought his life was on one path (European vacation and on to college), then his father dies and the family business lands in our hero’s lap, an inescapable personal turning point. George’s life will never be the same.
What about you? What’s your novel’s first plot point? Take out pencil and paper and do some brainstorming.
In my Sanity Snippets series we’ve been progressing through H.R. D’Costa’s steps in creating a story outline (based on her excellent book, Sizzling Story Outlines). If followed, these steps will produce a viable first draft outline. D’Costa refers to this as “the first iteration” (two other books detail the second and final phases, “iterations” of her outlining process). I hope to continue creating posts (every 7 to 10 days) that track each step in the “first iteration” book.
However, I’m at the point I need to start planning my next novel. Although I’m still a few weeks away from completing the final edits of The Boaz Stranger, my mind is daily tempting me with random thoughts that could reveal the makings of a new idea. To capture, clarify, and organize my mental wanderings, I intend to Beemgee.
What in the heck is Beemgee? It’s a story development tool I recently discovered. That’s also the name of the company. From its website: “Tell a Better Story. Your tool for character development and plot outlining.”
After publishing ten novels (with the eleventh one due by November 1st) I can honestly say I need a story development tool. As you might have gathered if you are a consistent reader of my blog, I’m trying to transition from being a pantser to a plantser, possibly to becoming a plotter.
My story writing tool of choice is Scrivener. It too has many features that enable a writer to develop his story before beginning to draft. Features such as the Corkboard and the Outline views are excellent. However, Scrivener isn’t designed to provide a library of craft information.
This is where Beemgee excels. It provides a virtual storehouse of writing theory and instruction. Whether you are new to creative writing or a veteran, you will find interesting and instructive guidance on how to “[t]ell a better story.”
Beemgee’s focus is two-fold, character and plot. These are the two main characteristics all stories require. I’d safely declare that Beemgee offers a graduate level course in how to develop both character and plot. And, since it asserts that plot arises from characters (their actions and their interactions/conflicts with other characters), let’s start with character.
First, let’s get grounded. As stated, I’m at the initial stages of planning my twelfth novel. I intend to use Beemgee’s powerful software development tool to prepare before starting my first draft in Scrivener. If you are considering your first novel, why don’t you come along?
Again, to find a viable novel-length idea, we’ll start with our characters. Just so you know, this isn’t a universal approach. Some writers start with a chosen genre (mystery, romance, thriller, sci-fi, etc.), or a story seed. Since Beemgee is firm in its position that plot is produced from characters, that’s where I’ll begin.
Although my previous random thoughts have showered me with a vague picture of one of my main characters, he is sizing up to be the story’s antagonist, not the protagonist. For you, it might be different. You might one, few, or no clue about your story or your characters. That’s okay. I choose to trust the Beemgee process. I hope you will do the same.
To me, Beemgee is unique because of its approach to character development. It doesn’t per se start with the character’s backstory. It starts with his external problem. What do I mean by that?
Notice, I said “external problem” not internal. The internal problem/need comes later. Beemgee defines external problem as follows: “[t]he external problem may be a predicament the character suddenly finds him or herself in or a mission set to her or him.”
Think of a detective in a mystery story. Usually, there is a murder early on. At some time shortly thereafter, the private investigator is hired to find the killer, or the detective of a police agency or prosecuting attorney is assigned the case. Now, in this context, we know the external problem. It’s external to the private investigator or detective. And, as Beemgee says, “[m]ost stories begin with the protagonist being confronted with an external problem.” See how plot evolves from character and we’ve only addressed the first question in Beemgee’s character development tool.
So, what problem will your protagonist solve, or attempt to solve, in your novel? Of course, the list is endless, but I have a hunch it has something to do with yourself, not necessarily your personal problem, but something you are aware of from the news, or maybe a twist on a short story or novel you’ve read. Right now it could be as simple as a politician (say a U.S. Senator) with an addiction problem.
Take out pencil and paper and start brainstorming potential external problems. Don’t worry that you know virtually nothing. Don’t worry about the problem’s insignificance. That issue may reverse itself when you create another character, say your story’s antagonist. Stories thrive and survive on conflict. So think of characters who are opposed, they are on opposite sides of the external problem. For example, our detective wants to find the killer. The killer wants his freedom and will do whatever necessary to avoid being caught. And, maybe to kill again. But, that’s a different horse for now.
As you brainstorm, don’t forget to look at your own life, or that of your spouse, friend, barber, doctor, or other acquaintance. Does one of them have an external problem? Fiddle with it, manipulate it. Turn it into a problem your character wants to solve. Here’s an example. Is your friend’s boss battling a financial problem? Is the boss on the verge of declaring bankruptcy but needs to find a better alternative. Define the boss’s external problem. What will he do to ‘solve’ it?
If you brainstorm and drill deep but still come up dry, try Google. Read a few newspapers. Most every article can be fictionalized.
Writing a novel is messy work. It’s difficult at best. “I hate writing, but I love having written.” This quote is attributed to many writers, including Dorothy Parker and Frank Norris.
There’s nothing more challenging and rewarding than completing a novel. Well, that might be a stretch but at least you know what I believe.