Friday, November 13, 2009

The Inciting Event and Your World - Revisited

I've had a couple of requests to revisit this topic outside the workshop in which it originally occurred, and it relates directly to the idea of beginning stories (as in my last post) so today I'm pulling it out of the archive and re-editing it for your enjoyment.

I've been thinking a bit about inciting events. An inciting event is generally the event that propels you into the main conflict of your story. My friend Janice Hardy mentions it in a great blog post, here (her blog has tons of great information on the process of writing and on getting published). In her words, "The inciting event is the trigger that sets the rest of the story in motion." She treats it separately from the opening scene, but I'm not sure the two are necessarily separate. When trying to hook your reader, it's good to plunge into the inciting event as early as possible. I've spent a lot of time in my writing career working on the question of where to start my stories, and believe me, it can be tricky - but it's worth thinking seriously about.

Where I want to take this topic in a particularly TalkToYoUniverse direction is by linking the inciting event to the issue of worldbuilding. When you're thinking about how to open your story in a science fiction or fantasy context, you have to take into account both your need to hook the reader, and your need to introduce your world.

We all know the dreaded word, infodumping. We all know we want to avoid it. But how do we go about creating a scene where this information doesn't need to be explained? How do we make it so the information is simply evident in the action?

First, use your POV character. Make sure you know the character's background, culture and motivations to the fullest extent possible, so that you can use the character to help you convey information. This is what I call making your world personal. Think about what your characters care about, and what they don't care about - where they are especially attentive or where they have blind spots and weaknesses. All of these things can become your tools, as you can imbue your narration with a dismissive or contemptuous tone, or a bubbly enthusiasm, or what have you.

Next comes the tougher, more subtle step: working in the things that the character considers normal. Things that are totally normal, entirely obvious to the character, are not things you want him or her to talk about. Talking about obvious things leads to completely cringe-worthy "As you know, Bob" dialog, and we don't want that.

So here's the question: How can we possibly describe the basic parameters of our worlds, when we know that to our character, so much is entirely unremarkable?

The answer is, use conflict and contrast. I have an example of this done simply and elegantly for a real-world scenario, here.

In fact, there's a beautiful convergence here: the inciting event, the trigger for the core conflict of the novel, very often is all about the precise type of conflict that can let you give out world information.

Here's an example from the drafting stage of my recent story, "Cold Words" (Analog, October 2009). Consider the list of events below and ask yourself which one is the best to use for an opening scene:

1. A Human ambassador inadvertently insults the Majesty of the Aurrel, placing a spaceport negotiation in danger.
2. The native liaison asks the Humans to send away the failed ambassador and get a new one.
3. The Human ambassador comes to the native liaison to tell him that he's worried about the motives of the replacement ambassador.
4. The native liaison goes to the Majesty to report the impending arrival of the replacement ambassador and try to rescue the spaceport negotiation.

I wouldn't choose 1 or 2. Any event that occurs before a significant lull, like waiting for a replacement ambassador to arrive, is less optimal because it will require a time break and reduce forward momentum. Furthermore, even though the incident of insult is interesting, it would be hard for readers to understand without significant previous context - which, if this is the first scene, they can't possibly have.

When I wrote my first draft, I chose 4. The story is told in the point of view of Rulii, the native liaison, and thus the main motivating force in the story is Rulii's desire to complete the spaceport negotiation successfully (for his own secret reasons). Why not start where you see him pressing his suit with the Majesty, a place where he can show his intense desire for success and share it with the reader?

The answer to that question is this: if he's alone with the Majesty, he's in a completely native context where everything is normal. And that means that every piece of normal world information will be really difficult to put in.

So in the end, I chose 3. There's conflict in that scene, because the human ambassador brings a warning that may put the negotiation at even deeper risk. More importantly for this discussion, though, scene #3 puts our native liaison in direct contact with a human. There's conflict, and there's contrast. There are opportunities for the human ambassador to demonstrate his own cultural biases, and for Rulii to remark on them, thus putting his own world forward for readers to explore. Better yet, the sense of contrast continues forward as he goes to see Majesty, because with the human interaction foremost in his mind, Rulii is more likely to remark on the quirky cultural things inherent in their interaction.

So, when you're looking at your own stories, consider the kinds of conflict or contrast opportunities that appear in the opening scene as you've written it, and then ask yourself how you could tune the circumstances of that scene to make your job easier.

Finally, in the spirit of making a world personal, I'm posting a list of eleven questions I've used in two of my workshops. You've probably seen questions like these before, but worldbuilding questions are often phrased in a very impersonal way, and that's not what I'm trying to do here. All of these questions are deliberately phrased to relate directly to a protagonist's view of the world, and participants in my workshops have found it a helpful exercise to answer them using the voice of their POV characters.

Here are the questions:

1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries?
2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What do I fear?
3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort?
4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What shapes and textures give me comfort, or discomfort?
5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both?
6. How do I show who I am in the way I dress? What is comfortable? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of looking good or looking powerful?
7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?
8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?
9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?
10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?
11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?

I hope you may find this exercise helpful in your writing process.


  1. No matter how involved or outrageous your story's background/setting/worldbuilt parameters might be, your POV character is already there in an active way. He/she isn't waiting for the reader to arrive. Conveying that sense of a narrative already in motion is a great way to grab your audience. It's rather like that cowboy exercise we see in the movies of the rider reaching down a hand to snatch someone onto the back of their saddle as the horse gallops past. If we're going to use our own writerly examples, here's one from a recent acceptance of mine at STRANGE HORIZONS. It's a near-future s-f story entitled "After We Got Back the Lights," concerning the resurgence of civilization after a period of governmental and societal collapse. The POV is a stand-in sheriff who has assumed protective duties for his small town. It opens with said character confronting a man who has arrived at the town in a working police cruiser with news that the national government is reorganizing. Civilized society is returning! The sheriff doesn't buy it. This is a shuck, a ploy by raiders who want to plunder the town. Now--this character doesn't actually say these things in so many words. His incredulity is plain, but I don't spell out what lies behind his doubt of this spectacular news. I only offer the reader the reactions relevant to the scene. The sheriff just wants this presumed huckster to go away without fuss, and that's where I put the emphasis. That the world around this small town is in such a regressive state is merely implied, not hammered on. Thus, infodump is avoided.

  2. Thanks for the example, Eric! I think you're pointing out something very important, namely, the fact that you're not explaining but demonstrating the world in the scene you describe. As you say, "implied, not hammered on." The advantage of this is that people can get curious about things you imply. It makes me think that I should do a post on backgrounding information (my own way of talking about those implications), in addition to the setup of the scene and its participants, as I talked about here. Again, great example and thanks for the idea!

  3. Please do that post! I love these posts as I'm knee-deep in this kind of world that has to be implied and it's tough because it's so different from our own. And on top of it, my main character has FORGOTTEN what makes her world the way it is, so it's really tough to explain why her mind works the way it does and how she uses it to do so much.


    I definitely want your post on backgrounding. Still trying to find my inciting event. I see so many causal factors, and currently, I've just settled on the most pivotal event: the moment when she's fighting the mindwiping drugs and loses her memories. I'm still not sure I can start so late though.

    :growls in frustration:

    And I can't even pick the moment when cultures collide, because that's waaaaaay too late. Still scratching my head and plugging away.

  4. Sounds good, Megs. It'll take me a few days to put together, though. If you want specific advice on your situation, I'd need to know more about it.

  5. Hmmm... Not sure where to start.

    Salorý is a member of the Pure, a Lightbearer, and the only one trained from her childhood to be able to put aside all of her negativity and use lightforce to shield and affect physical and mental surroundings. Her land, Vas'her, is being raided by Chirrith at the borders, and her Heirarch heard that they wanted to kidnap a Lightbearer for their own uses, not knowing that to use the power amiss is to destroy the one using that power. So Salorý was chosen to go because she learned as a child and the Heirarch feels the knowledge of how to use lightforce rightly is more a part of her than any other Lightbearer.

    Salorý is captured by the Chirrith army and mindwiped. They attempt to turn her into a shield for their own army and convince her that she is one of theirs. Because she speaks their language, it might have worked, except that the language Vas'her has no negative words and concepts are radically different. She constantly finds herself balking at their concepts and because of this is eventually able to regain access to her powers, if not her memories.

    She escapes Chirrith and ends up in a Riloren "convent" (for lack of a better word), and the story goes on from there.

    So I'm dealing with an entire immersion into native culture (no parties outside it), but a bit of a clash between cultures (especially once we get to Riloren), especially when you get into the microculture of the Pure. But at the same time, my viewpoint girl loses her memories and makes it really hard for me to explain why things happen the way they do, UNLESS I start all the way back with the Heirarch choosing to deploy her.

    :head in hands:

    We're working on it.

  6. Megs,
    The main issue as I see it is to determine how much of Salory's memories have been wiped. Has she forgotten who she is? I assume so. Has she forgotten she has powers? If so, that gives you the opportunity to show her rediscovering them. Does she have any particle of something to make her suspicious of her captors? The advantage of having someone ignorant is that the character can try to figure things out as she goes. Everything is new, so nothing is "normal" and it will be easier for her to think about things consciously as she works them out. Does that give you any ideas?

  7. Thanks for the thoughts. Definitely gives me ideas. Sorry it takes me so long to comment. My main computer time is at work and the filters won't let me talk to you. I'll get cracking. You two posts up there, by the way, are awesomeness. I'm reading and studying and grinding my axe. :grins: