NaNo Need-to-Knows: The Inciting Incident

Continuing on my theme of plot-related need-to-knows for NaNoWriMo, I want to talk about the inciting incident today. What is it? And why is it so useful to know your story’s inciting incident ahead of starting to write your NaNo Novel?

You know that line in book descriptions? “Everything changes when…”

The event that changes things for the character is the inciting incident. It’s literally the event that “incites” the character to set the goal which carries the story.

And if the goal is your story’s point, the inciting incident is then the catalyst that sparks off the story in earnest.

If you think about it from the reader’s point of view, the story’s goal doesn’t exist until the inciting incident occurred. So the introduction has no direction; it’s only an introduction. Direction only happens when the character says (directly or indirectly), “This is what I want to do.” After that, the story is about whether or not that thing is achieved.

But it can’t happen if there isn’t some spark that makes the character set out on their journey in the first place.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to have the inciting incident occur as soon as possible. Some people say within the first third of your story, but I personally think that’s too long, unless your story has a slower pace. Others say you must start in medias res, and that the inciting incident has to happen in the first chapter. Which I say is too fast for most genres outside of mysteries (where the incident in question is someone dying or something being stolen) or a thriller. Personal experience says that most of my stories work best with a proper character intro, and the inciting incident occurring somewhere in the first fifth of a book. But that’s because I prefer to emphasize my character arcs. Putting the inciting incident at around 10k words in (assuming I have a 50k book) gives me time to show the readers who the characters are before the inciting incident changes things, which I feel gives those changes more of an impact.

That said, I tend to personally leave it up to the story I’m writing, for the inciting incident to happen when it’s ready to happen.

So why the spiel about where to put it, then?

Because a surprising amount of writers feel like their story is dragging half-way into the book and they can’t tell why.

Often, the reason is that they’ve written half a novel’s worth of words, but nothing’s happened yet. So it’s basically a half a novel of waffling around with no direction and no visible point. Because nothing happened to make the character decide to do something. And as such, nothing is done.

If you know what the inciting incident is supposed to be, you’ll also know if it hasn’t happened yet, and so you can make sure it does happen and soon enough to keep your story from lagging.

Do you pre-plan your inciting incidents? Do you prefer inciting incidents to happen right at the beginning, or at a later point in the story?

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NaNo Need-to-Knows: Your Story’s Goal

This post is part of my ongoing-series about prepping for and surviving NaNoWriMo. Click here to find the rest of the series as it goes live.

Last week, I was talking about characterization and using a character’s motivation to set the main story goal. This week, I want to go into this goal and its close buddy, the inciting incident.

For me, this order of doing things, of exploring the character before deciding on the goal, makes sense because I’m more character-driven. If you’re plot-driven, you’re probably going to want to decide on the story goal first and then create characters that will make the story of achieving said goal interesting. Both approaches work fine, especially if you pay attention not to sacrifice your character strength for your plot, or your plot’s strength to preserve character.

But the point here is that, if you want a decent shot at finishing NaNoWriMo, your story needs a goal, and it’s going to be incredibly helpful to know what that goal will be before you start.

But What Is This Goal I Speak Of?

Let me just get this off my chest quickly: I’m not talking about those highly nebulous goals writers have for their stories, like “I want to teach children that it’s okay to dream big.” or “I want to write about homeless people.” Nor will I go into why I don’t (and probably won’t ever) agree that such an approach is a good idea for genre writing. (I’m looking at you, Mark Twain, who stuffed up a perfectly good Arthurian time-travel tale with your incessant preaching.) Really. Don’t get me started on that.

Instead, I’m talking about the goal that forms the heart of your story itself. That thing that a character sets out to do, and the reason why readers keep turning pages to find out whether that thing comes about.

In other words, the goal is the reason why a story should be read. A good example of a goal from books is Frodo’s goal of destroying the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.

Or it can be an unstated (at least in the story itself) goal of the characters falling in love in your standard romance. Or of a character needing to move on, such as in Under the Tuscan Sun. But it’s worth noting that often these goals tend to come with another, stated goal, and often come secondary to that stated goal. In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances moves into an old, nearly decrepit house in Tuscany, and somehow needs to overcome the language and culture barrier in order to fix it up.

So why is the goal so important to me, coming second to (or maybe even standing even with) only characterization? Because the story’s goal is its entire point. And every other plot aspect to a story has the goal at its foundation.

If you approach plot by structuring according to the three-act structure, or according to beats a la Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, the goal is still the lynch pin you’re building it up around. For example, the dark night of the soul, that moment where all hope is lost and the character has to dig deeper than ever before in order to succeed… What does that hope center on? The hope that the main story goal will be achieved. And what must the character succeed at? Yep. The goal.

The inciting incident is the moment that acts as the catalyst of setting the goal and so kicks off the story after the character introduction.

The conflict in the story is anything and everything that complicates or makes the goal impossible to achieve.

The stakes of a story are the costs associated with failure to attain the goal.

And back to the three-act structure: What’s the climax of any story about? 90% of the time, it’s going to be about the last big push to try and achieve that goal. The rest of the time, it’s about a major decision about that goal, or a major failure to achieve the goal.

Even the themes and messages from your story will be rooted in either the goal itself, or in the discoveries that characters make as they go after the goal.

In other words, the goal is everywhere and it’s everything. And as soon as you have readers caring about the characters and their journey, the goal and the success or failure at achieving it forms the major question that drives the readers to keep reading. Will Frodo destroy the One Ring? Will Frances succeed in fixing the house and will she find happiness again?

Depending on the genre, setting this goal to be impossible and dangerous enough can be a major driver of a story’s tension. Take Katniss’s goal of surviving in The Hunger Games. But this also plays in with the conflict and stakes, which I will still get into.

At any rate, knowing your goal, even if you’re a pantser like me, gives you something to write towards. A point that pulls your writing forward and prevents you from waffling around too much, trying to find a direction for your story. (Although in saying this, I will admit that most of my rough drafts are focused almost exclusively on finding the goal in the first place. Yes, I’m secretly that character-driven. And that much of a pantser.)

How Does One Set the Goal?

There are a myriad of ways in which to do this, so I’ll list a few.

1) Like I mentioned in my post on characters, you can let the goal come out of your character’s motivation. Think of your character and the type of person they are. What kind of goal would they set in a given situation?

2) Write without setting the goal and hope for the best, or write a rough draft specifically to discover the goal. (Although realize that this probably will require you rewriting the entire thing once you’ve found your direction.)

3) Decide first thing what you want the goal to be and build the concept, scenarios and characters around it.

4) Look at your main character again. Decide what goal would create the most internal (and/or external) conflict for a character, push them to (or beyond) their limits, and/or provide the greatest measure of character growth.

5) If you’re going with a genre that has an inherent, unstated goal (like the happily-ever-after in romances), what goal would you like to set (and state) that will act as a nice backdrop to, and will help create conflicts for the unstated main goal? A good example of this can be found in the movie You’ve Got Mail. Two characters have been anonymously chatting online and they’re obviously made for each other. Problem is that they actually know each other in real life and hate each other because one’s goal is to put the other’s family business…out of business.

These are approaches I’ve taken to set goals in my stories, but I’m sure there are more ways that I haven’t thought of.

How do you find your story’s main goal? 

NaNo Need-to-Knows: Picking Your Story Idea

Hey everyone! Today’s my first vlog post for my NaNo Need-to-Knows series (click here for the list of posts as the series progresses). Right now, the vlog part is dealing more with survival strategies than technique (whereas my blog posts are more technical) so I thought I’d start at the very beginning.

The script I used for this vlog post is under the video.

October is here, and that means it’s time to start ramping up for NaNoWriMo. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month is a writing marathon where writers try to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November.

It’s something I believe writers should try at least once, but NaNo is hard. I’m not going to lie. This will be my eighth NaNo, and I still have days in November when I wonder why I do it to myself.

But I always end November with a sense of accomplishment because I always get more done than I do in other months, even if I don’t get to 50,000 words.

It can be a bit of an overwhelming experience, especially for newbies, so I decided to start a blog and vlog series about things you need to know about and for NaNo. Hopefully it will make the process just a bit easier for you. I will provide the links to my blogs below.

Right now, my blog posts are dealing more with some story tips, while the vlogs are dealing with survival tips. And since this is Week 1 of the series, I thought I’d start with advice on deciding what you want to work on.

So you’ve decided you’re going to do NaNo, but you don’t know what you want to work on. What do you do?

My first tip is: Write what you wish you could read more of.

If you have been waiting for a book to come out about a pirate mermaid in space and it’s just not coming out, that could be your sign to write it yourself.

Bonus points because of the fact that you’re already passionate about your idea.

Which brings me to my next tip:

Pick the story idea you’re most passionate about.

If you have more than one idea that you want to get to, make sure you pick the one that makes your heart beat faster when you think about.

Writing is already a challenge. Racing time to write about 1,700 words a day makes it even harder. Accomplishing this mammoth task with a story that feels like a punishment to work on because you’re just not that into it is going to make NaNo almost impossible.

So don’t do it to yourself. Pick the idea you love.

But what to do if you’re equally passionate about both?

Pick the most complete story idea.

Once NaNo starts, you don’t want to stop to rework a story idea because it turned out not to be strong enough to carry a 50,000-word story.

So pick the idea with the biggest goals, the strongest inherent conflicts and the highest stakes. If your ideas lack those, it’s a good idea to figure them out for all of your possible options, and then compare.

I’ll providing tips on my blogs to help you with this.

But then, what if both stories are strong?

What if you’re equally passionate about two stories, and both of them come with everything you’d need to ever make them both awesome?

Just Pick One.

Yep, you heard me. If you’re wavering between two ideas, you’re really wasting time you could be spending on preparation or worse, on NaNo itself.

So if you trust your ideas, pick which one you’re going to write and promise to get to the other once this one is done. Be decisive and commit to one of your awesome ideas.

Or Pick Both.

Now we’re venturing into Rebel territory, but if you feel like you can handle it and you don’t want to leave one of your stories by the wayside, write both concurrently. I have a whole new series worth of advice for people who want to do this, but there’s just no time right now.

It’s not for everyone, though, so tread lightly. But just keep it in mind as an option, because if you have your heart set on NaNo’ing and you just can’t decide, it’s better to add 50,000 words across two books than it is to not write because you’re still wavering.

Before you go, do let me know if you’re going to do NaNo and leave your NaNo name so we can buddy up. Is this your first time or are you a veteran? Do you have any questions? What’s your best advice for picking a story idea.

NaNo Need-to-Knows: Your Characters

As part of my NaNo Need-to-Knows series, I’m sharing advice on the things you need in order to get through NaNoWriMo. (Click here for a list of links for the ongoing series.)

For the rest of October, the blog part of this series will deal with some writing technique things you need to know in order to create a strong NaNoWriMo Novel.

Since I’m more of a character-driven writer, I’m starting with characterization, but you can sort out the plot-related aspects first, if that’s what you want. (I’ll be starting with those on Monday.)

But what does one have to figure out with regards to characterization? And why is it important?

Who Is Your Main Character?

Do they have a name? What do they do? What do they want? What are their hopes, dreams and aspirations? What are they willing to do in order to achieve those? What are their worst fears? What are they willing to do to avoid those?

Yes, the way a character looks can be important for description purposes, but when it comes to creating a strong story, you need to go deeper than the superficial.

Why?

Because knowing your character means you know what your character will do in a given situation, which in turn can help you drive the plot forward as you write.

Is your character prone to keeping grudges? Then having something happen to make them want to avenge themselves will be a great way to set a strong story goal. AND your character will want to go after that goal.

Want means there are now personal stakes to achieving the goal, which is one of the best ways to maintain tension in a story.

So make sure you get to know your character before you start, or that you create enough opportunities in your writing during NaNoWriMo to explore your characterization.

Some ways to do this exploration before NaNoWriMo:

  • Spend time to create detailed notes as you build your character. I’ve heard the snowflake method is particularly good for this. (As with most plotting-related activities.)
  • Or you can take my approach of assuming a character to be a real person that you need to get to know. This approach might be out there, but I find that, if I treat characters like real people, they tend to feel more real in my writing too. Often, I simply do this by letting them live and make their own decisions in a story as I write, but if I want to prepare ahead, I do interviews with my characters. Yes, I literally act like I’m drinking coffee with a character. I’ll ask them all kinds of stuff, having some real, deep conversations with them, and then I’ll note down their answers. Not only does doing this help you understand a character, but it also helps you nail down the rhythms and cadences of their voice. (Which does come in handy later.)

What Motivates Your Characters?

In simple terms, character motivation is the reason behind the reason behind the reason behind the reason why a character does something. Think of it like peeling an onion. There’s the skin at the surface, but under that is another layer, and another, and another. The deeper you go, the closer to the heart you get.

And if you can get to the heart of any situation with a character, you can use that to strengthen the impact of what’s going on. You’ll also instantly know when a scene doesn’t make sense, if it goes against the character’s motivation.

For example. You have a character (let’s call her Sally), who gives a bitchy response to a snarky comment from another character (Dan).

Sally could theoretically have hundreds of choices about how she’s going to respond to Dan’s sass, and she goes for being nasty. Why? Why didn’t she walk away instead? Or play sweet?

Because she sees every sassy comment as an attack on her person and feels the need to retaliate. Why?

Because she feels like the whole world is out to get her and she needs to fight to survive. Why?

Because she’s seen the hard side of the world and has been in survival mode her entire life.

Why?
….

And this can go on forever, really. The deeper you go, the more information you have to mine. Just three why’s in and we have a very tantalizing clue about Sally’s backstory that can help fill her out as a character. And the deeper you go, the more info you’ll have. So keep asking why.

Another benefit to knowing your characters’ motivations is that you can create some incredibly compelling conflict just by having two characters’ motivations and the resulting desires they have oppose each other.

Characters wanting things are nice. But I frequently want to eat a chocolate. What do they need? What is the thing they would do anything to get because that need comes from the depths of their souls? Those are the truly important things, and if Sally needs something to happen, and Dan equally needs that same thing not to occur, you have instant fireworks. So take the time to learn your characters’ motivations, and then figure out if you can put them in opposition to each other.

It just livens up every scene containing those characters, because now every moment between them matters.

Thanks for reading! How do you approach characterization? Any further characterization advice? 

Next week, I’ll be talking about story goals and inciting incidents, and why they’re important. And on my vlog on Friday, I’ll be sharing tips on how to choose between story ideas for NaNo. If you’re a Patreon patron for as little as $1 a month, you’ll be able to watch my vlog post on Thursday instead. 

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NaNo Need-to-Knows: An Introduction

It was a bit of a shock a few days ago when I received a reminder from NaNoWriMo to announce my NaNo novel for this year. Silly, I know. You’d think I have a firmer hold on the progress of time, but there you go.

If you’re new to writing and stumbled onto my blog, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write a “novel” or part of a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November.

It’s a huge amount of fun, if you can handle the pressure, and the nice thing about it is that you’re part of a larger NaNo community during this time. In fact, I met one of my best friends because of a NaNo event in my area. So yeah, it’s a great way to get involved. Just click on the link up top for more information.

Anyway, since NaNoWriMo can be a bit overwhelming, especially for first-timers, I thought I’d spend the rest of October and November to give a bit of advice from my eight years of NaNo experience.

On Mondays, I’ll do a series of blog posts (although the first post in this series will be on Wednesday to fit everything in, and I might use more Wednesdays if I need to). On Fridays, I’ll be updating on my YouTube Channel. But don’t worry, I’ll be posting the video and my script on my blogs as well.

If you are joining and you want to buddy up with me, click here.

Okay, so before I start, I just want to clarify something about my approach. I’m a full-blown character-driven pantser, so I don’t do much in the way of planning before I start a rough draft. That said, these posts will be useful to plot-driven plotters (which would be my polar opposites) as well. All you have to do is take my plot-related posts as reminders to include later if you’re a pantser, and as some things to keep in mind if you plan if you’re a plotter. And depending on whether you’re a plot-driven or character-driven writer, you can scramble the order of my suggestions to fit you. All writing methods are valid, as long as your method helps you create a strong foundation to your story.

And the first few posts I’ll be writing will be about the things you need to build that foundation. Then as we go into NaNo itself, I’ll be changing to focus more on NaNo survival. (Because hey, no one said NaNo is easy.)

For ease of use, I’ll be using this post as a table of contents for you to refer to.

Table of Contents:

  1. Your Characters
  2. Picking Your Story Idea
  3. Your Story’s Goal
  4. The Inciting Incident
Who’s going to join NaNoWriMo? What are you doing to prepare?

My Five Writing Rules

Hey everyone!

This video is a continuation of my vlog on making sense of writing advice. In the previous vlog, I had pointed out that not all rules suit all people, so this time I shared the rules I apply the most to my own writing.

Here’s the script, for those of you who don’t like the video thing…

My Five Writing Rules

I decided it’s time to get back to those writing rules. Previously, I talked about how no writing rule is ever hard and fast for every writer, but I thought it might be interesting to share my personal rules because those very much dictate the reading experience of my writing.

Man. I actually have a lot of them. But let’s start with 5.

1) In rough drafts, there are no rules.

For me, rough drafts are where my mind can really take wing and fly, so I try to write without worrying about anything. I write for me. What I find interesting. What I want to enjoy. And if that means breaking a million so-called writing rules, that’s fine. I rein it all back in later.

2) Always Rewrite.

Since I just let my words bleed onto the page, the end result is… Okay bad. It’s bad. Really. Really. Bad.

But I expected that and it’s okay. I really don’t believe in perfect first drafts. Because in between the million things that don’t work in the rough draft, there are the hundred things that do, and I wouldn’t have found them if I kept stressing about the quality of my output.

So I take those things I like and I build the story again from scratch, using those things as my foundation. And the result of that draft is miles better.

3) Wait for it…

My writing process is filled with stops and starts. I’ll do an intensive writing period where I’m rough drafting a book. As soon as it’s done, though, I set it aside for at least a month. Then I spend time furiously rewriting the same story. And another rest period. Then I revise. And wait. And edit. And wait… And so on.

Because when it comes to perfecting my work, I need distance from it. Distance means time away.

4) Edit and edit some more.

When it comes to getting the book ready for publishing, I’m a bit of an editing fiend. If drafting is for myself, editing is for my readers. So I’ll go over the manuscript again and again, doing my absolute best to make sure the readers have at least a little taste of my experience as I wrote it.

This is also the place where a story goes from meh to amazing, so I go over it again and again until I find nothing more to change. And then I bring outside help in to see if they can’t find anything I missed.

5) At some point, I have to stop.

This is probably the hardest rule for me to follow. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my work, so I could find better ways to do things and say things and better places for commas almost indefinitely, if I let this perfectionistic streak run amok.

So there’s a point where I know I’m satisfied enough and where any further tweaking is superfluous. That’s where I stop.

It’s hard, though. And that’s where I miss having a publisher who can come in and pull the manuscript from my grabby hands.

That’s it for today! What is your biggest writing rule?

Unless the wheels have spectacularly come off my life in some way, people have a tendency to be amazed by how much I get done in a month. And every now and then, someone will ask me how I manage it.

After all, we writers have the same amount of hours in the day. So how do I stretch mine to get so much done?

Step 1: Set Goals and Break Them Into Smaller Chunks

How does that help a writer stretch time? you might ask. Well. One of my big secrets to getting stuff done is knowing what I want to do.

So I set myself some huge goals, and then I break them into progressively smaller chunks.

For example:

Goal 1: Make a living wage from writing books. 

  1. Write books.
    1. Write this one book.
      1. Write 1,000 words every day.
      2. Write 50,000 words.
    2. Write the next book.
      1. Write 1,000 words every day.
      2. Write 50,000 words.
  2. Edit books.
    1. Revisions
    2. Edits
    3. Proofread
  3. Publish books
    1. Format books.
    2. Upload them to retailers.

And so on. Now I not only have this big goal, but I also see the steps to get to that goal. (The ones that are in my control, anyway.)

I often break even the steps into smaller steps, until I have hundreds of little things I need to do.

Which might sound terrifying, but what sounds easier:

Make a living from writing? Or write 1,000 words today?

So what I’m doing is to break all of my goals into smaller, bite-sized chunks. And then I move onto Step 2.

Step 2: Set Your Priorities.

Once I know what I want and how I’m planning to get there, I can sit down and decide what’s the most important to me.

But here’s the important thing: I decide what’s important to me right now.

This bit is a trick to my success, because a lot of those big goals I set are pretty much equal when it comes to how important they are in my life.

I don’t have kids, but if I had, I wouldn’t be able to say writing is more important than my children. But I wouldn’t ever be able to call writing unimportant either.

So the thing is, if you’re sitting down to get going, there will be things on that specific day that’s more important. If you know you want to focus on that, then focus on that. But also know when you’ve neglected some other aspect, so you can temporarily bump that thing up your priority list in order to even everything out.

Step 3: Create a To-Do List.

Once I know all the things that are really important, I can quickly write down the 10 things that are weighing on me the most. (I like 10 for being a nice, even number, but pick whatever works for you.)

Next thing I do is to number the order in which I’d like to do those 10 things.

Why?

Because if I decide upfront what I want to do after I’ve finished the task at hand, I don’t have to waste time later trying to decide what I should be doing.

How do I pick the order?

This depends. Some days, it’s in order of the shortest deadline to the longest. Other days, it’s Writing first and everything else next. Today I’m not feeling a bit lethargic, so I’m making up for it by starting with something easy, then something hard, then easy, then hard etc.

Step 4: Start Doing

Yeah I know. Obvious, right? But sometimes, people underestimate how important it is to just get going. There’s a reason why, when it comes to the setting of my to-do list, I keep things simple. I don’t try to schedule anything because I know it takes longer for me to schedule and re-schedule as my day shifts. Time that I could actually be using to tick stuff off my to-do list.

So once I have my 10 things and I know in which order I’d like to do things. I start. If something happens to prevent me from completing one task, I move onto the next. (Writing this blog is task number 4. Number 3 is postponed because I’m waiting for information.) I might get back to it later. I might postpone to tomorrow.

And no, there’s nothing wrong with postponing as long as it’s not going to break a deadline. Because unless you set the bar really low, there’s no way you’re going to finish all the tasks you set for yourself.

So move the stuff you didn’t get to. Just as long as you get it done.

And My Big Secret?

I don’t multitask.

Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?

Yeah, I know. People usually act like multitasking is the way to go. Especially if you have as many and as varied goals as I do.

But here’s the thing. No one actually multitasks.

You’re just rapidly switching your focus from one thing to the next thing.

As I’m sitting here, I’m writing this post without looking at my twitter. When I’m doing my social networking stuff, I don’t do it while watching T.V. When I am doing something to relax, I try to do so without bringing “work” along. Unless you count crafting as work. But that’s a whole other story.

Point is: If I’m at task number 1, I focus on that task until it’s done, or until I take a break.

And then I focus on the next thing.

And the next thing.

And the next.

Why?

Because when I’m focusing, I’m making fewer mistakes. And I actually speed up. Because I don’t even have the smallest moment of thinking “what did I want to do here again?”

And so, things get done one little step at a time. And then at the end of the month, I take stock and actually realize how much I have achieved.

What about you? Are you a multitasker? Do you have a system for getting everything done? What tips do you have?