Monday, April 27, 2009

Workshop: The Inciting Event and Your World

Hey, everyone. I'm happy to be back home and also completely exhausted from such an exciting weekend. I'm sorry I haven't been able to keep my end of the workshop up so well since the end of last week; anyway, here we go.

I had 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 (she's got tons of great information on the process of writing and on getting published, so check it out). 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. It helps to hook your reader with the inciting event as early as possible. I have spent a lot of time in my writing career working on the question of where to start a story, and believe me, it's tricky - but it's worth thinking seriously about.

So what does this have to do with worldbuilding? Well, when you're thinking about how to open your story, 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. It's what I've talked about in comments with Jeanne, and what I hope to take further with each of you as this workshop moves forward.

Okay, so far so good. But as you would certainly be quick to point out to me, characters have blind spots and weaknesses; they have things they just don't care about. Use those things, too, as much as you can. After all, you can use a dismissive or contemptuous tone in your character's narration as well as you can other things.

Here's the harder one: what about 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 how can we possibly describe the basic parameters of our worlds, knowing 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 in the real world, here.

And here's the beautiful convergence I've been leading up to: the inciting event, the beginning of the core conflict of the novel, very often is all about the precise type of conflict that can let you give out world information.

Just so I don't sound totally ungrounded, let me give you an example from my drafting of my forthcoming story, Cold Words. 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 native liaison's point of view, and thus the main motivating force in the story is his 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 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 there, 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 the native liaison 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, the native liaison is more likely to remark on the quirky cultural things inherent in their interaction.

So, please take a look at what you've written for me in this context. Take a look at the kinds of conflict or contrast opportunities that appear in the scene as you've written it, and then ask yourself how you could tune the circumstances of that scene to make your job that much easier. I hope you can each give me some comments on this topic.

Finally, in the spirit of making your world personal, I'd like to get you started on the eleven questions I used in my last worldbuilding workshop. I'll cut straight to the chase, here: I don't want to see you answer the impersonal questions at all, so I'm putting here below only the questions that relate directly to your protagonist's view of the world. I'd like to see your responses by this coming Friday, May 1.

Here are the questions. Please answer them in the voice of your POV character.

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?

As always, I welcome any questions or comments.