Friday, February 4, 2011

Busted! Anna Quindlen caught with no inciting incident

As a developmental editor beginning a new manuscript, I am always on the lookout for the inciting incident. This is the story event that tips the protagonist out of the everyday world and into the specific arc of the story.

Among other things, an inciting incident can:
  • Establish genre (murder mysteries and romance stories, for example, kick off quite differently)
  • Suggest what kind of story this will be (tragic, comic, inspirational, etc.)
  • Apply dramatic imperative (the character better undertake the story, or else…)
  • Create crucible of story (a time element that ratchets up tension)
  • Define the protagonist’s goal (the desire that will compel the character to undertake the journey)
  • Perhaps define the antagonist’s goal
  • Raise a story question strong enough to keep the reader turning pages

With all that potency, the inciting incident is the cornerstone of story structure. Experienced storytellers build from it; rookie authors trip over it and send their stories in any number of unwarranted directions. So I was surprised, when reading Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, Every Last One, that I couldn’t identify her story's inciting incident.

For more than 150 pages Quindlen laid out pieces of her story of modern day family life. Plenty of surface tension kept me turning pages as protagonist Mary Beth Latham introduces us to a family life full of love and everyday worry: a recovering anorexic daughter who wants to break up with her longtime boyfriend and become a poet; her twin sons, one an athletic charmer and the other a morose loner; and her comfortable husband who now fails to ignite her passion. Mary Beth takes on her newest life reinvention as a landscaper while leaning on her girlfriends and then—

BAM!—a shocking act of violence changes everything.

This event is not the inciting incident; it is the centerpiece of the book, placed halfway through.

Like Mary Beth, the reader must sort through the rubble of backstory to see what the heck set this disastrous chain of events in motion. Was it any one thing, or a tragic confluence? Individual opinions would make great fodder for a book club discussion.

Quindlan's omission of a clear inciting incident may be the whole point of the book. In an NPR interview with Diane Rehm, Quindlen traced the inception of her book to an unrelated, real-life story: the seemingly random collection of choices that decided life or death on 9/11/01. If you have ever been through an event that rocked your world, as I have, you’ll relate to how difficult it is to pin down cause and effect (I write about healing from my first husband’s suicide at my blog, and am currently writing a memoir about it. The first chapter was published at Mason's Road).

Craft disclaimer: Beginning writers should not emulate this aspect of Quindlen's work! I’m not so sure a rookie novel would earn publication without the girding of classic storytelling structure, especially in this market. But Quindlen is a bestselling author of five fine novels and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She has earned her publisher’s—and this reader's—forbearance, yet she does not rely upon it.

Quindlen anchors her reader within the deep point of view of her protagonist. She pushes the reader toward multiple questions that Mary Beth holds aloft, evoking well the emotional acrobatics required of the modern family woman. And we modern family women reading inherently understand Mary Beth's goal—to keep her family safe. The fact that we keep reading those first 150 pages, then feel so deeply for Mary Beth when all goes wrong, indicates that Quindlen's structural choices supported well the story she wanted to tell.

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Excellent post, as always, Kathryn. I think the need for the inciting incident to happen sooner is stronger for genre and category novels, but a mainstream and more literary novel can take exception to the rule. As a reader, it is always great fun to find a book such as Every Last One that bends the rules, yet the story works on so many levels.

    And you are so right about the fact that experienced writers are more apt to pull this off, than new writers.

  2. You post has taught this "new" writer a lot. Thanks.

  3. Thanks, Maryann. It upholds the old saw that one must learn the rules in order to break them effectively!

    Liza: Hang in there! The fiction writing learning curve is always steeper than new writers hope it will be, but it's also an engaging journey! And as you learn more about structure, you'll say, "Aha, so that's why that works so well!"

  4. Sometimes you don't need to follow all the rules to make a good book. She can do that. I can't. (g)

    Morgan Mandel

  5. I like having the inciting incident in my own books and ones that I read, but I can see the reason she did this book this way.

  6. You always have such great posts. I love the way you outline the information for us.

  7. It sounds like a fascinating technique, but I agree: not for beginners.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  8. Thanks, Lisa!

    Elle: Until I read your comment I didn't even really think about it as a techniques in and of itself, but more of a purposeful evasion of technique. The most important take-away is that we have all of these tools in our kit, but we can pick and choose which ones are relevant to the story we want to tell, right? Knowing, of course, that the farther we stray from accepted practice, the more "experimental" we'll be perceived, placing our work at the very end of the acceptance bell curve.

  9. Morgan: I think most people rely on that inciting incident to drive their OWN interest in the story!

    Helen: I agree with you. My hope is that examining this exception might make the effectiveness of a carefully constructed inciting incident even clearer to some authors. It took some extra time and thought to understand why she had deviated from accepted practice. For Quindlen, it worked!

  10. Thanks for this excellent, informative post, Kathryn! And I really like the way you relayed the main purposes of the inciting incident via that list with bullets. Easy to read and assimilate! I'll definitely be passing this "ah-ha!" info on to my fiction writer clients.

    Can you give an example or two of the kind of inciting incident a romance might have?

  11. ...and where would you usually (as an editor of an aspiring, unpublished author) hope to see this inciting incident, Kathryn? On the first page? First few pages?

    I guess this is a little different from the "hook" at the beginning to grab the readers' interest and hook them in, which I always try to make sure my clients include in the first paragraph.

    This sounds like it might be an extension and elaboration of that initial, compelling sentence and paragraph designed to make the reader want to keep reading. Maybe some juicy bits to really whet their appetite and get them established in the story world?

  12. The inciting incident in a romance is about what tips the hero and heroine into relationship. Because it is so crucial to the story structure it can often be found on the back jacket copy.

    Susan Meier's GUESS WHAT? WE'RE MARRIED!: "...Ten years later, Grace discovered she and Nick were still married! Now Grace wanted no part of this marriage. Until she crashed his car...and awoke with amnesia—in Nick's loving arms."

    Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER begins in 1945, and for several chapters describes the post-war life of a married nurse, Claire Randall. Eventually she is flipped back in time to 1743 at a circle of ancient stones, and enters the lives of some Scots warriors. Because this is a romance, the inciting incident isn't until she is made to ride double on horseback with Jamie Frasier, with whom she will have a love so intense that she becomes conflicted about ever returning home.

    Meier's inciting incident takes place on p. 25; Gabaldon's (which leads to a much longer, more epic tale) is on p. 67. These books employ "bridging conflict," a hook that keeps the reader interested while the inciting incident is set up. A more common place for an inciting incident is at the end of chapter one or two, though.

    How do you know whether you have identified an inciting incident? It creates the protagonist's story goal, that is indelibly achieved/forever thwarted at the climax; it creates the story question in the reader's mind that keeps her turning pages and feels addressed at the book's end (creating a satisfying read); it points the plot in a certain direction that establishes the relevance of every scene in the book.

    So an inciting incident may or may not be the same as a hook. A bridging conflict could also create a hook, yet not raise "the" story goal that is addressed at the climax. For instance, in Meier's book, Grace is kind of interested in this dating this guy, so to clean her slate she goes to get a copy of her divorce papers. There are none. The question raised: "Will Grace ever get her divorce papers?" Wrong question for a romance, but the right bridging conflict to get her to go find her former spouse to sign a set—when the car accident occurs and she wakes up with no memory, and with him by her side. Now the question is, "Will they get back together?" That's a story question for a romance! Bingo--the inciting incident.

  13. Thanks for your insightful comments on the inciting incident, Kathryn! LOL. Great stuff!


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