Once you have chosen your main character and given him two needs, you will set him in a specific time and place. This is often referred to as the protagonist’s ordinary world. Usually the first third of a movie and the first few chapters of a novel are involved with the business of establishing the protagonist, his world, his needs, and his personality. The story has not kicked into gear, though, until you move from the skull to the spine, otherwise known as the inciting incident.
In a picture book, the inciting incident is usually signaled by two words: “One day . . .” I’ve written a dozen picture books, and though I don’t intentionally signal the inciting incident, those two words are a natural way to move from setting the stage to the action.
As you plot your novel, ask yourself, “One day, what happens to move my main character into the action of the story?” Your answer will be your inciting incident, the key that turns your story engine.
Let’s look at The Wizard of Oz. In the first act we meet Dorothy and the people in her life. We also meet Miss Gulch, who is clearly an antagonist. Dorothy runs away with Toto, but she’s sent home by the kindly Professor Marvel. If she’d made it back to Uncle Henry and Aunt Em without incident, there would have been no story—or only a very short one. But something happens to prevent the family reunion and Dorothy is literally whisked from her ordinary world to a special place unlike anything she has ever known. The inciting incident? The tornado that picks up Dorothy (and her house) and drops her in the land of Oz.
What is the element of change in Mary Poppins? In this film, the inciting incident is placed right up front; the ordinary world is depicted only briefly. Yes, everything changes in the Banks household when the musical Mary blows into town with a talking umbrella and a bottomless carpetbag. Mary’s arrival moves the family from its ordinary world into a special world. The house is the same house, but with Mary in it, almost anything can happen.
Consider Maria, our misfit postulant from The Sound of Music. She would have continued in her ill-fitting position, doubtless trying to make the best of an uncomfortable situation, but the Reverend Mother receives a letter from Captain von Trapp, who is seeking a governess. The Reverend Mother immediately thinks of her restless postulant and Maria is dispatched to the von Trapp mansion. She leaves her ordinary world, the cozy cloister, for an adventure beyond her imagining.
The inciting incident in Mostly Martha arrives with a ringing telephone. When she takes the call, she learns that her sister, who was a single mother to an eight-year-old girl, has been killed.
But I Don’t Want to Go!
Often—but not always—your protagonist doesn’t want to go where the inciting incident is pushing her. Obviously, Martha doesn’t want to hear that her sister is dead, and she certainly doesn’t want to be a mother. She takes Lina, her niece, and offers to cook for her, but Lina only wants her mother.
Maria accepts the governess position, not because she wants it, but because she’s bound to obey the Reverend Mother. Dorothy is charmed by the Munchkins in Oz, but she doesn’t want to stay in this Technicolor land—she wants to go home.
Think of your favorite movies—how many feature a hero who’s reluctant to enter the special world? At the beginning of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker doesn’t want to rescue the princess. Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara hears about the coming civil war and pooh-poohs the idea; she doesn’t want the cycle of lovely parties and barbeques to end. In The Passion of the Christ, Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that this “cup” pass from him . . . but agreeing that not his will, but God’s must be done.
Even if your protagonist has actively pursued a change, he or she may have moments of doubt as the entrance to the special world looms ahead. In Miss Congeniality, FBI agent Gracie Hart loves her job and would do almost anything to get ahead, but she balks when she’s asked to endure a makeover so she can go undercover at a national beauty pageant.
When your character retreats or doubts or refuses to leave the ordinary world, another character should step in to provide encouragement, advice, information, or a special tool (think Luke Skywalker’s nifty light saber). This will help your main character overcome those last-minute doubts and enable her to establish—
The End of the Spine: the Goal
At some point just before or after the inciting incident, your character will establish and/or state a goal. Shortly after stepping out of her transplanted house, Dorothy looks around Oz and wails, “I want to go back to Kansas!” She’s been transported over the rainbow and learned that the grass really is greener in Oz, but she prefers the tried and true to the unfamiliar and strange. In order to go home, she discovers, she’ll have to visit the wizard who lives in the Emerald City. A
And how does she reach him? By following the yellow brick road.
In a space of only a few lines, Dorothy has stated her goal—to go back to Kansas—and been given a set of subgoals as well. As she tries to meet an ever-shifting set of subgoals, her main goal keeps viewers glued to the TV set.
This overriding concern—will she or won’t she make it home?—is known as the dramatic question. The dramatic question in every murder mystery is Who committed the crime? The dramatic question in nearly every thriller is Who will win the inevitable showdown between the hero and the villain? Along the way the reader will worry about the subgoals (Will the villain kill his hostage? Will the hero figure out the clues? When and where will they meet?), but the dramatic question fuels the reader’s curiosity and keeps him reading until the last page.
Tip: To keep the reader involved until the end, the dramatic question should always be directly related to the character’s ultimate goal.
Martha finds herself trying to care for a grieving eight-year-old who doesn’t want another mother. So Martha promises to track down the girl’s father, who lives in Italy. She knows only that his name is Giuseppe, but she’s determined to find him.
Sent away by the Reverend Mother, The Sound of Music’s Maria picks up her carpet bag and her guitar case and begins the long walk to the von Trapp mansion. Her goal is more sung than stated, more implicit than explicit. When she begins to sing “I’ve Got Confidence,” her flagging voice tells us she’s trying desperately to whip up some enthusiasm for the job. By the time she reaches the outskirts of the von Trapp estate, however, she’s swinging her arms and singing for all she’s worth. Her determination withers at the sight of the imposing family home, but later that night, after she’s met the children, she prays in her room and states her ultimate goal: she will do all she can to bring love, light, and laughter into the lives of these motherless children.
A story that progresses straight from inciting incident to goal would have a pretty boring plot. Even my third grade students understand that a protagonist who accomplishes everything he attempts is a colorless character. As another friend of mine is fond of pointing out, as we tackle the mountain of life, it’s the bumps we climb on!
If you’re diagramming, sketch a rib cage over your spine, taking care that there are at least three ribs and that the ribs curve gently. These ribs represent the complications that must arise to prevent your protagonist from reaching his goal.
Why at least three ribs? Because even in the shortest of stories—in a picture book, for instance—three complications works better than two or four. I don’t know why three gives us such a feeling of completion, but it does. Maybe it’s because God is a Trinity.
While a short story will have only three complications, a movie or novel may have hundreds. Complications can range from the mundane—John can’t find a pencil to write down Sarah’s number—to life-shattering. As you write down possible complications that could stand between your character and his ultimate goal, place the more serious problems at the bottom of the list.
The stakes—what your protagonist is risking—should increase as the story progresses.
In Mostly Martha, the complications center on this uptight woman’s ability to care for a child. Martha hires a babysitter, whom Lina hates, so Martha has to take Lina to work with her. But the late hours take their toll, and Lina is often late for school. Furthermore, Lina keeps refusing to eat anything Martha cooks for her.
Let’s look at the complications Maria faces in The Sound of Music. For the sake of brevity, we can group them into three classes—first, she faces obstacles from the children. The older children don’t think they need a governess; the boys put a pine cone in her chair at dinner. But Maria wins them over with understanding, firm guidance, and complicity in their escapades.
Next, she faces obstacles from the stern Captain von Trapp. The naval commander is horrified to discover his children climbing trees in play clothes made from curtains and he can’t believe Maria refuses to obey his whistle. But because Maria sings a sweet “Edelweiss” and loves the same country (and children) he loves, she wins him over.
Maria’s third complication is the most serious. When I ask my writing students which character represented Maria’s most formidable opponent, most of them mention the rich Baroness who wants to marry Captain von Trapp. But no, though the sophisticated Baroness represents another threat, she’s a red herring. Maria’s toughest opponent is herself. The Baroness points this out when, after discovering the Captain dancing with Maria, she pulls the young postulant aside and says, “You blushed in his arms just now.”
Maria, who has promised her life to the Church, is horrified. How could a future nun allow herself to fall in love with her employer? For Maria, this is the biggest complication of all.
Let’s consider the many complications in The Wizard of Oz. I asked you to make the ribs curve gently because any character that runs into complication after complication without any breathing space is going to be a weary character . . . and you’ll weary your reader. One of the keys to good pacing is to alternate your plot complications with rewards. Like a pendulum that swings on an arc, let your character relax, if only briefly, between disasters.
When Dorothy receives her marching orders from the Munchkins, she sets out upon the spiraling yellow brick road. Soon, however, she reaches an intersection (a complication) and doesn’t know which way to go. Fortunately, a friendly scarecrow is willing to help (a reward).
The scarecrow, in search of brains, joins Dorothy on her quest but they haven’t gone far before Dorothy becomes hungry (a complication). The scarecrow spots an apple orchard ahead (a reward). These apple trees, however, come to life and resent being picked (a complication), but the clever scarecrow taunts them until they begin to throw fruit at the hungry travelers (a reward).
See how it works? Every problem is followed by a reward on a scale commensurate with the seriousness of the complication.
Let’s fast forward. Dorothy finally meets the Wizard (reward) and is told to bring back the broomstick of the wicked witch of the east (a more serious complication with higher risk). On that quest (a sub-goal), she battles winged monkeys, is kidnapped and threatened. But the scarecrow, the tin man, and the cowardly lion, her loyal friends, balance the action by making overcoming opposition and sneaking into the witch’s castle.
Finally we join Dorothy and her friends with the witch. The witch picks up a torch and is about to set fire to the scarecrow (a more serious complication), but Dorothy spots a bucket of water and tosses it on the flame, inadvertently splashing the witch. “Eeek,” the witch squeals, “I’m melting!” (A considerable reward for Dorothy, a considerable complication for the witch).
Dorothy can’t relax yet. She looks up and finds herself surrounded by the witch’s guards (a complication), but they hasten to assure her that they never liked the witch and won’t miss her (a reward). They give Dorothy the nub of the witch’s broomstick and our jubilant traveling party goes back to the Emerald City.
The road ahead should be smooth for our stalwart travelers, but when they appear before the thundering, powerful Oz to claim their rewards, Toto slips away and pulls aside a curtain, revealing that the mighty Oz is nothing but a completely unimposing man (a complication quickly reversed when the man hands out rewards to the scarecrow, tin man, and cowardly lion).
Finally, the wizard assures Dorothy that he can help her. We cut to a scene where Dorothy says her farewells and climbs into a hot air balloon with the wizard. But Toto jumps out to chase a cat, so Dorothy has to jump out to chase Toto, and the balloon takes off without her.
This is a severe complication—it’s so severe it deserves a title of its own: the bleakest moment. This is the final rib in the ribcage, the moment when all hope is lost for your protagonist. Dorothy has no more witches to kill, no more wizards to entreat, no more friends to offer help. She is completely and utterly crushed.
Just like Maria the governess, who realized in her bleakest moment that her own heart had betrayed her.
What does your character need in his bleakest moment?
Next: The End of the Story