something happens

The Inciting Incident: Plot Structure Part III

Something happens. The disturbance can be anything: 

  • A phone call in the middle of the night
  • A letter with some intriguing news
  • A car breaks down on an abandoned road
  • An earthquake, tidal wave, or the outbreak of war
  • A spouse tells the protagonist that their marriage is over or the boss calls him into his office
  • A child becomes ill, injured, or is abducted
  • The protagonist witnesses a murder

It’s important to understand the difference between an initial disturbance (also called an inciting incident) and the plot point (sometimes referred to as the doorway of no return or crossing the threshold). The disturbance, an inciting incident, throws down the gauntlet. The plot point is when the protagonist picks it up.

In Diehard, John McClane arrives in Los Angeles with the goal of reconciling with his estranged wife. While changing his clothes in the bathroom, a team of terrorists overtake the building and hold its employees, including McClane’s wife, hostage.

McClane escapes to an upper floor where he tries to figure out what to do and inadvertently witnesses the murder of the CEO. When he decides to pull the fire alarm, the battle begins.

The terrorists created the disturbance, and the protagonist responds, providing the confrontation. Only when McClane engages the disturbance does the confrontation begin. Pulling the fire alarm is the plot point that launches Act II. McClane’s response opens a door and thrusts him into a world of fight.  The terrorists know of his presence. There’s no turning back. McCane’s choice to engage the battle is irrevocable.  

The plot point moves the character(s) through a doorway of no return from the beginning into the middle (Act I to Act II). Another plot point will force them from the middle to the end (Act II to Act III).

In Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Reverend Stephen Kumalo learns at the beginning of the story that his sister in Johannesburg is ill. He states his goal when he decides to go to her and, while there, to search for his son Absalom who had previously left home for Johannesburg.

The goal the protagonist begins with often changes before the story has progressed beyond the end of the first quarter and catapults him into the heart of the story world. Hence, the character enters the middle of the story with a revised long-term goal.

The beginning or the first quarter of the book should:

  • Introduce the setting, immediate context, and core conflict of the story.  (In doing so, this should also establish the genre. Is this an epic, an action-adventure, a farce, or a character-driven story?)
  • Introduce the major characters.
  • Introduce enough of the protagonist’s psychological plot information.
  • Introduce the opposition. Who or what wants to stop the protagonist?
  • Express the theme through showing details.
  • End on a cliffhanger that propels the protagonist into Act II.

In our example, about one quarter of the way though the story—the end of the beginning—the Reverend learns that his son has been arrested for murder. At this point, his goal of helping his sister and of searching for his son changes to understand and help his son.

An engaging character with a long-term goal is not enough. To create excitement, something must stand in the protagonist’s way. Without this element, there is no conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity.  

Remember, to transition from beginning to middle, you must create a need (plot point scene) where your protagonist is thrust from the ordinary into the main conflict, something that kicks him through the door. Once you shove him out the door, the confrontation continues throughout Act II.

In Cry, the Beloved Country, the reverend has as antagonists a combination of expectations and judgments that collide with his son’s refusal to be found, the plight of his sister, and the racial and ethnic segregation of South Africa in 1946.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist